Global Change

The Many Negative Effects of the “Minority” Label

Is "minority" a simple term or is its use the root of the problem? The labels we bestow on marginalized groups can not only further diminish their plight and human rights, but also obstruct their progress socially, economically and politically.
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People are divided into two unequal groups on the scales. Concept of democracy and statistical surveys. Political process, democratic elections. Difference in opinions polls. Majority versus © Andrii Yalanskyi / shutterstock.com

January 14, 2023 08:46 EDT
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Do you often hear people say, “that is a minor issue,” or “oh, it is only a small minority?”

This phrasing may seem normal for most, but it can be a tool of oppression. When used in political discourse or a legal framework, the label “minority” can worsen marginalized people’s social, economic, and political persecution by implying their rights are less significant or deserving of recognition.

The term also leads to a lack of media coverage and priority in policy when people labeled minorities are attacked, arrested, imprisoned, or killed by states. Even when they get media attention, governments fail to address the gross human rights violations committed against them.

The term minorities, defined by the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, refers to groups “which constitute less than half of the population in the entire territory of a state whose members share common characteristics of culture, religion or language, or a combination of any of these.”

The words we use can weaken or reinforce oppressive systems. In George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” he stated, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” Thus, a legal system or polity’s language can be problematic if it heavily emphasizes the rights of either the majority or the minority.

How The Term Leads to Oppression

The term “minority” downplays human rights abuse and the psychological trauma experienced by entire populations. As a minority, you constantly fear being imprisoned, killed, bombed, or forced to leave your home country. Even when living peacefully, the worry about who you are and where you come from renders you prone to victimhood and permeates your entire life.

This fear and victimhood is the life of most persecuted people labeled minorities. “Minority” is a word that quantifies human rights and suffering and results in treating such people as lesser than those with membership in the dominant group in society. Using the term “minority”, further marginalizes the rights of ethnic, cultural, and religious groups.

In all instances of its use, “minority” emphasizes insignificance even when that is not a person’s intention. Furthermore, to minimize the severity and injustice of their persecution of these people, states that violate human rights against ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities within their borders employ this same language of insignificance that highlights the problematic term or concept of minorityhood.

Minority-hood is the condition of being treated and made to feel insignificant because you are different from the majority.   

The minority-majority dichotomy serves oppression in every facet of society: political, social, or economic. Thus, to eradicate violence and discrimination against nationalities, ethnicities, and cultural groups, the term, minority, must be removed from international law.

Why The Term should Be Eliminated

Many states are dominated by one ethnic group or another. The concept of minorities contributes to the inequality between groups in diverse polities. It often works to marginalize those distinguishable from the majority while favoring the group in power.

It is more feasible to recognize the rights of all people and the rights of ethnonational, linguistic, religious and cultural groups in international law without referring to them as minorities. Classifying oppressed peoples as minorities frequently results in the assumption — conscious or subconscious — that since a group is a minority the lives of its members are less valuable. 

In no way is this advocating for the policing of language. Freedom of speech is integral in dismantling oppressive rhetoric and structures in society. However, dropping the concept of minorities can help us move away from quantifiable notions of rights to more egalitarian concepts of rights that are not discriminatory.

To protect all life, we must respond with the same shock and effort to the taking of one life as we do to that of many lives. Human lives are not measurable statistics or numbers; they are immeasurably valuable. Eliminating the concept of minorities also eliminates the unspoken notion that human life and rights are only significant based on population size.

[Tasheanna Williams edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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