Words Matter

Photo by Amer Hugwaish from unsplash.com

Editor’s Note: This week’s guest contributor Tamara Copeland makes real the power of words to separate and hurt people intentionally or not. She reminds us that words and their meaning change for reasons. To live as one community, paying attention to shifts in language is important, particularly in regard to racial justice and equity. Words used negatively can and do reinforce microaggressions and racial trauma. (See Tamara’s Feb post on racial trauma.)  Tamara is the author of the monthly blog Daughters of the Dream and a book of the same title. After three decades in nonprofit leadership, Tamara states her current mission this way: “My consultancy has one clear area of focus: ​Introducing leaders and staff to the invisibility of racial inequity and priming them to join the fight for racial justice.” 

While I’ve thought of myself as a racial minority all my life, it is only in recent years that I’ve come to view the term “minority” negatively. I wasn’t sure why. I just knew that I didn’t like being referred to as a minority. I knew my reaction related to my growing racial justice awareness and understanding, but I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me. Then, I heard the term “minoritized people” for the first time on a PBS special about Zora Neale Hurston, the author and anthropologist.

So, what did the term really mean?  I looked it up. Minoritized – “to make (a person or group) subordinate in status to a more dominant group and its members.” Now, it was clearer. Even before knowing the actual definition, I had had a feeling/a sense of the word. It was the concept of less than that was bothering me, not just the concept, but the process of being made into something that is less than something else.

Not surprising that this term would be used in a documentary about an anthropologist, someone studying culture, language, and human behavior. Remember the first time you heard, and thought about, the distinction between a slave and an enslaved person? Now, I’m beginning to understand why the term minority had become bothersome to me.

Societally, we seem to have associated – consciously or unconsciously – a host of characteristics with the term minority. Does it automatically mean poor, disadvantaged, uneducated – less than the standard/desired quality of life?  Has it become a code word like “urban” or “inner city” or the now villainized “woke?”

Language is constantly evolving. Words that were once every day acceptable have become archaic, or downright unacceptable, rude, and pejorative.

Just another reminder that in racial justice work or any effort to right a societal wrong, language is important. Listen to how people describe themselves and their circumstances. Ask about language that is different from what you are accustomed to using. Adapt as language evolves. Words matter.

 Note: I see myself as Black, African American, or as a member of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community, but not as a minority.

This post is reprinted with permission of Tamara Copeland. It was first published on June 1, 2023, for her monthly blog Daughters of the Dream. Tamara’s next blog will be in September. Visit https://daughtersofthedream.org/ to subscribe.


  1. sally mac

    Thx, Tamara for a powerful post.
    We know that elites are also a minority of the population, yet we reflexively don’t think of them when “minority” is used. You’re correct that it has become a code word and that language matters!
    Re-training our minds and words takes effort, yet it is worth it in the long run.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Sally, be well, Tom