Words are loaded pistols. – Jean-Paul Sartre
The horrific killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other Black lives have resulted in written statements by CEOs, COOs, college and university presidents, provosts, deans, department heads, and numerous others that promise to understand and address the racism that Black people face.
As an African American professor, I want to believe that these well-crafted statements will result in actions leading to equality for people of color. Previous anti-racist efforts have left me disappointed and hardened with a cynical shell. Yet, today's efforts appear different. People of all races, ages, and backgrounds are protesting across the globe against racial injustice. Many of my colleagues—in particular those who identify as white—are asking themselves seriously for the first time "What can I do to fight against systematic and institutional racism?"
The foundation of any collective action, of any community, is language. It influences how we feel, react, and understand. Thus, dismantling racism starts with analyzing the language we use—especially since it says much about how we see people.
For years, I've hated the label underrepresented minority (URM), which refers to the low participation rates of racial and ethnic groups in fields such as computing relative to their representation in the U.S. population. African Americans/Blacks, Hispanics/Latino(a), and Native Americans/Alaskan Natives are most commonly defined as URMs, which aligns with the National Science Foundation's definition . URM is a well-established label in higher education (especially for STEM fields). Furthermore, its use in the tech industry and government is related to the closeness of their ties to academia. I've had much disdain for the URM label, but I ignored my feelings—except on the few occasions when I complained in private to trusted friends and colleagues. I can no longer stay silent.
When deconstructing the word underrepresented, the Cambridge dictionary defines the prefix under- as "not enough", "not done as well", and "below." Is it any wonder that being labeled an underrepresented minority makes me feel unworthy, unprivileged, but most of all inferior? URM adds no benefits to my identity. Instead, it detracts from who I am. If I feel this way about the label URM being applied to me as a senior computer science professor, what harm is being done to our students by labeling them URMs?
A few authors have critiqued the use of the label URM, and they recommend that we stop using it [1,3,7]. While I agree with their recommendations, the authors' critiques do not go far enough.
The use of underrepresented minority must be abolished because it is racist language.
Although it may be unintentional, racist language is hidden in our everyday talk and conveys a negative or hostile attitude toward members of a particular race . It manifests in microaggressions that stifle and suffocate the progress of racial and ethnic minorities. Given the widespread use of URM, we each must take responsibility for stopping the perpetuation of racism through the use of this label. Below, I discuss three reasons why the label "underrepresented minority" is racist language.
Reason #1: URM is racist language because it denies groups the right to name themselves. I was born in Arkansas in the early 1970's as a Negro and raised from Black to African American. The changes in representative identity were movements by Black people to redefine themselves and to gain respect in a society that held them subordinate and inferior. Most importantly, the fight was championed by those who would be defined by the resulting identity. Being Black is more than about race: it's the struggle for racial justice led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; it's honoring Black heroes during Black History Month; it's a legacy of higher education as evidenced by HBCUs, Black Student organizations, and African American Studies departments. Black lives matter and must be remembered, celebrated, and respected.
There is no such history or movement for underrepresented minorities. There are no easily found websites that serve as a gathering place for learning, sharing, and celebrating URMs. I've never heard URM mentioned in a song. Nor, have I found any URMs on television or at the movies. I've yet to see a T-shirt, banner, or sign celebrating URM identity. The signal is loud and clear. African Americans/Blacks, Hispanics/Latino(a), and Native Americans/Alaskan Natives do not self-identify as URMs!
Reason #2: URM is racist language because it blinds us to the differences in circumstances of members in the group. For example, to increase the representation of incoming Hispanic students in engineering, a strategy could include hiring bilingual recruiting staff—especially given the variances of Latin American experiences that may include multiple languages being spoken in families and neighborhoods. However, such a strategy may have little impact for African American students as their experience is most often rooted in English. Similarly, increasing cultural competence to understand and serve the needs of Hispanic students doesn't result in automatic competence in Native American culture. By aggregating groups together based on their low levels of representation, the URM label becomes insensitive to the unique needs and circumstances of its group members.
Additionally, aggregating groups together provides a convenient cover to hide data. For example, if the data states that URMs comprise 15% of the student population, there is no way to know the proportions for African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans without disaggregating the data. Moreover, there is no standard URM definition. Page et. al discuss the evolving definition of URM in academic medicine . Thus, URMs cannot be compared across organizations or time unless the definitions are the same or the data is disaggregated.
Reason #3: URM is racist language because it implies a master-slave relationship between overrepresented majorities and underrepresented minorities. The counterparts of URMs are overrepresented majorities (ORMs) , who are whites and Asians in STEM fields. We rarely use the label ORM. Instead, we focus exclusively on URMs, which places their plight squarely on their shoulders. Our harmful go-to language keeps URMs under the spotlight while norms and practices that favor ORMs stay in the dark. For example, ORMs are treated as individuals, considered competent, provided protection, and have great access to resources and power. By fixating on URMs, we avoid uncomfortable conversations of equity since we never question ORMs gorging on disproportionately large pieces of old-fashioned American apple pie.
How can overrepresented majorities and underrepresented minorities engage on equal footing with these labels? The words we use to describe these two groups have no common ground. There is no bridge to inclusion because what's communicated is a master-slave relationship, where URMs disproportionately serve under ORM masters. Under these suffocating conditions, URMs can barely survive, let alone excel. Is it any surprise that the needle for URM participation in computing has not moved significantly?
Given that the label underrepresented minority must be abolished, what can we use instead? First, we must humble the inclination to create new words to label people. Second, we must observe this fundamental truth: the right to rename a group lies within the hands of its members.
There are two approaches (dangerous and safe) for referring to racial and ethnic minorities in a compact way.
Dangerous approach. Racial and ethnic minorities are given a new label, which is then abbreviated.
racial and ethnic minorities → new label → abbreviation
This approach was used to construct the label underrepresented minority, which was then abbreviated to URM. Harmful URM alternatives such as underserved minorities, historically excluded identities, and historically marginalized minorities are also to be avoided under this approach. Since it's quite easy to do much harm and little good, creating a new label to name racial and ethnic groups should be avoided. Only proceed if the label has originated and is embraced by its racial and ethnic minority group members.
Safe approach. The name that racial and ethnic minorities use to refer to themselves is abbreviated.
racial and ethnic minorities → abbreviation
Organizations that embrace and reference their racial and ethnic identities—such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE)—use this approach to construct an abbreviation. Similarly, by taking the first letters of African Americans/Blacks, Hispanic/Latino(a), and Native Americans/Alaskan Natives, we create the compact, inclusive, and non-racist abbreviationv AHN.
While AHN is a safe label, there is much conversation needed regarding aggregation into a single group, which was discussed earlier in this post.
How do we communicate underrepresentation? We could state that "X are underrepresented in computer science," where X is a safe label such as African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Blacks and Hispanics, AHNs, women, LGBTQ+, and people who are blind or deaf. Underrepresentation is not a permanent fixture of a group's identity. Our language must respect that groups have a much larger existence than their participation rates in computing. Inclusive and anti-racist language respects the inherent worth and dignity of everyone.
The time is now to abolish the racist label underrepresented minority from our language. We must stop perpetuating its use in our speech, manuscripts, reports, surveys, proposals, presentations, websites and in the names of organizations, conferences, and workshops.
The time is now to use inclusive and non-racist language to see, embrace, respect, and protect black, brown, and indigenous lives.
The time is now for those of us who have been marginalized to no longer tolerate labels that misrepresent, diminish, and suffocate. Our thinking, voices, and excellence need oxygen to live.
The time is now for overrepresented majorities to remove their knee from the throats of African American/Black, Hispanic/Latino(a), and Native American/Alaskan Native identities.
The time is now to let our identities breathe.
 Estela Mara Bensimon. 2016. The Misbegotten URM as a Data Point. Center for Urban Education, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California; https://bit.ly/3e1qBYm
 Leroy L. Lane. 2005. By All Means Communicate: An Overview of Basic Speech Communication; Second Edition. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
 Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon, and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux. 2020. From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education. John Wiley & Sons.
 U.S. National Science Foundation URM definition; https://bit.ly/2BZx1ZO
 Kathleen Raquel Page, Laura Castillo-Page, Norma Poll-Hunter, Gwen Garrison, and Scott M. Wright. 2013. Assessing the evolving definition of underrepresented minority and its application in academic medicine. Acad. Med. 88, 1 (January 2013), 67–72; https://doi.org/10.1097/ACM.0b013e318276466c
 Self-Defined Dictionary. ORM definition; https://bit.ly/2YAlJTs
 Susan E. Walden, Deborah A. Trytten, Randa L. Shehab, and Cindy E. Foor. 2018. Critiquing the "Underrepresented Minorities" Label. Paper presented at Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity (CoNECD'18); https://bit.ly/2MUYDlh.
Guest blogger Tiffani L. Williams is a Teaching Professor and Director of Onramp Programs in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Well said. It could not be clearer. Thank you for speaking up.
The suggestion that LGBTQ+ is a safe label is interesting, given that it suffers from many of the same problems especially masking the very different experiences and needs of diverse individuals covered by an overly-broad umbrella term.
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