This post is a rare personal reflection, though I am not entirely drawing on my experience but on the experiences of others as well.
There is much necessary discussion about minority groups and rights, policies affecting those who are not part of the majority. But it is also important to simply discuss what the experience of being a minority is like, not in terms of a group, but in terms of being a minority individual and on a daily basis. “Minority” can take on a variety of different meanings, as one can be an ethnic, religious, etc. minority. Sometimes minorities may not even “look like a minority,” so we must understand what the experience means.
I am not a fan of the phenomenon of “cultural politics” or the current paradigm in which we discuss race and culture, although I am a big supporter and practitioner of diversity and cross-cultural education. I am not always a fan, either, of pitting white against nonwhites, as this often leads to very simplistic understandings of race and culture, not to mention social policies. Here are some characteristics that people may not be aware of in what it means to be a minority.
-Looking different. For those of us who are not white, the simple truth is we will stand out and not appear like the mainstream. The darker the skin color, inevitably, the more likely we are to suffer discrimination. This can happen even within ethnic groups (such as Blacks, Filipinos, and Indians), a phenomenon known as “colorism,” where lighter-skinned people are admired more than darker-skinned people. But being nonwhite in a predominantly white society is a hard thing. I am extremely critical of a monolithic, blanket definition of “white privilege,” because I do not believe all white people are the same, but this is the one aspect in which I would say it is true–if you are white-skinned, you are at a visual advantage in America. Even when one does not face discrimination, sometimes it is frustrating to be the only “yellow/brown/nonwhite” person in the room, the one that people can remember that they saw even when you don’t remember them.
It is also important to mention that transgendered or queer-identifying people may also face this issue to a great degree. For people who are not born in the right body or to the right gender, how one feels and presents to the world maybe two different things that results in great dissonance within oneself.
-Different language. This is especially predominant in immigrant communities. Some of us come from cultures where our parents grew up speaking English or from Anglophone countries, or our parents were highly educated or did advanced degrees in the United States, and this puts us at an advantage. However, there are many minority individuals who do not speak English well and have trouble integrating into American society. Sometimes schooling does not provide adequate resources for these children, and they struggle throughout their lifetimes to “catch up” and to functionally communicate with the Anglophone mainstream. Or there is another experience that is also difficult: the children of immigrants learn how to speak English fluently as a native, but their parents do not speak it. Many people will say that their parents speak to them in their native language, but they respond back in English. Yet another scenario is when these American-born children do not even speak the native language, and therefore have great difficulty communicating- and interacting with their parents and relatives.
We also see the challenges of being a linguistic minority in indigenous communities where people still speak their native languages, and also with many African-Americans who use AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). Many African-Americans discuss how they are discriminated against and misunderstood in writing workshops, job interviews, and public transactions because of their speaking patterns and even because of “sounding black” (likely a reference to a particular timbre of voice.)
In sum, when one speaks a different language, even when one is fluent in and/or a native speaker of the dominant mainstream language, one automatically feels different. Language is perhaps one of the greatest means of connecting or disconnecting people from society.
-Different religion. This is something that is personally very significant to me. For anyone who is not Christian or Judeo-Christian, there is a very different outlook on life and way of thinking. I do not include atheists or agnostics in this group, for they were inevitably raised in- or come from a specific background. Christian concepts of sin, guilt, etc. that influence mainstream life, even in non-religious settings, are sometimes puzzling to those of us of different religious backgrounds. We are expected to concur with many ideological and philosophical paradigms, or we are assumed to be of them, and this can make it difficult to speak our minds, lest we be misunderstood. We observe different holidays, even if we enjoy celebrating secular aspects of Christian ones. Even with being People of the Book, many Jews experience being a religious minority (and the statistics certainly prove it). They have faced centuries of discrimination, persecution, and genocide. Muslims, also People of the Book, have customs and traditions that are distinctly non-Western (even though there are Muslims in Balkan Europe), such as the very visible and often controversial issue of face-covering. Growing up as a non-Christian, Hindu minority, one could feel the threat and disrespect for our religion more strongly when missionaries came to our doors. What was wrong with our faith? Although it is easy to laugh about it as an adult, these things are very difficult for a child to navigate.
It is of note that even within a minority group in the United States there are religious minorities. Albanian Catholics, for example, are a minority group, as are Indian Christians or Sikhs. And we cannot neglect the very traditional religious communities such as the Amish or Shakers who live outside of modern life in general.
-Dietary habits. This is self-explanatory, but one’s foods, meal habits, and even ways of shopping very greatly. Many people come from traditions where they do not buy food in a supermarket, but rather from individual vendors, much like a farmers’ market. Immigrants, depending on where they live, may find it very difficult to obtain foods and ingredients from their homelands. Many cultures do not eat the standard breakfast lunch and dinner at American times, perhaps having a light or negligible breakfast or conversely a hearty meal first thing in the morning. Many cultures take a late dinner. Notably absent in most traditional immigrant cultures in the United States is a lack of processed food, or at least a disdain for it. Many immigrant communities have a strong preference for fresh vegetables and fruits and use ones that are not typically found in mainstream American culture. One of the things that adds to the richness of American culture is ethnic supermarkets, where one can find a myriad foods, ingredients, and delicacies to try.
-Cultural spaces that belong to your own group. This might be a community center for activities your culture engages in (such as folk dancing); a non-Christian religious space such as a synagogue, mosque, or temple; a beauty parlor that caters to your type of hair; or even sub- groups in larger organizations (such as the myriad student groups on a large college campus, in a conference, or even an alumni association–i.e., women engineers).
-For immigrants, not having deep roots in the United States. Therefore, some people may not feel entirely part of the culture. Some immigrants assimilate well, and are thrilled to be American–most Cubans, for example, given the dictatorship they escaped from. Others long for their homelands, never quite feel a part of American society, follow the news back home thoroughly, missing the beauty of a red-tiled roof city on the Mediterranean, the centuries-old history that can be seen daily, the heroes who have shaped their homeland. Therefore, it is worth mentioning that there a lot of media specific to immigrant communities. We often see the big name media institutions, such as Telemundo, but there is much that flies under the radar, so to speak, and only those in the know or in particular regions would be aware of it. There are both print and online newspapers both in English and in native tongues. There is a Bollywood radio station in the Bay Area. There are many ethnic programs on local/community access TV channels. And the Internet provides a treasure trove of non-English media.
-Different values. Russians often sneer at American smiliness, seeing it as insincere and lacking in “Russian soul.” Asians may find that American child-rearing practices too lax, uninvolved, more into image than education–hence the “tiger mother” stereotype. More conservative immigrant groups believe American women’s clothing (and values) to be too vulgar and sexual.
Western Europeans who come from highly socialized societies where individuals are taken care of cradle-to-grave shake their head in disbelief at our dysfunctional healthcare system and the American obsession with guns. For many Americans, living with cognitive dissonance is a part of daily life.
-One thing that is common to ALL immigrants (and that forms a significant thread of American literature) is the story of their journey. Popular programs such as the wonderful “Finding Your Roots” on PBS trace the histories of celebrities who usually have deeper roots in the United States. But there are many people who have no idea about the journeys their ancestors took. Conversely, for many of us who are first-generation US citizens, our families’ stories are very fresh: our parents came over in the 60s/70s/80s and on. It is sometimes almost comic to compare our immigration stories with the lengthy ones of Americans who have been here for decades or centuries (I can tell you the months and years of my parents’ arrivals at JFK!)
These are just some of the ways in which those in the American mainstream can understand what it is like to be a minority/immigrant. It is true that I have not commented extensively on African-Americans or Native Americans, whose minority experiences are radically different than those of immigrants. In those two populations, I would vouch to say that it is perhaps an even more difficult experience, as they were respectively brought over against their will and had their land taken over when they had lived here for millennia. To be “minoritized” against your own choosing is indeed a tragedy, and much is being discussed and done now to make reparations for these dark deeds of history.
It is also important to mention that even within minority communities, there are minorities within minorities. If you speak a Dravidian language, you are outnumbered by Indo-European language speakers in the Indian-American community. If you are an Albanian Catholic, you are considered a minority in the Albanian community in America. Even politically, we can see Latinos and Muslims who supported Trump.
I still believe, however, that there are many people within the white mainstream who are incredibly liberal and genuinely caring, and that America is one of the most open-minded, diverse, and amazing cultures in the world, even when it takes a lot of work to understand each other.