Ethnic Minority

The term ethnic minority is used to describe an individual who belongs to an ethnic group that is marginalized by society because of social and cultural characteristics that are different from, or devalued by, the dominant ethnic or cultural group. In the United States in 2007, Americans of European descent are considered the dominant ethnic group, or ethnic majority, and all others are considered ethnic minority groups. Examples of the major ethnic minority groups in the United States include African Americans, Hispanic/ Latino/a Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Arab Americans. Ethnic minority groups in the United States can be further defined by country of origin, with individuals identifying solely as a member of their country of origin (e.g., someone who identifies as “Mexican” or “Chinese”) or individuals identifying with both the country of origin and the United States (i.e., someone who identifies as “Filipino American” or “Jamaican American”). Members of immigrant countries may also identify solely as “American” and dissociate with their country of origin altogether.

To fully understand who is an ethnic minority, it is necessary to elaborate on the terms ethnic and minority. An ethnic group includes people who share common characteristics, which may include race, country of origin, language, religion, customs, beliefs, and values. These common characteristics are typically transferred through successive generations, and ethnic characteristics take on different meanings through and within each generation. Although ethnic categorizations exist, it is virtually impossible to correctly label every ethnic group present in the United States. This is due primarily to the great heterogeneity within and among ethnic groups, such as differences in regions, customs, generations, and languages/dialects. For example, although Korean American persons may identify as part of the same group, they may differ based on regions (e.g., those whose heritage is from North Korea may differ from those from South Korea), customs (e.g., subgroups may participate in different traditions or practices), generations (e.g., immigrants may hold different values than second-generation Korean Americans), and language (e.g., some members may speak Korean only, others may speak English only, and others may speak both).

The meaning of ethnicity has evolved since the founding of the United States. In line with the voluntary and involuntary immigration of people to the United States, the term ethnic was used primarily as a descriptor to identify people who were of non-Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent. In this regard, ethnic was used to describe racial, religious, country-of-origin, and language differences. At different points in the history of the United States, the term ethnic minority was attributed to religious minorities (e.g., Catholics and Jews), as well as non-Anglo-Saxon Americans (e.g., Irish and Italians). Throughout time, these European American immigrant groups, which previously may have been considered “ethnic minorities,” assimilated to the dominant culture’s way of life. These groups may have assimilated primarily because they recognized that belonging to the White racial group afforded them power and privileges. Additionally, with the immigration of Hispanic/Latinos/as and Asians, as well as with civil rights for African Americans, it became evident that Americans of European descent held the power and privilege, and all others were less valued and oppressed.

The word minority is taken from the Latin term minor, meaning “smaller.” When used literally, within the context of a societal or social setting, the term minority means “the smaller group as compared to a larger group.” In its current usage, the term minority is commonly understood as a descriptor of social status assigned to the subordinate groups in a given society or culture, without necessarily connoting smaller population sizes. Majority groups are those that hold the power and have privileges in a given society, and minority groups are those that are negatively affected by an unequal power distribution. Minority groups can be based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and ethnicity, among other group membership characteristics. For example, women would be considered the gender minority group, gays/lesbians/bisexuals would be considered sexual minority groups, and non-Christians (e.g., Jews, Muslims, and atheists) would be considered religious minority groups.

In the present-day United States, ethnic minority is used primarily as a label for people who self-identify or are identified as belonging to an ethnic group of non-European descent. Although not necessarily a numerical minority in many areas of the country, a defining characteristic of an ethnic minority is the prejudice, discrimination, and ethnic injustices to which these groups are subject. These ethnic injustices are pervasive and include historical, institutional, and individual discrimination that is based on one’s ethnicity (e.g., Japanese American internment during World War II, poor working conditions and wages for Mexican and Filipino farm workers in California, discriminatory treatment toward Caribbean domestic workers). Ethnic injustices should not be confused with racial injustices, which include historical, institutional, and individual discrimination that is based on race (e.g., slavery, racial segregation, racial microaggressions or hate crimes against Asians or Blacks). Although laws have been enacted to protect American citizens against discrimination based on ethnicity, ethnic minorities are presently not proportionately represented in most spheres of American society. The power structure of the United States favors ethnic groups of European descent, as exemplified through media, education, government, politics, and economics.

The term ethnic minority may have both positive and negative implications. Some scholars have rejected the term because the word minority may have a connotation of being “minor,” less than, or objectified, whereas majority has the connotation of being “major,” superior, or most important. By identifying in this way, ethnic minority individuals may indicate that they subconsciously or unconsciously view themselves as inferior or subordinate to the European American majority group, while European American majority individuals may confer that they are of the superior, dominant group.

Some scholars prefer the term ethnic minority because it is inclusive of all racial and cultural minorities. For example, in the U.S. Census, Hispanic/ Latinos/as are not considered a racial group. Instead, they are identified as an ethnic group and are divided racially into two groups: White Hispanics and non-White Hispanics. However, because Latinos/as (both White and Black) have experienced histories of oppression and discrimination, their experiences would parallel other ethnic minority groups. So although not all Latinos/as would be considered racial minorities, all may be defined as ethnic minorities. Accordingly, the term ethnic minority is an inclusive term to accept people of all marginalized ethnicities, regardless of their racial group.

Because of these implications, there are substitute terms that might be used alternatively with ethnic minority. People of color is a term that was used to differentiate from the subordinate implications of minority. Individuals may also use this term as an empowering way to take back the racially charged term colored people that was used to segregate African Americans before the civil rights movement. Because people of color was a term that was coined by individuals of ethnic minority groups, it is a term that ethnic minority individuals may feel more connected to, in comparison with most racial and ethnic identifiers (e.g., American Indian, Hispanic, Filipino) that were given by the groups’ oppressors or colonizers. Using people of color would be similar to how some groups empower themselves by using identifiers that were created by members of their own groups (e.g., Native, Latino/a, or Pilipino).

Some negative implications of the term people of color include that it pits these people of color against Whites, acknowledging implicitly that Whites are the standard and that people of color are the “other.” Additionally, individuals of ethnic minority groups with light skin color (e.g., some Hispanic/Latinos/as and some Asians) may not feel comfortable or connected with identifying as a person of color, because of physical skin color differences. Racial minority is a term that is used in the same manner as ethnic minority, to signify those racial groups that have been oppressed by the dominant group. However, the term may still hold an undertone of subjugation or inferiority and may not be inclusive to all ethnic groups. Finally, sometimes the term racial/ethnic minority is used to be inclusive of oppressed racial and ethnic groups.

Identity and terminology may have several implications in counseling. First, a counselor should be aware of the various ways that a client may identify both racially and ethnically. A person’s racial identity includes the ways that a person identifies with his or her racial group (e.g., Black, Asian), and a person’s ethnic identity includes the way that a person identifies with his or her ethnic group (e.g., Haitian American, Vietnamese American). An ethnic minority client may identify as both a racial and ethnic minority or may not identify as either. Accordingly, a counselor must take into consideration that a client’s racial and ethnic identities may affect her or his worldview, which may influence a counseling relationship.

Counselors should also be knowledgeable of both visible and invisible ethnic minority groups. Some ethnic minority groups are “visible,” or identifiable, in that upon first look a counselor may be able to identify their racial group; these groups may include African Americans, Asian Americans, and darker-skinned Hispanic/Latino/a groups. Yet there may be other ethnic minority groups that may not be easily visible or identifiable; these groups include light-skinned Hispanic/Latino/a groups, multiracial persons, and Native Americans. Individuals from these invisible minority groups may identify strongly as an ethnic minority, but their ethnic identity may be ignored because of their physical appearances.


  1. Franklin, J. H. (1971). Ethnicity in American life: The historical perspective. In J. H. Franklin, T. F. Pettigrew, & R. W. Mack (Eds.), Ethnicity in American life (pp. 9-21). New York: Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
  2. Phinney, J. S. (1996). When we talk about American ethnic groups, what do we mean? American Psychologist, 51(9), 918-927.
  3. Sue, S. (1991). Ethnicity and culture in psychological research and practice. In J. Goodchilds (Ed.), Psychological perspectives on human diversity in America (pp. 51-85). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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