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For one obvious reason, disadvantaged groups are often called “minorities” — the groups are smaller in size than another group. In this sense, people of color (or racial and ethnic minorities) and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (or sexual minorities) are numerical minorities. However, these groups, as well as women, are also minorities by virtue of having less power in society than their majority counterparts: whites, heterosexuals, and men. Unfortunately, this latter point is often forgotten; look, for example, at the hope that racial equality will be realized once people of color outnumber whites in the US. Indeed, the history of Apartheid in South Africa serves as evidence that a group’s minority status in terms of power is not the mere product of being a numerical minority.
Minority Status: The Roles Of Size And Power
The size of a minority group is an important component that plays a role in shaping the experiences of minority group members. In particular, by virtue being a member of a smaller group, minority group members theoretically have a lower chance of seeing other minority group members across various contexts. Whereas non-Hispanic whites make up two-thirds of the US population, white people have the greatest chance of any racial or ethnic group of seeing other white individuals at work, the grocery store, church, on the street, at the doctor’s office, and so forth. In these terms, women and men have roughly the same chance of seeing other women and men, respectively.
However, the unequal allocation of power, resources, and opportunities also plays a role in shaping minority and majority group members’ experiences. In terms of gender, despite slightly outnumbering men in the US, women are often underrepresented in many contexts. Take as a very important example the US Congress: there are 76 congress women in the US House of Representatives (compared to 362 men), and 17 in the US Senate (compared to 83 men). Do the math. Women make up roughly 50 percent of the US population, yet only 17 percent of congresspeople are women! Though 10 percent of congresspeople in the House are Black, not a single member of the US Senate is Black. Indeed, other factors play roles in the outcomes of elections, including — I add emphatically — prejudice and discrimination. But, it is safe to say that something other than a numbers game is at play when there is such a stark underrepresentation of women and people of color in one of the most important institutions in this country.
Representation: Why Group Composition Matters
There are a host of reasons why the extent to which a subgroup is represented matters. Continuing with the example of the gender and racial and ethnic composition of the US Congress, it is important to note that the House and Senate, with their underrepresentation of women and people of color, is making important decisions that impact the lives of every person in the US. So, two groups that consists primarily of white middle-class heterosexual men — many whom are only interested in the needs and desires of other white wealthy heterosexual men — are making decisions right at this moment on behalf of people of color, working-class and poor people, LGBT people, women, and other disadvantaged groups. In fact, the leadership of every organization and institution in the US — most which are also dominated by white heterosexual middle-class men — is making decisions as I write this post that impacts the lives of every person of every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class-standing. Indeed, the decisions these individuals are making has great influence in guaranteeing that the next generation of leaders will also be white middle-class heterosexual men.
So, in a big way, what a group produces is shaped by the composition of the group. Since individuals can only truly speak from their own experiences, the contributions of women and people of color systematically excluded from important decision-making processes. But, the composition of a group also shapes the interactions among the groups’ members. For example, a recent study on the gender composition of small groups found that the presence of fewer women is associated with less contribution from women group members:
When voting by majority decision, women deferred speaking if outnumbered by men in a group. However, when voting unanimously, the researchers found that women were much more vocal , suggesting that consensus building was empowering for outnumbered women. The researchers also found that groups arrived at different decisions when women did participate. These findings, however, are not simply limited to business settings.
In this case, when women are underrepresented in a group, especially where reaching a consensus is the primary goal of the group, they are less likely to contribute to group decision-making. And, the group loses out on what could be a unique contribution and voice not offered by male group members. Because so many important, powerful groups include few or no women, the contribution of women is systematically excluded in important decision-making. I would say the most shameful of these exclusions is the absence of women in important conversations about women’s health (e.g., contraception for women!).
Unfortunately, it seems that the challenges that arise from being a member of a minority group are sometimes exacerbated when one is also in the numerical minority in a group. I would suggest one factor that contributes to women’s underparticipation in groups that are dominated by men is the stress associated with being the token woman. Social scientists, including professors Cate Taylor , Pamela Braboy Jackson, and Peggy Thoits, in Sociology at Indiana University, have examined the stressfulness (and resultant problems for health) of being “the only X” or token in groups and organizations that are heavily white and/or male. The uneasiness one may experience as the token woman, token Latino person, or token lesbian, can contain so many different concerns and feelings, ranging from the discomfort of always being evaluated as a woman, Latina, or lesbian, to the discomfort of feeling that one is perceived as speaking on behalf of their entire group, to feeling that one has to contribute the perspective of a member of one’s group. I can think of many discussions where I have been overwhelmed by anxiety that stemmed from being the only person of color or queer person present or, more often, from feeling the urgent need to interject that the group has systematically overlooked the importance of race, sexuality, and/or gender.
The importance of representation extends beyond small groups and decision-making processes. The visibility of minorities in the media is an extremely important arena of representation, one that has been extensively studied and debated. For example, each year the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) analyzes the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in film and television each year. The positive portrayal of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, same-gender couples, interracial couples, working-class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and so on is crucial so that people are aware of diversity, but also appreciate and celebrate that diversity.
Specifically for the members of minority groups, seeing oneself reflected in the media is crucial, particularly in the face of prejudice, discrimination, and the constant barrage of invalidating comments and actions. In fact, there was a recent study featured in the media this summer that finds evidence of a self-esteem boosting effect of television for white boys, but self-esteem damaging effects for white girls, black girls, and black boys. One primary reason? White boys see lots of white boys and men in the shows they watch. And, not just that, but they regularly see these characters and actors in positive, powerful, and central roles. This is less so the case for other kids.
Though less frequent for members of minority groups, to see a face or body that looks like your own is powerful in its effect to simply validate you as a worthy human being. I can think of the range of emotions I saw or heard about in people of color, especially Black Americans, when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Some had tears streaming down their faces simply because they were overwhelmed with joy, hope, and likely some sense of relief. I am not ashamed to admit that I get this feeling in terms of race and ethnicity in the media, but also sexuality. To not only see LGBT people on my television screen — again, I emphasize positive portrayals — but to see them loved by others, or in love, is sometimes emotionally overwhelming because these images are new to me. I am disappointed, however, that I have to feel such joy just to see someone who looks like me — a joy whites, men, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups do not experience because their representation is the norm and, as a result, their presence is treated as the default.
Though things have changed, and are continuing to change, there is still much work to be done until we stop seeing systematic underrepresentation and hearing about “the First African-American X” or “the First Woman to Y.”
Note: this was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.
In early October, OKCupid, an online dating website, released an analysis of racial and ethnic differences in response rates. It seems love isn’t so color-blind after all.
The Study: Over One Million People
The OKCupid study assessed the responses of over one million site users. They found that two individuals of any race can be compatible just to squash any doubts that the racial and ethnic differences found in responses is due to lack of compatibility between partners of different backgrounds.
Though any two people could be compatible, the study found some remarkable racial and ethnic dynamics:
- Black heterosexual women respond the most to messages they receive on OKCupid, but heterosexual men of all races and ethnicities respond to messages from Black women the least.
- White heterosexual men’s messages are responded to the most by heterosexual women of all races and ethnicities, yet they reply the least to any messages.
- White heterosexual women prefer white men to the exclusion of men of color, yet Asian and Hispanic heterosexual women prefer white men even more exclusively.
- There is little variance among heterosexuals in support for interracial marriages, with nearly all saying such relationships are not bad, but white heterosexuals prefer white partners much more than non-white heterosexuals prefer non-white partners. The gap in same-race /ethnicity partner preference is larger between white and non-white heterosexual women.
What About Lesbian, Bisexual, and Gay OKCupid Members?
In a later post, OKCupid released findings from an analysis of their members who are lesbian, bisexual, or gay.
It seems that some of the same patterns emerged among LGB people, but they were less prevalent. For example, Black women were still responded to the least among all bisexual and lesbian women, but the difference was smaller than that among heterosexuals.
LGB people are much more in favor of interracial marriage, but the same gap in preference for same-race partners exists, though it is smaller. That is, even white LGB people report a higher degree of preference for same-race partners than non-white LGB people.
In another post, I mentioned a survey of young adults’ relationship values, which found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people were more open to dating people of different races and ethnicities than were heterosexuals.
Are There Any Implications?
Certainly, as I argued in an earlier post, these findings suggest that we should continue to recognize how race and ethnicity, as well as other social factors, play into our sexualities.
Some groups, particularly people of color, have access to smaller dating pools. This can translate into a number of things, including greater difficulty finding romantic sexual partners and possibly “lowering” one’s standards for potential partners.
In that earlier post, I referenced a study on gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men (MSM), who do not identify as gay/bisexual. The study found that, because Black men were ranked as the least preferable partner relative to white, Latino, and Asian men, their dating pool was smaller, which increased their risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
Is It Racism?
The OKCupid blog post suggests that these patterns of response rates by race and ethnicity reflect the continued existence of racism in the United States. Some social scientists who have studied racial attitudes have included questions about one’s willingness to date someone of a different race or ethnicity.
But, I hesitate to suggest that a preference for one’s own race and ethnicity, or certain races and ethnicities over others, is a sign of racism. Instead, I would argue that our dating and sexual preferences are shaped by social factors, including racism.
We can see that white (Anglo) standards of beauty are still the dominant standard in the US and that people of color are pressured to meet those standards by altering their hair, skin color, even facial features through cosmetic surgery.
And, sadly, as the National Health and Social Life Survey found in the mid-1990s, partners that come from different backgrounds (e.g., education, race, religion) break up at a higher rate than partners of similar backgrounds, largely because they are not as well integrated into each others lives (e.g., friendship circles, family).
Because of family and community pressures to partner with someone of the same background, people may be less likely to even attempt to start a relationship with someone of a background different than their own.
But, it is great to see that an overwhelming majority of people were in favor of interracial marriage in the OKCupid survey – a remarkable change over the last few decades in race relations.
And, as sociologist Michael J. Rosenfeld has found in his research on marriage patterns, the number of interracial and same-sex couples in the US have increased dramatically since the 1960s, primarily because adult children have become more independent from their families and home communities.
Note: this was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.
When we talk about sexuality, specifically our own sexualities, we sometimes fail to consider other forms of differences (and similarities) among humans. We need to be sure to consider how our race, ethnicity, sex and gender, social class, age, ability, religion, and nationality shape and influence our sexual identities, desires, preferences, and community memberships.
The Tendency To View One Form Of Difference At A Time
Often, when we talk about difference and, more specifically, inequality, we tend to talk about one form of difference and inequality at a time. That is, we talk about race, racism, and racial inequality. Or, we talk about gender, sexism, and gender inequality. It is rare, however, that we talk about how these forms of difference coexist and shape one another.
In gender studies, sociology, psychology, and the humanities, we use the term intersectionality to describe how forms of difference operate simultaneously and intersect and interact with one another.
So, for example, rather than simply looking at the experiences of bisexuals (i.e., sexual orientation), we could look at the experiences of Latino bisexuals (i.e., ethnicity and sexual orientation), or bisexual teenagers (i.e., sexual orientation and age), or Catholic bisexual immigrants (i.e., religion, sexual orientation, and nationality).
Why Is This More Inclusive View Important?
Although we can get a good sense of someone’s life experiences and sense of self just by looking at their sexual orientation or self-reported sexual identity (e.g., lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, gay, queer), we may be overlooking how other forms of difference shape one’s life.
We are not simply sexual beings; we also have a particular race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, age, ability, and nationality. For example, if we were only to look at the gap in income between women and men, we would fail to see that Black, Latina, and American Indian women are at an even further disadvantage in pay relative to white men.
Simply considering one form of difference fails to paint a complete picture of individuals’ lives.
A Clear Example
As a Kinsey Confidential site visitor pointed out in a comment to the April 30th blog post, “Dine Out for Life – HIV/AIDS Fundraiser” by Natalie Ingraham, one glaring oversight in research on HIV/AIDS rates among Black men who have sex with men (MSM), who may or may not identify as gay or bisexual, is the consideration of race, or, more specifically, racism.
Two researchers found that the higher HIV infection rate among Black MSMs is not due to riskier or less safe sexual practices (i.e., not using condoms regularly and effectively), but is due largely to a smaller pool of potential sexual partners.
The researchers found that among a sample of Black, white, Latino, and Asian-American MSMs, Black men were rated the least preferred sexual partners and perceived to be the most likely to be HIV-positive.
Thus, because Black men are considered least desired and most dangerous in terms of HIV/AIDS, they have a harder time finding partnerships with non-Black men, which severely minimizes their pool of potential partners and increases their risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. By simply considering sexual orientation, we’d see that men who have sex with men have higher rates of HIV/AIDS relative to men who have sex with women (MSW), but we would miss the racial and ethnic differences among MSMs and MSWs.
It might be a neat exercise, and certainly helpful in a self-reflective sense, to consider how your own race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, ability, age, and nationality shape and influence your sexual orientation, identity, desires, relationships, preferences, and community memberships. And, making things a bit more complicated, think about how your sexuality shapes and influences these forms of difference in turn.