Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


as identity / narrative / culture (USA)

thanks to

American speech, government, and multicultural studies use the term “minority” loosely to describe any ethnic or gender group that is either non-white, non-male, or non-heterosexual. In the USA, "minority" is rarely used to describe lower socio-economic classes. This instructor's multicultural courses attempt to impose more specific meanings; as with all language, though, these meanings shift with changing contexts and evolve with changing times.


This instructor's multicultural courses limit the minority definition to three different attributes in descending priority: historical; physical or cosmetic; and socioeconomic or class behaviors or values.:

particular ethnic groups' historical experience of involuntary contact, exploitation, and deprivation instead of opportunity and freedom (as with immigrants).

distinguishing physical markers including the color code, dress codes, speech differences, etc.

socioeconomic or class behaviors or values that the dominant culture regards as distasteful or counter-productive but which may be affirming to minority identity if only as resistance or not selling out to the culture that has historically oppressed and despised you.


These three aspects are explained & detailed further down, but for American Minority Literature & American Immigrant Literature, the following table provides ready prompts for its objective & presentation requirements for identifying minority identity or voice. (Students may choose any prompts from any column.)


For specific histories of racial / ethnic groups described as enduring minorities:



American Indians as minority (+- immigrant)


Mexican Americans / New World immigrants as minority or immigrant

African Americans as minority (+- immigrant)


Why are minority and multicultural issues so persistent and powerful in American culture and identity?


History vs. ideals: The Declaration of Independence proclaims that "all men are created equal" with "inalienable rights" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but the same document and the U.S. Constitution identify American Indians and African Americans as outside this status, reflecting the USA's original sins of taking American Indian land and kidnapping Africans as slave labor.


Social structures: The Declaration's proclamation of "equality" and the American Dream of socio-economic mobility imply that the USA is a classless society, in contrast to Old-World European societies, which were largely structured by class. In America, race and gender assume the structuring identities formerly assumed by class. "Everybody knows their place." (In fact, class continues to be, and is increasing as, a factor in American society. European societies now have more social mobility than American society.)



historical experience

physical or visual markers

socioeconomic or class behaviors or values
(i.e., these may be class-determined more than ethnic or race-based)

involuntary contact (conquest, captivity, kidnapping, forced sexual contact): contrast with immigrant narrative

"Voiceless & choiceless" in speaking for themselves and rights over self and property

Exploitation, isolation and deprivation, instead of opportunity and freedom

Resistance to assimilation to historically oppressive dominant culture (in contrast to immigrant identity, which voluntarily joins dominant culture social contract).

"Resistance" may be partial, leading to mixed or hybrid identities, or syncretism (>)

Occasional legal or political relief but continuing institutional or cultural exclusion.

race / ethnicity

“The Color Code”

dress codes

body styles, facial features

voice prompts
(dialects, accents, vocal styles)

marked / unmarked

washed / unwashed; clean / unclean

naming practices

(esp. religious symbols)

For immigrants who intermarry and assimilate,
such differences gradually diminish;

for minorities who remain separate,
differences may persist as points of pride or identity.

traditional culture v. modern culture

spoken culture v. written culture


extended, non-nuclear, or improvised family, often dysfunctional or broken


traditional gender roles,
esp. male privilege and womanly submission


early child-bearing, age at first birth


short childhoods, early maturation, need to work for family
(contrast dominant culture)

escapist behaviors like drugs, alcohol, gambling

intersectionality of race / ethnicity, class, gender


exclusion / objectification (self-other)


mistrust, resistance, or cynicism toward dominant-culture authorities,
especially law-enforcement


absence of successful models
in business, law, education, etc.


receipt of government aid, e.g. welfare, food stamps, community food banks, etc.





















Historical Experience:

Majority or mainstream culture is defined by immigration: most Americans or their ancestors voluntarily chose to come to America for rights and opportunity.

Minority cultures, especially African America and Native America, are not immigrants in any standard sense:

African Americans were brought to America  involuntarily. Instead of finding opportunity, they found slavery and, later, segregation and continuing discrimination.

Native Americans were already here for thousands of years before modern immigration, which led to catastrophic losses of population, land, and economic infrastructure. Instead of living the American Dream, American Indians suffer the American Nightmare.

New-World Immigrants (Latin Americans and Afro-Caribbeans) may combine immigrant & minority backgrounds and narratives. Especially Mexican-Americans in the Mexican-American War suffered involuntary contact and loss of land comparable to American Indians .

In contrast to immigrant cultures, minority cultures may not assimilate but instead live separately in a distinct community and culture, e. g. black ghettoes, Indian reservations, all-black suburbs. Intermarriage may be limited socially or legally by either side. (This resistance to assimilation may be felt from both sides: the minority group may not want to assimilate to a culture that exploited them; the dominant culture may set laws or barriers to inter-racial marriage, citizenship, voting, participation in other public activities of facilities.)

Distinctive physical markers including the color code.

Through assimilation (especially intermarriage), immigrant cultures become "unmarked": ethnic markers (distinct language, clothes, hair, makeup, perfumes, even physical differences) diminish or disappear.

Minority cultures, esp. with lower rates of intermarriage, may remain "marked" by physical differences (skin color code, body styles, facial features) and cultural styles (e.g. unique names, fashions, speech styles)

Maintenance of such differences reinforces separateness or difference instead of similarity or assimilation. 

The minority narrative (African Americans, Native Americans) is not an immigrant story of voluntary participation and assimilation but of involuntary contact and exploitation, resisting assimilation, and creating an identity more or less separate or variant from the dominant culture that exploited them.

The color code or other physical differences are wild-card factors that may enable exploitation and reinforce separateness.

Behavioral or social "symptoms" of minority status. (These behaviors can easily be reassigned to "class status," but in American culture race and class have strong historical and associational bearings on each other.)

mistrust, resistance, or cynicism toward dominant-culture authority figures, especially law-enforcement > lack of faith or participation in system (low voting turnout, school dropouts, indifference to public support groups like PTA, social services, etc.)

deviation from classic "nuclear family" model of two biological parents and directly-related siblings > improvised, extended families; unstable parental bonds

promotion of traditional gender roles, esp. male privilege and womanly submission

family instability (high rates of divorce, lower rates of marriage, single motherhood)

early child-bearing, age at first birth (limited sex education or contraception, intended to inhibit adolescent sexual activity) > limited social and geographic mobility, end of education, cycle of poverty

(class marker for upper class is extended childhood, delayed marriage and child-bearing > family stability, parents established financially)

escapist behaviors like drugs, alcohol, gambling

absence of successful legal models in business, education, etc.

Other ethnic groups that may trend to minority status (sometimes called "downward assimilation," in which people gravitate to the most dangerous aspects of American culture like cynicism, despair, escapism, get-rich-quick schemes, crime, and other "symptoms" listed above.)

Scotch-Irish or White heartland Americans

left behind economically by globalization and de-industrialization

aversion to government and public education

disdain for outsiders or other cultures leading to social isolation (including lack of continuing migration)

maintenance of traditional gender roles and extended families despite nuclear-family breakdown through divorce and lower marriage rates, early child-bearing..