There is a national effort to broaden participation in STEM fields in higher education across the country. That is a good thing. Broadening participation is an effort to increase the number of Black, Hispanic, Native Americans and women successfully engaged in the STEM enterprise. In the day to day language of this effort, I am an URM – an Under Represented Minority. Black people, Hispanics, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Alaska Natives are all classified as underrepresented minorities. On innumerable slide presentations there is a line that says, “Increase the participation of women and URM’s.” Women are invariably first, followed by URM’s. What the presenter says while that line is on display is some variant of, “it is essential for the continued success of the United States that we increase the number of women and members of underrepresented groups who contribute to the economic vitality of the country. Diversity is one of our national assets. ….”
I agree, but I am not an URM.
URM sounds like a disease. A disease naturally, is something that needs to be cured. Lurking in the background of this designation are the ascribed attributes of URM’s when referring to Black students – poor, urban, culturally opposed to education and poorly prepared, among other things. This label is degrading. What happens if you say it out loud?
“My name is Kamau Bobb. I am an underrepresented minority.” There is no power in that. I can find no pride in that.
The repeated association of URM with all the painful attributes, links them in people’s minds. It is a conditioning like any other. The more times we associate URM with poverty and deficit, the more solid the link becomes in all of our minds. Black equals URM equals deficit. That is a debilitating cycle of equivalence.
There is no question that the symptoms of poverty disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic students. Explicit and targeted efforts to address those conditions are a cornerstone of the broadening participation movement, and should be. Focusing exclusively on those symptoms; however, removes the focus from the disproportionate discrimination meted out against those same students, regardless of their preparation. I am confident that in many instances discriminatory practices by White and Asian people, who are unnamed in all of this, are fueled by the persistent equivalence between URM, Black, and problem. An alternative is to name groups of people directly, not as referenced against some other – and to distinguish between students’ condition and their identity.
Language matters. I am a Black Man, not an URM.