Marginalization: The pendulum swings both ways

By Dr. Nathaniel Granger

To marginalize is the process of relegating or confining to a lower or outer limit or edge, as of social standing. Hence, marginalization is the social process of becoming or being made marginal (especially as a group within the larger society): “the marginalization of the underclass” or “the marginalization of literature.” Although marginalization is often defined as the process of making a group or class of people less important or relegated to a secondary position, (e.g., when one class of people is grouped together as second class citizens), this article intends to illuminate the implications of marginalization at the opposite end of the spectrum—outer limit or edge—patronization.

“The marginal man … is one whom fate has condemned to live in two societies and in two, not merely different but antagonistic cultures…. his mind is the crucible in which two different and refractory cultures may be said to melt and, either wholly or in part, fuse.” (Source: E.V. Stonequist)

Marginalization at the individual level results in an individual’s exclusion from meaningful participation in society. An example of marginalization at the individual level is the exclusion of single mothers from the welfare system prior to the welfare reform of the 1900s. The modern welfare system is based on the concept of entitlement to the basic means of being a productive member of society, both as an organic function of society and as compensation for the socially useful labor provided.

A single mother’s contribution to society is not based on formal employment, but on the notion that provision of welfare for children is a necessary social expense. Single mothers were previously marginalized in spite of their significant role in the socializing of children due to two main views:

  1. An individual can only contribute meaningfully to society through “gainful” employment.
  2. Cultural bias against unwed mothers.

Today the marginalization is primarily a function of class condition.

Recommended read: “Embodied racism”

Another example of individual marginalization is the exclusion of individuals with disabilities from the labor force. In Dr. Wes Shera’s book “Emerging Perspectives on Anti-Oppressive Practice,” Grandz discusses an employer’s viewpoint about hiring individuals living with disabilities as jeopardizing productivity, increasing the rate of absenteeism, and creating more accidents in the workplace. Also in this publication, Cantor discusses employer concern about the excessively high cost of accommodating people with disabilities. The marginalization of individuals with disabilities is prevalent today, despite the legislation intended to prevent it in most Western countries, and the academic achievements, skills, and training of many disabled people.

There are also exclusions of lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) and other intersexual people because of their sexual orientations and gender identities as individual marginalization. The Yogyakarta Principles require that the states and communities abolish any stereotypes about LGBT people as well as stereotyped gender roles.




One of the most difficult feelings to rid oneself of is the emotional turmoil associated with being marginalized by a person or group in the position of power. Feelings of anger and confusion are often followed with those of inferiority. The internal struggle is exacerbated when it seems obvious that the perpetrator had no ill intent in conveying the denigrating message, particularly when patronizing. Society is replete with these microaggressions that more often than not go unnoticed but have a lasting impact on the recipient.

In “Perceptions of Racial Microaggressions Among African American Males in Higher Education: A Heuristic Inquiry,” Solórzano, Ceja, and Yosso define microaggressions as brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership (people of color, women, the LGBT community). The term was first coined by Chester M. Pierce in 1970 in his work with African-Americans where he defined it as “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put-downs’.” They have also been described as “subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously.”

Derald Wing Sue’s research related to the psychology of microaggressions indicates that white individuals are often unaware of the cumulative harm that people of color experience from being routinely subjected to various racial microaggressions. According to Sue, these are microinvalidations characterized by communications or environmental cues that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of certain groups, such as people of color, women, and the LGBT community. In many ways, microinvalidations may potentially represent the most damaging form of microaggressions because they directly and insidiously deny the racial, gender, or sexual-orientation reality of these groups.

According to Sue, the power to impose reality on marginalized groups represents the ultimate form of oppression. Examples of microinvalidations can be heard in everyday statements such as “Low man on the totem pole,” and in everyday actions such as over-validation, a form of patronization.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva defined subtle forms of racial bias, referred to as color-blind racism, which refers to the conception among white individuals that considerations of race are presently no longer relevant in people’s lives in the United States. Contemporary color-blind racism is expressed in everyday beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that are considered acceptable, and even commendable, by white individuals who use them. Accordingly, such attitudes are so deeply embedded in societal values and practices that they lie outside the consciousness of many well-intentioned white people who may genuinely consider themselves to be non-racist.




Despite the continuum of racial biases and marginalization of other disenfranchised groups, great strides are being taken by individuals and special interest groups to “fix” the problems associated with discrimination of marginalized groups. However, in attempting to ameliorate the problem, patronization is often the resulting bandage over an infected wound.

To be patronized is to be treated as if you are less intelligent or knowledgeable than the person you’re speaking with, and it can be one of the most frustrating experiences you can have in life.

Anyone can be patronized—men, women, seniors, young people—and patronization can take on many forms, such as:

  • Addressing someone by his or her first name when others are addressed more properly
  • Patting a person in a wheelchair on the head or soldier
  • Giving excess praise to someone for a fairly simple action
  • Assigning someone remedial tasks at work or at home
  • Speaking slowly or excessively loudly to an elderly person
  • Talking “down” to someone

Another example of patronization can be found in the Time article “It’s No Big Deal,” referencing the Supreme Court’s decision on gay rights:

“It was sweet of Justice Kennedy to say gays can now ‘enter upon [a] relationship in the confines of their homes … and still retain their dignity as free persons.’ Apparently, gay-activist lawyers wept in court upon hearing this. But they should know that dignity is not the court’s to give. Gays have found their own dignity through decades of refusing to hide. For the court to come around, at this late date, to acknowledge our existence as ‘free persons’ is shockingly patronizing; it’s condescension that has been cast as liberation. I’m glad those two Texas fellas can freely have sex, but they still can’t visit each other in certain hospitals, serve openly in the military or get married. Let’s save the banner headlines for when they can.”

Thankfully, there are advancements due to recent changes in legislation.




Being patronized is more than just frustrating. It can lead to issues with self-esteem and can negatively affect your performance at work. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, male bosses who patronized their female employees undermined their performance. The bosses patronized the women workers by offering them excessive praise but no “valued resources” such as raises or promotions.

“The patronizing behavior of male bosses created gender differences in performance where they otherwise did not exist,” said Theresa Vescio, a Penn State University assistant professor of psychology who led the study.

Perhaps the most damaging form of patronization is that of excessive praise to select members of marginalized groups. This not only undermines the group from which the recipient of the praise is from but also alienates the representative of that group by singling out him or her. This consequently leads to shame, embarrassment, and more often than not disconnectedness from one’s group, which in turn perpetuates the familiar emotion of feeling invisible within and without one’s given group.

It is my premise that because these attitudes often lie outside the consciousness of many well-intended people who consider themselves to be nonbiased, an attempt by such to compensate/overcorrect leads to the pendulum that swings in the direction toward oppression and ostracization to swing opposingly toward patronization. As well-intended, non-disenfranchised groups endeavor to make marginalized groups feel less marginalized by incorporating adequate representation, one must be mindful not to make the representative an “expert” on that particular group’s cultural affairs or patronize the representative by giving excessive praise. Hence, this too becomes marginalization. A key tenet is finding a fulcrum and maintaining a balance between ostracization and patronization. I submit that balance candidly and simply be humanization.


Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cloud, J. (2003). It’s no big deal. Time Magazine. New York, NY.

Granger, N. (2011). Perceptions of racial microaggressions among African American males in higher education: A heuristic inquiry.

Leslie, D.R., Leslie K. & Murphy M. (2003). Inclusion by design: The challenge for social work in workplace accommodation for people with disabilities. In W. Shera (Eds.), Emerging perspectives on anti-oppression practice (pp. 157–169). Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholar’s Press.

Park, R. E. (1937). Cultural conflict and the marginal man. In E. V. Stonequist, The marginal man, (introduction). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Pierce, C., Carew, J., Pierce-Gonzalez, D., & Willis, D. (1978). An experiment in racism: TV commercials. In C. Pierce (Ed.), Television and education (pp. 62-88). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Solórzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of African American college students. The Journal of Negro Education, 69(1/2), 60-73.

Sue, D.W. (2003). Overcoming our racism: The journey to liberation. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Boss.

Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Vescio, T. (2005) Patronizing conduct can negatively affect women employees’ performance. Penn State University, Live: The University Official News Source.


Guest contributor Dr. Nathaniel Granger Jr. works as a psychology instructor at Pikes Peak Community College and is the founder/pastor and CEO of Be REAL Ministries, Inc. in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Equal rights and civil rights along with his doctoral dissertation, “Perceptions of Racial Microaggressions among African American Males in Higher Education: A Heuristic Inquiry” form the substratum upon which a majority of his work is predicated.

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