Commenter Mark Dowd urged me to get on board with the spreading movement to capitalize Black when referring to a group identity. I had noticed the trend myself but had not done anything about it partly because of inertia and partly because I was not sure what the full ramifications were. How much does it generalize? For example, does that mean that ‘white’ should be capitalized too?
So I looked to that authoritative journalistic source, the Associated Press Style Guide and they said that had been looking into this question for over two years and in June 2020 gave reasons why they had decided to capitalize Black.
AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person.
We also now capitalize Indigenous in reference to original inhabitants of a place.
These changes align with long-standing capitalization of other racial and ethnic identifiers such as Latino, Asian American and Native American. Our discussions on style and language consider many points, including the need to be inclusive and respectful in our storytelling and the evolution of language. We believe this change serves those ends.
So what about white? The next month they said that they had decided against capitalizing white and again gave reasons.
There was clear desire and reason to capitalize Black. Most notably, people who are Black have strong historical and cultural commonalities, even if they are from different parts of the world and even if they now live in different parts of the world. That includes the shared experience of discrimination due solely to the color of one’s skin.
There is, at this time, less support for capitalizing white. White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color. In addition, we are a global news organization and in much of the world there is considerable disagreement, ambiguity and confusion about whom the term includes.
We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore those problems. But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.
These arguments seem persuasive to me and I will follow suit, except when out of force of habit I forget to do so.
There is a legacy of racist thinking implicit in the way “white” tends to be thought of as a racial signifier. At least in the US. Often it’s so implicit that it flies under the radar. The implicit assumption tends to be that “white” is an absence of race, whereas anything else shows that race is present. “White” people are seen as some kind of unspoiled norm, whereas other ethnicities have an additional factor present -- race -- that white people don’t have.
I think this was most powerfully brought home to me when someone pointed out the case of Barack Obama. Now, it is entirely uncontroversial and normal to refer to Obama as “the first Black US President”. But nobody would call him “one of a long line of white US Presidents”. Except… Barack Obama is the child of mixed-race parents. His mother is white, his father Black by most reckonings. But as a mixed-race individual he is universally accepted to have claim to a Black identity, not to a White one. People almost never even call him “mixed-race” or “half Black”, much less “half White”. One ethnic minority parent is enough to revoke any claim he has to whiteness, but not the other way around.
Which is exactly the kind of thinking, of course, that leads to vile racist nonsense like the idea that ethnic minorities are “outbreeding” white people. That Blackness or Asianness or whatever can spread and expand, while Whiteness will be polluted and overcome if careful, racist, steps are not taken. I wonder how these kinds of decisions on capitalisation fit in with that?
I’ll keep on not capitalizing anything, because I think it silly. That includes communists, atheists, muslims and christians.
Me being Dutch I avoid “b***k” anyhow (whether capitalized or not) because the literal Dutch translation (“zwart”) is a grave insult when used for people. So I prefer Afro-American, Afro-Dutch etc. In Suriname it’s even easier; the people from African descent perfectly know themselves how they want to be called. And they don’t care whether being capitalized or not.
I have to disagree. My dad was white and my mother Mexican American. Both my sister and I are generally considered white.
Indeed my sister is paler than me, has freckles, and sunburns without tanning afterwards. I burn but then tan. Mom generally didn’t sunburn.
John Morales says
That’s both silly (not every black person is African) and contradictory (you do capitalise).
I disagree with the AP’s reasoning. For one thing, suggesting that there is a commonality of history and experience between all black people is as reductive as saying there is commonality in history and experience between all white people, or that there is a single near-monolithic ‘western culture’ vs. ‘eastern culture’ divide. Racial dynamics can change drastically from place to place, and I would point to Trevor Noah as a good example of this. Being South African, in his homeland he was considered ‘coloured’ (bi-racial) as opposed to black, with the black South Africans looking on him as not one of them; in America, he is black.
Yes but he looks black, and where there is differential treatment between white and black people, he will therefore get the treatment reserved for black people. In the American context he is black and not white.
Oh I forgot to mention re. AP’s silly ‘shared history’ point: what about black Australians? Disenfranchised yes, but a drastically different history and experience. Comparing Australia to USA, the Aboriginal Australians resemble black Americans but have a history and experience much more similar to the Native Americans, despite not looking alike.
Steve Morrison says
Well, the reason why Barack Obama is commonly considered “Black” is the one-drop rule. It’s specific to the United States (and to Black ancestry).
“They all look the same to me”, eh Holms. Dude, no.
I’m writing off the top of my head but I’m pretty sure Indigenous Australians are genetically more distant from black Africans than are white Europeans. That is, I (white as snow) have a closer African relative than they do.
Sure they have dark skin. But Indigenous Australians do not look African.
Andreas Avester says
I hate the English writing system.
In my native language, punctuation, spelling and capitalization rules are uniform and consistent. Certain types of words are always capitalized while other types of words are not capitalized unless at the beginning of a sentence. Whether to capitalize a word is not a matter of opinion and a person cannot express an attitude by either capitalizing or not capitalizing a word.
In comparison, English writing system is an inconsistent patchwork of arbitrary “rules” that have so many exceptions that one might argue that there are no rules. This kind of chaos and lack of consistency makes me crazy.
In my native language, words like “Black,” “white,” “American,” “African,” “Indigenous,” “Latino,” “Christian” etc. are never capitalized, because adjectives do not get capitalized. Rules are simple, uniform, and I do not have to memorize separately for every word whether to capitalize it or no. Nobody ever brings up history, culture, or social attitudes as an argument for why some word should be written one way or the other.
I dislike this idea because I think AP’s reasons for not capitalizing white are seriously misguided. The idea that capitalizing white would legitimize racists and nationalists is somewhat true but also badly misleading. Not treating both the same will encourage the racists and nationalists and give them a great talking point they can hang on.
It also runs the risk of letting the extreme right define what white is because only they consider it a legitimate identity. Once whites are a minority in the country it’s probably only a matter of time until white becomes a real distinct identity and it has already been staked out by the white nationalists there are going to be problems.
Tabby Lavalamp says
Several of those are nouns, not adjectives.
“people who are Black have strong historical and cultural commonalities, even if they are from different parts of the world”
This seems more to illustrate the writer’s mind-boggling ignorance of world history and geography than anything else.
I am sure a 4th or 5th generation Saudi whose ancestor arrived on Haj from present-day Nigeria in the middle of the 19th C has a lot in common mith a US Afro-American from California.
There was a certain amount of grumbling about a Black European playing Harriet Tubman.
Tabby Lavalamp @12: I think the words you are thinking of can be used either as adjectives (‘a Christian prayer’) or a noun (‘Christians say that …’ ).