Recently, I was writing a post concerning the Black Lives Matter movement. Being the title of both a movement and an organization, I knew it was correct to capitalize the first letters. But then I came to writing the word “Black,” referring to a racial group, not a movement, and I hesitated.
To capitalize or not to capitalize? That was the question. Did I capitalize “White” if I was writing about Caucasians? I wanted to be correct, to be respectful, but what was respectful in this case? I was lost.
I rarely wrote about issues involving race. My subjects tended to be non-political; I write about blogging, about travel, about meditation, and personal experience. But I realized when I did write about race, I skirted around Black and White, using terms such as “African American” and “Caucasian.” I wrote in such a way that I never had to confront this question.
So what is correct? Should the “B” in Black be capitalized? I wasn’t the only one asking myself this question recently.
Every news organization has a distinct policy. Recently, discussions around race and racism are at the forefront of both the news and our minds. The Associated Press — the definitive source for styling news writing — only recently announced that, after a lengthy discussion, they were changing their stylebook to capitalize the B in Black, stating: “The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, recently explored this question eloquently in his recent article, “The Case for Capitalizing the B in Black,” in the Atlantic. He looks at several reasons for capitalizing the B: we capitalize the B to denote a group, for that group to claim power, dignity. And we capitalize a word to denote a non-natural human-made entity. Race is such an entity.
He goes on to the next obvious question: what do we do about the word “White” when it refers to a group of people and not a color? My local newspaper — The Seattle Times — decided to capitalize Black and leave white lowercase not long ago — December 2019.
As usual, comments on their announcement of this new policy ran the mix from supportive to critical. Some commenters felt that the asymmetry only served to promote racial disparity even more. Another commenter pointed out that white supremacists capitalize “White.”
But can an imbalance in language — leaving white lowercase while capitalizing Black — offset an imbalance in privilege? Will an inequity in capitalization lead, even in a small way, to more racial equity? Or is this better achieved by symmetry in language?
American Psychological Association formatting calls for capitalizing both Black and White: “Racial and ethnic groups are designated by proper nouns and are capitalized. Therefore, use “Black” and “White” instead of “black” and “white” (do not use colors to refer to other human groups; doing so is considered pejorative).”
Ultimately, I think the best way to handle sensitive issues when writing about groups of people is to look at how those people refer to themselves. What language do they use? What do they want to be called? What do they recommend? In reading current books by Black authors, capitalization is the norm. We should capitalize the B in Black.
The question about W in White, however, remains a controversial one. My own opinion? The most clear-cut policy would be to capitalize all racial and ethnic groups and nationalities across the board: Asian, Latino, Black, White, Indian, English, South African, and so forth. Having any one of this lowercase while everything else is uppercase fills me with a kind of literary seasickness. Give everyone the dignity of a capital.
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