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It's not just an element of style: The case for capitalizing race

As the whole country examines ways to talk frankly about race, we look at how choosing what to capitalize is no simple matter of B/black and W/white.

As current events have more and more Americans discussing racial injustice and what we can do about it, a peripheral debate has been happening in editorial circles. It seems a simple question: should we be capitalizing the words black and white when we write about race?

The answers are varied and changing. As I began researching this post, Merriam-Webster offered both cases when giving examples of black colleges or Black studies, but only lowercase examples for white. The Associated Press (AP), the standard for many journalistic outlets, used lowercase for both. So did the Chicago Manual of Style, the favored guide for many copy editors—although they noted that if an author or publisher prefers capitalizing, that preference should take precedence. American Psychological Association style (APA), used by many academic writers, was capitalizing both Black and White.

But over the past week, many news outlets and publishers—including the USA Today group, NBC News, and the Chicago Sun-Times—have announced they’re going to start using the uppercase B when writing about Black people. Other major publications—like the New York Times and Washington Post—are considering the idea. On June 19 (Juneteenth) the AP announced the switch to capital-B Black (and capital-I Indigenous!), and the Chicago MoS followed suit on June 23. So let’s take a deeper look at the discussion.

The case for uppercase Black

Many of the discussions this month have pointed to a 2014 New York Times opinion piece by journalism professor Lori L. Tharps. In “The Case for Black with a Capital B”, she sums up the argument succinctly: “When speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized. Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.”

The nature of that forced migration—Africans captured and brought to the Americas in chains and forced under threat of pain and death to adopt English and Christianity as they labored without recompense—meant that their home languages and cultures were suppressed. Over the years, many African Americans lost the knowledge of their origins. When you can’t point to a place on a map and say your family came from this particular country, or that particular ethnic group, how else can you describe your heritage? You’re left with terms like “African American” or “Black.”

So why not just use African American? African comes from a place name, therefore it should be capitalized. Problem solved!

Except “African American” doesn’t necessarily describe all Black people. There are Africans who have immigrated to the U.S, and citizens with Afro-Latinx, Afro-Caribbean, or Afro-Indigenous backgrounds. Using “African American” for these individuals might erase these other parts of their identities.

Besides, institutional racism in America cares about one thing above all else: oppressing people with black skin, no matter where they come from, in order to elevate white people. It’s created a shared Black experience, filled with pain but also triumph and joy and pride. Thus it makes sense to use the uppercase when we talk of Black culture, Black studies, Black literature, Black people.

The case for lowercase white

So what about white—or should that be White? While many news outlets have adopted the uppercase for Black, they haven’t done the same for white. The Columbia Journalism Review offered a great explanation of the thinking behind this style difference: “Black is an ethnic designation; white merely describes the skin color of people who can, usually without much difficulty, trace their ethnic origins back to a handful of European countries.”

Another argument for lowercase white is how the uppercase version has been vocally claimed by the white supremacist movement. Manifestos proclaiming America a “White country” or noting the superiority of the “White race” have connected capital-w White with an overtly racist, violent movement.

So if white only describes skin color, while White recalls a violent philosophy that should inspire revulsion in any fair-thinking individual, it seems simple: use the lowercase. That’s the decision a lot of organizations have come to, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story…

The case for uppercase White

First of all, we’re going to ignore the whiners who argue for uppercase White by crying “reverse racism,” because that isn’t a thing. Racism involves institutional advantages given to one race while oppressing all others. Thus you can be bigoted or prejudiced against a White person but not racist, because society isn’t backing up your bias. (I could go on, but I’m here to talk orthography, not definitions.)

So what’s the logic offered to justify capitalizing white? The APA Stylebook offers a very simple explanation: “Racial and ethnic groups are designated by proper nouns and are capitalized. Therefore, use Black and White instead of black and white.

But what about those White supremacists? I’ll admit, it makes me feel more than a little bit squeamish to use the same case they do when spreading their hatred. But maybe it’s time for me to start feeling this discomfort. As a lowercase white person, I’m not required to think about what race means—lowercase white is assumed to be the default, while everyone else is Black or Asian or Latinx or Indigenous or … Capitalized. Not-white.

But, as has become all too clear in the protests this month, it’s way past time for White people to step it up and take part in the discussion about race in America. My uneasiness at even a tangential connection with supremacist “Whiteness” means very little when balanced against the shameful, painful ways our society forces Black (and Brown) people to deal with race. In their capitalization statement, the Center for the Study of Social Policy provided this thoughtful insight: “While we condemn those who capitalize ‘W’ for the sake of evoking violence, we intentionally capitalize ‘White’ in part to invite people, and ourselves, to think deeply about the ways Whiteness survives—and is supported both explicitly and implicitly.”

So what’s the answer? Uppercase or lowercase?

Well, there’s one question I can definitely answer. If you’re using black or white to describe the color of something, including skin color, you use the lowercase. (And if you’re looking for help in how to write about skin color, the Writing with Color tumblr has a great list of resources here.) But otherwise, my best advice is to listen and to think about it.

Right now, the voices of the Black community have been pretty clear: they want the uppercase. And as more and more organizations honor that request, it seems likely to become standard in editorial circles. There’s no such consensus on White—whether to use it all the time, or limit it to talking about supremacist movements—but it’s a conversation we should start having.

For now, it seems a matter of courtesy: call people what they ask to be called. If someone’s nametag says “William,” it would be rude to call them “Billy.” It’s offensive to refer to a trans person by their birth name if they’re using a different one. If my friends and colleagues in the Black community want the uppercase, I’ll respect that. If my White friends aren’t yet ready to confront race in their manuscripts, I’ll respect that. (Although I would offer them a deeper conversation about it first.)

The language we use matters. Writing matters. Most important, though: Black lives matter.

Diane loves thinking deeply about capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and word definitions, and is the author of the 2005 reference book Defining Moments: Brown v. Board of Education, which explores the history of segregation in America. Find out more about her here.

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