Black with a capital B

It’s been a long-running debate in edi­to­r­i­al cir­cles: whether to cap­i­tal­ize ‘black’ and ‘white’ in print pub­li­ca­tions when refer­ring to groups of peo­ple. I remem­ber dis­cus­sions about it in the ear­ly 1990s when I worked as a graph­ic design­er at a (large­ly White) pro­gres­sive pub­lish­ing house. My offi­cial, stylesheet-sanctioned answer has been con­sis­tent in every pub­li­ca­tion I’ve worked for since then: low­er­case. But I remain unsatisfied.

Cap­i­tal­iza­tion has lots of built-in quirks. In gen­er­al, we cap­i­tal­ize only when names come from prop­er nouns and don’t con­cern our­selves about mis­match­es. We can write about “frogs and sala­man­ders and Fowler’s toads” or “dis­eases such as can­cer or Alzheimer’s.” Reli­gious terms are even trick­i­er: there’s the Gospel of Luke that is part of the gospel of Christ. In my Quak­er work, it’s sur­pris­ing how often I have to go into a exe­ge­sis of intent over whether the writer is talk­ing about a capital-L divine Light or a more gener­ic lower-case light­ness of being. “Black” and “white” are both clear­ly low­er­cased when they refer to col­ors and most style guides have kept it that way for race.

But seri­ous­ly? We’re talk­ing about more than col­or when we use it as a racial des­ig­na­tion. This is also iden­ti­ty. Does it real­ly make sense to write about South Cen­tral L.A. and talk about its “Kore­ans, Lati­nos, and blacks?” The counter-argument says that if cap­i­tal­ize Black, what then with White. Con­sis­ten­cy is good and they should pre­sum­ably match, except for the real­i­ty check: White­ness in Amer­i­ca has his­tor­i­cal­ly been a catch-all for non-coloredness. Dif­fer­ent groups are con­sid­ered white in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances; many of the most-proudly White eth­nic­i­ties now were col­ored a cen­tu­ry ago. Much of the swampi­er side of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics has been rein­forc­ing racial iden­ti­ty so that out-of-work Whites (code­name: “work­ing class”) will vote for the inter­ests of White bil­lion­aires rather than out-of-work peo­ple of col­or (code­name: “poor”) who share every­thing but their mela­tonin lev­el. All iden­ti­ties are incom­plete and sur­pris­ing­ly flu­id when applied at the indi­vid­ual lev­el, but few are as non-specific as “White” as a racial designation.

Back in the 1990s we could dodge the ques­tion a bit. The style guide for my cur­rent pub­li­ca­tion notes “lc, but sub­sti­tute ‘African Amer­i­can’ in most con­texts.” Many pro­gres­sive style sheets back in the day gave sim­i­lar advice. In the ebb and flow of pre­ferred iden­ti­ty nomen­cla­ture, African Amer­i­can was trend­ing as the more polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect des­ig­na­tion, helped along by a strong endorse­ment from Jesse Jack­son. Black wasn’t quite fol­low­ing the way of Negro into obso­les­cence, but the avail­abil­i­ty of an clear­ly cap­i­tal­ized alter­na­tive gave white pro­gres­sives an easy dodge. The terms also per­haps sub­tly dis­tin­guished between those good African Amer­i­cans who worked with­in in the sys­tem from those dan­ger­ous rad­i­cals talk­ing about Black Pow­er and reparations.

The Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment has brought Black back as the polit­i­cal­ly bold­er word. Today it feels sharp­er and less coy than African Amer­i­can. It’s the bet­ter punch line for a thou­sand voic­es shout­ing ris­ing up out­side the governor’s man­sion. We’ve arrived at the point where African Amer­i­can feels kind of stilt­ed. It’s as if we’ve been try­ing a bit too hard to nor­mal­ize cen­turies of slav­ery. We’ve got our Irish Amer­i­cans with their green St Paddy’s day beer, the Ital­ian Amer­i­cans with their pas­ta and the African Amer­i­cans with their music and… oh yes, that unfor­tu­nate slav­ery thing, “oh wasn’t that ter­ri­ble but you know there were Irish slaves too”). All of these iden­ti­ties scan the same in the big old melt­ing pot of Amer­i­ca. It’s fine for the broad sweep of his­to­ry of a museum’s name but feels cold­ly inad­e­quate when we’re watch­ing a hash­tag trend for yet anoth­er Black per­son shot on the street. When the mega­phone crack­les out “Whose lives mat­ter?!?” the answer is “Black Lives Mat­ter!” and you know every­one in the crowd is shout­ing the first word with a cap­i­tal B.

Turn­ing to Google: The Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review has a nice piece on the nuances involved in cap­i­tal­iza­tion, “Black and white: why cap­i­tal­iza­tion mat­ters.” This 2000 lec­ture abstract by Robert S. Wachal flat-out states that “the fail­ure to cap­i­tal­ize Black when it is syn­ony­mous with African Amer­i­can is a mat­ter of unin­tend­ed racism,” deli­cious­ly adding “to put the best pos­si­ble face on it.” In 2014, The NYTimes pub­lished Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty prof Lori L. Tharps ’s con­vinc­ing argu­ment, “The Case for Black With a Cap­i­tal B.” If you want to go his­tor­i­cal, this thread on shift­ing terms by Ken Greeen­wald on a 2004 Word­wiz­ard forum is pure gold.

And with that I’ll open up the com­ment thread.

  • Jen­nie Southard Hunt

    I’m an ele­men­tary school librar­i­an at a school where more than 70% of our stu­dents are African Amer­i­can, and they are strug­gling with what to call them­selves. Kids are com­ing to the same school with dif­fer­ent infor­ma­tion and strong feel­ings from home. Some kids want to be called black, and oth­ers con­sid­er it insult­ing. Like­wise, some of the more woke kids are try­ing to fig­ure out where col­or fits into their larg­er life. My daugh­ter, a fifth grad­er at this school, told me that one of her class­mates asked for a cau­casian piece of paper. I appre­ci­ate the kid’s attempt at sophis­ti­ca­tion, even if she did have to explain to sev­er­al kids of vary­ing skin hues what that meant. As for myself (mid­dle age, mid­dle class white lady), I try to stay away from using racial iden­ti­ty terms at school at all, but I won­der if that fur­ther com­pli­cates the problem.