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.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: What This Cruel War Was Over

Coates lays out the sick and twist­ed her­itage of a sym­bol:

The Con­fed­er­ate flag is direct­ly tied to the Con­fed­er­ate cause, and the Con­fed­er­ate cause was white suprema­cy. This claim is not the result of revi­sion­ism. It does not require read­ing between the lines. It is the plain mean­ing of the words of those who bore the Con­fed­er­ate flag across his­to­ry. These words must nev­er be for­got­ten. Over the next few months the word “her­itage” will be repeat­ed­ly invoked. It would be derelict to not exam­ine the exact con­tents of that heritage.

As usu­al, Coates does a great job look­ing at the chang­ing myths sur­round­ing South­ern White Suprema­cy. A rebel­lion that explic­it­ly start­ed as a defense of slav­ery shift­ed to more polite alter­na­tive myths over 150 years but it’s still real­ly about racism and human bondage. The flag needs to come down.

This mythol­o­gy of man­ners is adopt­ed in lieu of the mythol­o­gy of the Lost Cause. But it still has the great draw­back of being root­ed in a lie. The Con­fed­er­ate flag should not come down because it is offen­sive to African Amer­i­cans. The Con­fed­er­ate flag should come down because it is embar­rass­ing to all Americans.

Testimonies are important because…


Yes­ter­day Friends Jour­nal asked its Face­book and Twit­ter fol­low­ers to fin­ish the sen­tence “Tes­ti­monies are impor­tant because they are ___.” Here’s a word cloud of their answers. This sur­vey comes from Eric Moon’s arti­cle, “Cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly Not the Tes­ti­monies,” in the June/July issue.

Share my offendedness (pleeeaaase)

Some­times I see blog posts that make me real­ly sad at the state of jour­nal­ism. Phi­ly­Mag is the lat­est but you have the fol­low the daisy-chain of ramped-up hyper­bole back just to make see how ridicu­lous it is.

The restau­rant chain Red Robin recent­ly made a fifteen-second TV ad whose joke is that its veggie-burgers are per­fect for cus­tomers whose teenage daugh­ters are “going through a phase.” It’s had rather lim­it­ed air­play (it’s the 450th or so most run ad in the past 30 days) but still, Busi­ness Insid­er ran a piece on it which claimed that “the chain man­aged to insult all poten­tial veg­e­tar­i­an and veg­an cus­tomers” with the ad. For evi­dence, it cit­ed three mild com­ments on Red Robin’s Face­book page. Fair enough.

But then the page-view-whores at Huff­in­g­ton Post saw the BI piece and wrote that Red Robin is “under fire for diss­ing veg­e­tar­i­ans,” still cit­ing just those Face­book com­ments. Under fire? For three comments?

Sens­ing fresh (veg­gie?) meat, Philly­mag links to Huff­Post to claim that ”veg­e­tar­i­ans and veg­ans far and wide are freak­ing out” and that a boy­cott has been declared. The author tells us that “‘Offend­ed’ gets tossed around so rapid­ly” and it must be true, right?, as she uses it three more times just in her open­ing para­graph. It’s a pity that none of the three Face­book com­menters were con­sid­er­ate enough to actu­al­ly use the words “out­rage” or “boy­cott.” One described the ad as “dis­ap­point­ing” (ouch!). Anoth­er used the word “dis­sat­is­fied” (zing!), though he was speak­ing not about the ad per se but rather a recent vis­it to the restaurant.

Seems like if there is an epi­dem­ic of offended-ness going on, we might take a look at the des­per­a­tion of what pass­es for mod­ern jour­nal­ism these days. Offended-ness must get page views, so why not be offend­ed at being offend­ed? (I imag­ine some hack fur­ther down the pageview food chain is right now read­ing the Philly­mag piece and typ­ing out a head­line about the world­wide veg­an army issu­ing a fat­wa on the teenage daugh­ters of Red Roof exec­u­tives.) Is this real­ly the kind of crap that peo­ple like to share on Face­book? Do Inter­net users just not fol­low links back­ward to judge if there’s any truth to out­rage posts on out­rage? I usu­al­ly ignore this kind of junk even to read past the ridicu­lous head­line. But the phe­nom­e­non is all too ubiq­ui­tous on the inter­webs these days and is real­ly so unnec­es­sar­i­ly divi­sive and stereotype-perpetuating.

Testimonies for twentieth-first century: a Testimony Against “Community”

I pro­pose a lit­tle amend­ment to the mod­ern Quak­er tes­ti­monies. I think it’s time for a mora­to­ri­um of the word “com­mu­ni­ty” and the phras­es “faith com­mu­ni­ty” and “com­mu­ni­ty of faith.” Through overuse, we Friends have stretched this phrase past its elas­tic­i­ty point and it’s snapped. It’s become a mean­ing­less, abstract term used to dis­guise the fact that we’ve become afraid to artic­u­late a shared faith. A recent year­ly meet­ing newslet­ter used the word “com­mu­ni­ty” 27 times but the word “God” only sev­en: what does it mean when a reli­gious body stops talk­ing about God?

The “tes­ti­mo­ny of com­mu­ni­ty” recent­ly cel­e­brat­ed its fifti­eth anniver­sary. It was the cen­ter­piece of the new-and-improved tes­ti­monies Howard Brin­ton unveiled back in the 1950s in his Friends for 300 Years (as far as I know no one ele­vat­ed it to a tes­ti­mo­ny before him). Born into a well-known Quak­er fam­i­ly, he mar­ried into an even more well-known fam­i­ly. From the cra­dle Howard and his wife Anna were Quak­er aris­toc­ra­cy. As they trav­eled the geo­graph­ic and the­o­log­i­cal spec­trum of Friends, their pedi­gree earned them wel­come and recog­ni­tion every­where they went. Per­haps not sur­pris­ing­ly, Howard grew up to think that the only impor­tant cri­te­ria for mem­ber­ship in a Quak­er meet­ing is one’s com­fort lev­el with the oth­er mem­bers. “The test of mem­ber­ship is not a par­tic­u­lar kind of reli­gious expe­ri­ence, nor accep­tance of any par­tic­u­lar reli­gious, social or eco­nom­ic creed,” but instead one’s “com­pat­i­bil­i­ty with the meet­ing com­mu­ni­ty.” ( Friends for 300 Years page 127).

So what is “com­pat­i­bil­i­ty”? It often boils down to being the right “kind” of Quak­er, with the right sort of behav­ior and val­ues. At most Quak­er meet­ings, it means being exceed­ing­ly polite, white, upper-middle class, polit­i­cal­ly lib­er­al, well-educated, qui­et in con­ver­sa­tion, and devoid of strong opin­ions about any­thing involv­ing the meet­ing. Quak­ers are a homoge­nous bunch and it’s not coin­ci­dence: for many of us, it’s become a place to find peo­ple who think like us.

But the desire to fit in cre­ates its own inse­cu­ri­ty issues. I was in a small “break­out” group at a meet­ing retreat a few years ago where six of us shared our feel­ings about the meet­ing. Most of these Friends had been mem­bers for years, yet every sin­gle one of them con­fid­ed that they didn’t think they real­ly belonged. They were too loud, too col­or­ful, too eth­nic, maybe sim­ply too too for Friends. They all judged them­selves against some image of the ide­al Quak­er – per­haps the ghost of Howard Brin­ton. We rein our­selves in, stop our­selves from say­ing too much.

This phe­nom­e­non has almost com­plete­ly end­ed the sort of prophet­ic min­istry once com­mon to Friends, where­by a min­is­ter would chal­lenge Friends to renew their faith and clean up their act. Today, as one per­son recent­ly wrote, mod­ern Quak­ers often act as if avoid­ance of con­tro­ver­sy is at the cen­ter of our reli­gion. That makes sense if “com­pat­i­bil­i­ty” is our test for mem­ber­ship and “com­mu­ni­ty” our only stat­ed goal. While Friends love to claim the great eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry min­is­ter John Wool­man, he would most like­ly get a cold shoul­der in most Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es today. His reli­gious moti­va­tion and lan­guage, cou­pled with his some­times eccen­tric pub­lic wit­ness and his overt call to reli­gious reform would make him very incom­pat­i­ble indeed. Some­times we need to name the ways we aren’t fol­low­ing the Light: for Friends, Christ is not just com­forter, but judger and con­dem­n­er as well. Heavy stuff, per­haps, but nec­es­sary. And near-impossible when a com­fy and non-challenging com­mu­ni­ty is our pri­ma­ry mission.

Don’t get me wrong. I like com­mu­ni­ty. I like much of the non-religious cul­ture of Friends: the potlucks, the do-it-yourself approach to music and learn­ing, our curi­ousi­ty about oth­er reli­gious tra­di­tions. And I like the open­ness and tol­er­ance that is the hall­mark of mod­ern lib­er­al­ism in gen­er­al and lib­er­al Quak­erism in par­tic­u­lar. I’m glad we’re Queer friend­ly and glad we don’t get off on tan­gents like who mar­ries who (the far big­ger issue is the sor­ry state of our meet­ings’ over­sight of mar­riages, but that’s for anoth­er time). And for all my rib­bing of Howard Brin­ton, I agree with him that we should be care­ful of the­o­log­i­cal lit­mus tests for mem­ber­ship. I under­stand where he was com­ing from. All that said, com­mu­ni­ty for its own sake can’t be the glue that holds a reli­gious body together.

So my Tes­ti­mo­ny Against “Com­mu­ni­ty” is not a rejec­tion of the idea of com­mu­ni­ty, but rather a call to put it into con­text. “Com­mu­ni­ty” is not the goal of the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends. Obe­di­ence to God is. We build our insti­tu­tions to help us gath­er as a great peo­ple who togeth­er can dis­cern the will of God and fol­low it through what­ev­er hard­ships the world throws our way.

Plen­ty of peo­ple know this. Last week I asked the author of one of the arti­cles in the year­ly meet­ing newslet­ter why he had used “com­mu­ni­ty” twice but “God” not at all. He said he per­son­al­ly sub­sti­tutes “body of Christ” every­time he writes or reads “com­mu­ni­ty.” That’s fine, but how are we going to pass on Quak­er faith if we’re always using lowest-common-denominator language?

We’re such a lit­er­ate peo­ple but we go sur­pris­ing­ly mute when we’re asked to share our reli­gious under­stand­ings. We need to stop being afraid to talk with one anoth­er, hon­est­ly and with the lan­guage we use. I’ve seen Friends go out of their way to use lan­guage from oth­er tra­di­tions, espe­cial­ly Catholic or Bud­dhist, to state a basic Quak­er val­ue. I fear that we’ve dumb­ed down our own tra­di­tion so much that we’ve for­got­ten that it has the robust­ness to speak to our twenty-first cen­tu­ry conditions.


Relat­ed Essays

I talk about what a bold Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty of faith might look like and why we need one in my essay on the “Emer­gent Church Move­ment” I talk about our fear of meet­ing uni­ty in “We’re all Ranters Now.”