Questions of racial justice and equity have occupied—as they should—a large role in our national discourse of late. A long-overdue examination of the embedded biases and structural inequities in our society is taking place. Among the many such examinations is the exploration of how our use of language supports or reinforces racial inequity. In one particular instance, writers have wondered whether it is appropriate to capitalize the terms black and white when they refer to race.
Interestingly, there does not appear to be a consensus on whether to capitalize the terms, so we’ll take a look at the different positions and see if we can come to any conclusions.
On Not Capitalizing Black
For a long time, many prominent style guides did not require the capitalization of the word black when referring to race. The Associated Press stylebook recommended the use of lowercase black up until very recently. When asked why, one AP stylebook editor responded that AP uses the lowercase black “primarily because it reflects a common language usage found in newspapers and magazines.”1https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2003/black-black-or-african-american/
That is, because everyone is using the lowercase version, we recommend doing likewise.
Now, as a writing site with a strong linguistics bent, we generally support the idea that common usage should be a guide. However, there are always cases where common usage is the result of a lack of change, and the lack of change may simply be inertia, and it is worth asking how the standard practice was established in the first place. It may turn out that the basis for such a decision no longer applies.
On Capitalizing Black
The summer of 2020 proved to be an occasion for reassessing many decisions involving race and the way race is portrayed in media. The murder of George Floyd prompted a national reckoning on systemic racism and the ways that racism is embedded in our social structures. It should not come as a surprise that many publishers rethought the capitalization of Black.
The word black is doing more than describing skin tone—which it does fairly inaccurately in any event; African American skin tones are brown—it is describing a people and a culture. The Black experience and Black culture are distinct and valuable phenomena in American society. They deserve the same respect we would give to any other cultural group: Asian, European, Hispanic, Latino, and so on.
Those who argue for capitalizing Black point out that Black “refers to not just a color but signifies a history and the racial identity of Black Americans.”2https://cssp.org/2020/03/recognizing-race-in-language-why-we-capitalize-black-and-white/ As writer and professor Lori L. Tharps argues, “Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.”
A similar sensibility was seen more than a century ago, when in 1889, American sociologist W.E.B Dubois pushed back against writing “Negro” with a lowercase n. Dubois wrote, “Eight million Americans deserve a capital letter.”3Ibid.
Perhaps the most instructive guide is the fact that the majority of Black publications capitalize Black—and it is always a good rule to identify people the way they want to be identified.
On Not Capitalizing White
In the same statement announcing the capitalization of Black going forward, the AP noted that it would not be capitalizing the word white when referring to race or identity.
Part of that decision is based on the notion that the word white does not “represent a shared culture and history the way Black does,” as the New York Times noted in its own decision to capitalize Black. As goes the New York Times, so go a number of leading publications, including the Columbia Journalism Review, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, NBC News, and the Chicago Tribune.4https://apnews.com/article/entertainment-cultures-race-and-ethnicity-us-news-ap-top-news-7e36c00c5af0436abc09e051261fff1f And as we’ve seen, the AP tends to follow usage rather than lead it.
There is another reason many give for not capitalizing white—doing so is what white supremacists do. Some fear that capitalizing white the way that white supremacists do risks subtly affirming morally repugnant beliefs.
On Capitalizing White
But it may be the case that not capitalizing white plays into notions of white supremacy even more.
One of the great challenges with white supremacy and white privilege is the way that whiteness fades into the background as an identity. “White” is equated with “normal” and does not need to be pointed out—only non-whiteness does. (If you doubt this, try telling others a story about a person of color without mentioning their race. Chances are that your listeners will be surprised to discover that the person you were talking about was not white. Most of us assume that individuals are white unless we’re told something to the contrary.)
To not name “White” as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard. In sociologist Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, she writes, “White people get to be ‘just people,’” without having their race named, whereas people of color are often described with their race.”5CSSP, above
To the extent that lowercase white plays into this, advocates argue, it continues this inequitable system. Capitalizing White, on the other hand, calls attention to Whiteness and how it functions in our social, political, and cultural systems. When lowercase white is used as a mere adjective, it has a way of allowing White people to sit out of conversations about race.
In response to the critique that White is the province of White Supremacists, advocates for capitalizing White note that doing so draws attention to racial inequity and that doing so is the best way to combat White Supremacy.
Additionally, it is often noted that there is no better way to rob a term of its power than to use it in generic, ordinary, broad contexts. There’s a reason why the makers of Lego™ Building Blocks don’t want you to call their toys Legos, or that copier makers don’t want you to xerox a document, or tissue makers don’t want you to ask for a kleenex: doing so robs them of their exclusive use of those terms. Suddenly, they can be used for more than the original, proprietary use.
Perhaps the same can be done with White. Perhaps when we use the capitalized term, we can draw attention to the ways that Whiteness has occupied a powerful role in our society, and simultaneously rob it of some of that power.
Ultimately, the question of whether we should capitalize the words Black and White when it comes to race isn’t a question of grammar or style; it’s a question about the kind of equity we want to see in our world.