Any grammar nerds out there?
While I am not (I just spelled “grammar” wrong before auto-correct stepped in), I still don’t like to be wrong. And, when it has come to writing about race in America, I have stumbled across a difficult capitalization situation. What are the rules for capitalizing racial terms? black and white? Black and White? Black and white?
The short answer is that what is “right” is undergoing change in real time. Look at these examples from history (aka, pre-2020):
In I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, author Austin Channing Brown capitalizes “Black” but not “white” or “whiteness:”
Jemar Tisby in The Color of Compromise doesn’t capitalize either:
Latasha Morrison in Be the Bridge capitalizes both:
So, even in the past three years there doesn’t seem to have been a consistent rule.
Well, then 2020 happened. George Floyd happened. And if we have learned anything about 2020 it’s that nothing is safe from change.
“A monthlong internal discussion at The Times led the paper on Tuesday to make, for similar reasons, its latest style change on race — capitalizing Black when describing people and cultures of African origin. We believe this style best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover,” said Dean Baquet.”
They asked the Associated Press to consider making the change as well.
And the AP did. On July 20 they said:
“After changing its usage rules last month to capitalize the word “Black” when used in the context of race and culture, The Associated Press on Monday said it would not do the same for “white.” The AP said white people in general have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”
Fox News clarified their official stance on capitalizing colors that designate Blacks as well as other racial groups,
“FOX News Media will capitalize “Black” when it is used as an adjective to describe people, a community or culture, the company announced on Monday…Other colors that are commonly used to describe a race, such as “White and “Brown,” also will be capitalized when used as adjectives, coinciding with the recommendation by the National Association of Black Journalists.”
So What Actually is Right?
Ultimately, knowing what the “correct” capitalization usage is comes down to staying on top of current events.
George Floyd’s murder was a literal turning point for National Association of Black Journalists, Fox News, the AP, the Times, and prominent news organizations. Pieces written from July 2020 onward will look different than those written pre-2020.
To me, following the lead of the NABJ makes the most sense as I try to consistently live by the value of listening to Black voices first on matters that concern Black Lives. And also, it’s just easier to be consistent: capitalize all the racial groups. Done. Settled. Though the implications of capitalization could be endlessly debated, I’m choosing that style for my blog posts. I’ll go back and change the ones that aren’t consistent and hope to be consistent from here on out.
But this is 2020 after all. Who knows what else will happen?
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