The Atlantic

Should the b in black, as a designation for people of African descent, be uppercase? Media outlets and other institutions are asking themselves that question these days, and many are answering in the affirmative. But the reasons given for why can sometimes be perplexing—in a way that reveals larger perplexities about the meaning of race.

Everyone knows that black people aren’t literally black. Plenty of white Americans are darker in complexion—look at your olive-skinned friends of Mediterranean or Armenian extraction—than plenty of black Americans. If Kim Kardashian, the media personality and entrepreneur, counts as white while Maulana Karenga, the radical activist and creator of Kwanzaa, counts as black, it isn’t because he’s darker than she is. So the color term is a poor metonym for the group in question.

And there’s plainly a rationale for capitalizing black in order to head off ambiguity (what am I referring to when I refer to “black hair”?). For many advocates of the uppercase, though, the stakes are far greater. “Black with a capital ‘B’ refers to a group of people whose ancestors were born in Africa, were brought to the United States against their will, spilled their blood, sweat and tears to build this nation into a world power and along the way managed to create glorious works of art, passionate music, scientific discoveries, a marvelous cuisine, and untold literary masterpieces,” Lori L. Tharps, who teaches journalism at Temple University, wrote in 2015. “When a copyeditor deletes the capital ‘B,’ they are in effect deleting the history and contributions of my people.” Or as Anne Price, the president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, put it last year: “capitalizing Black is about claiming power.” When W. E. B. Du Bois campaigned, back in the 1920s, for Negro, rather than negro, he remarked, mordantly: “Eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.” According to the diversity committee of USA Today, which decided last week to capitalize the B-word, the change reflected “understanding and respect.”

What complicates things is that, as a rule, capitalizing a word doesn’t convey elevation: We don’t rank Masonite over mahogany. Written languages are not highly consistent, to be sure, so we generalize at some peril. But in English, the long-standing convention is to capitalize proper nouns and proper names, which are terms that refer to what philosophers call “particulars” or “individuals”—a specific person, place, or thing. We routinely name and capitalize entities (the Middle Ages, January, the Pacific Ocean, Copenhagen) that reflect human interests or actions. On the other hand, we tend not to capitalize “natural kinds”—that is, categories that track with inherent features of the world, independent of our interests or doings. Einstein, the physicist, is capitalized; einsteinium, the element, is not.

A good reason to capitalize the racial designation “black,” then, is precisely that black, in this sense, is not a natural category but a social one—a collective identity—with a particular history. (“Race is psychology, not biology” is a formulation Du Bois once offered.) What’s more, the very label “black” plays a role in generating that identity.

That’s how social identities work. The specific labels can shift over time (Negro, colored, Afro-American), but they help to bring into existence the group to which they refer. A pack of gray wolves exists regardless of our naming practices; they don’t need to know that they’re “gray wolves.” But to be black involves (among other things) identifying as black or being identified as black—usually both. Identity labels come with norms, and so a black person sometimes does things as a black person, is sometimes treated as a black person. (Because that treatment has its effects on you whether you like it or not, your race isn’t generally up to just you.) Social identities aren’t reducible to a label, but labels play a role in generating and sustaining them.

Conventions of capitalization can help signal that races aren’t natural categories, to be discovered in the world, but products of social forces. Giving black a big B could signal that it’s not a generic term for some feature of humanity but a name for a particular human-made entity. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born, but rather becomes, black—and the same goes for all of our social identities.

So what about white folks? The style guide of the American Psychological Association declares, as it has for a generation: “Racial and ethnic groups are designated by proper nouns and are capitalized. Therefore, use ‘Black’ and ‘White’ instead of ‘black’ and ‘white.’” That seems sensible enough. But for some people, White is the sticking point. As The American Heritage Dictionary (on whose usage panel, now disbanded, I have served) ventured, in its fourth edition: “In all likelihood, uncertainty as to the mode of styling of white has dissuaded many publications from adopting the capitalized form Black.”

If you consider the capital letter to be a conferral of dignity, you may balk at the symmetry. “We strongly believe that leaving white in lowercase represents a righting of a long-standing wrong and a demand for dignity and racial equity,” Price, of the Insight Center, wrote. Until the wrongs against black people have been righted, she continued, “we cannot embrace equal treatment in our language.” The capital letter, in her view, amounts to cultural capital—a benefit that white people should be awarded only after white supremacy has been rolled back.

Luke Visconti, the chairman of the nonprofit DiversityInc and the author of an online column titled “Ask the White Guy,” has offered another perspective: In his opinion, capitalizing black but not white makes sense, because, while black people describe themselves as black, “people in the white majority don’t think of themselves in that way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this—it’s just how it is.”

Both perspectives may have informed The Seattle Times when, counseled by a diversity and inclusion task force, it updated its style guide last year as follows:

Black (adj.): Belonging to people who are part of the African diaspora. Capitalize Black because it is a reflection of shared cultures and experiences (foods, languages, music, religious traditions, etc.) …

white (adj.): Belonging to people with light-colored skin, especially those of European descent. Unlike Black, it is lowercase, as its use is a physical description of people whose backgrounds may spring from many different cultures.

Here, I fear, we start to run into trouble. The Seattle Times style guide takes pains to note that Black may be more inclusive than African American by encompassing recent African immigrants. So what to make of the contrast between the “shared cultures” of Black folks and the “many different cultures” of white folks? Does The Seattle Times imagine that Africa is less culturally varied than Europe? To what extent is blackness, as a social identity, really contoured by culture? The NYPD officers who shot Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, did not care whether their victim’s foods, languages, music, and religious traditions were similar to those of most African Americans. Barack Obama may, culturally speaking, have far more in common with his white Harvard Law School classmates than with someone from the Gullah community of the Georgia Low Country. (Elsewhere in the diaspora, the black British cabinet member Kwasi Kwarteng will have less in common with Magic Johnson than with his fellow Etonian Boris Johnson.) But perhaps talk of culture is a distraction. The Chicago Sun-Times recently announced that it would capitalize Brown as well as Black, and Brown—which has been used to designate Arabs, South Asians, and Latinos—is neither a culture nor a salient social category. The main experience that African Americans share is being treated as African American. That experience arises from this identity, not vice versa, because without the concept of black, you can’t be treated as black. Once we do have the notion of black people as an identity group, we can freely talk about cultural practices and experiences common among its members. But we can’t start with the culture and experiences and derive the identity.

What about Visconti’s argument that white people don’t think of themselves as white people? If he were right—and he isn’t—we could still ask: Should it be that way? It’s true that white people have the luxury of not thinking of themselves as white when they’re in all-white settings; the less that’s the norm, the less they can think of race as something that only other people have—the way talk of  “ethnic” food suggests that ethnicity is a property only “ethnics” have.

And so the way the Seattle Times style guide treats whiteness as an objective feature of populations is unsettling. “People of light-colored skin, especially of European descent”: the equivocal force of “especially” leaves unclear whether white could apply, say, to a pale-skinned Japanese person. We know better only because we have a prior notion of who counts as white, a prior sense of white people as an identity group. By treating Black as a name and white as a fact, the style guide would exempt white people from history—a rather troubling history at that.

As a generation of work in “whiteness studies”—by scholars such as Nell Painter, David Roediger, and Noel Ignatiev—has emphasized, “white” arises as a racial designation only in contradistinction to other racial designations (the “blackamoor,” the “red man,” and so on). Without the theory and practice of racism, there are neither blacks nor whites.

Nor did whiteness arrive as some fully formed and stable social category. Madison Grant’s 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, perhaps the most influential racist tract of the previous century, was scarcely concerned with people of African ancestry: The threat to American racial purity it decried came from the wrong sort of Europeans. In his day, Jewish and southern-European immigrants hardly qualified as white. They were members of the Semitic and Mediterranean races whose intermingling with the Nordic stock of “true” Americans would result—as a 1922 volume by a Saturday Evening Post contributor warned—in a “hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America and Southeastern Europe.” Such European immigrants, over the decades, became “white,” in a historical process driven, in large part, by their not being black.

When we ignore the dialectical relation between the labels “black” and “white,” we treat a bloodstained product of history as a neutral, objective fact about the world. We naturalize the workings of racism. More than a few institutions have been mindful of this peril. This spring, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, in a statement by two nonwhite staff members, announced that it would follow the American Psychological Association’s style rules, and helpfully elaborated its reasoning:

To not name ‘White’ as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard … We believe that it is important to call attention to White as a race as a way to understand and give voice to how Whiteness functions in our social and political institutions and our communities. Moreover, the detachment of ‘White’ as a proper noun allows White people to sit out of conversations about race and removes accountability from White people’s and White institutions’ involvement in racism.

The point of the capital letter, then, isn’t to elevate; it’s to situate. “White Americans deserve their capital letter too,” Tharps says magnanimously, “but I’m not here to fight their battles.” Perhaps a stronger argument would be that white people don’t deserve a lowercase w and shouldn’t be allowed to claim it. One reason that the MIT philosopher Sally Haslanger prefers to capitalize the names of races is, she explains, “to highlight the artificiality of race,” by contrast to the seeming naturalness of color. A larger argument lurks here: Racial identities were not discovered but created, she’s reminding us, and we must all take responsibility for them. Don’t let them disguise themselves as common nouns and adjectives. Call them out by their names.

That’s not the end of the conversation, of course. White-supremacist websites have been known to capitalize the w in white; by doing the same, do we lend them support? You could argue that it’s the other way round: If the capitalization of white became standard among anti-racists, the supremacists’ gesture would no longer be a provocative defiance of the norm and would lose all force. Supremacists would have to find another way to ennoble themselves. Who knows, maybe they’d find empowerment in the (soon to be) provocatively lowercase form of the word.

A final word of caution: Reasoned arguments about linguistic usages must always reckon with the fact that language is a set of conventions, to be determined by the consensus of language users. (That’s why I’ve been content here to comply with the punctuating conventions of this publication.) There’s no objectively correct answer to the question of whether to capitalize black and white in advance of such a consensus. Sure, if you’re a popular autocrat, like Atatürk, you might be able to modernize a language by diktat. But in this country, the process of language reform is complicated. It’s not exactly grassroots democracy; some voices count more than others, and people usually leave typographical niceties to the expert associations concerned with them. What vox populi retains is veto power. A century ago, the editors of one black magazine decided that Negroes would be renamed “Libranians,” from the Latin liber, meaning “free.” It didn’t take. Nor had earlier candidates such as Anglo-African and Africo-American. A reason the ethnonym African American did take, starting in the late 1980s, was the endorsement of high-profile black Americans, notably Jesse Jackson. At the time, the term didn’t necessarily sit well with many black Americans, especially older ones, used to insisting correctly that they did not personally come from Africa; but the mainstream media came onboard and, before long, it gained wide acceptance. Critics have tried to discredit the gender-neutral coinage Latinx  by noting that, despite the enthusiasm for it among activists, most of those it designates don’t go for it. Give it time. We can’t yet tell whether the term will gain broader popularity or, perhaps, be supplanted by another.

Arguments matter; but only the arguments that win the day will determine what usages become standard, and it’s hard to say in advance which ones that will be. Informal deliberations among a larger community of users will produce a new consensus, and create new facts of language. Words are public property; so are capital letters. As those deliberations continue, though, let’s try to remember that black and white are both historically created racial identities—and avoid conventions that encourage us to forget this.

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