To B, or not to b? Why capitalize the 'B' in Black? | Matters of Fact
It's been a tumultuous couple of years. Big upsets, little upsets. And one very tiny one. Maybe 2 millimeters — about the size of a caviar bead. But little things can have big implications.
It's the difference between B, and b. Black, and black.
In summer 2020, in response to the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, mainstream media did — virtually overnight — what it had resisted for decades. Henceforth, it was decreed by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and many other media outlets (including this one), the adjective "black" would be capitalized. An historic Black neighborhood, not an historic black neighborhood.
White, meanwhile — in most outlets — would continue to be white.
"We believe this style best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the peoples and communities we cover," read a July 2020 memo to New York Times staffers, announcing the change.
More significantly, the Associated Press — whose stylebook is the usage guide for many of the nation's newspapers — also announced on June 19, 2020 that uppercase Black was its recommended style. The USA TODAY network — of which this newspaper is a part — announced the same thing June 14, making it one of the first.
"The USA TODAY Network," they said, "will join other media outlets, such as the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times and BuzzFeed, who are listening to Black readers (and) employees."
The change was as essential, and overdue, for some readers, as it was confounding and off-putting to others.
For one group, seeing "Black" represented by the small b had been an irritant — and an insult — each time it appeared in print (most popular Black media outlets have used the uppercase B since the late 1960s).
For the other group, seeing the B capitalized and the w in lower-case gave the game away.
Obviously — to these readers — Black was now to be accorded a respect that white was not.
“I was outraged that Gannett has borrowed an editorial practice from the NYT — i.e., capitalizing 'black' while still using lower case for 'white,' “ wrote one reader, in response to a Record article. “I would be interested to hear what your editorial board's rationale is for purposely offending a large percentage of its readership, if it isn't a mere capitulation to the PC police.”
That's mild, compared to some of what has come into Michael McCarter's mailbag. He's the managing editor for standards, ethics and inclusion for USA TODAY. It was he who drafted the editorial announcing USA TODAY's new policy.
"One response was, Since you have decided to capitalize the B in Black, why don't you capitalize the N in you-know-what," McCarter said.
For USA TODAY, as most other news outlets, the change didn't come out of the blue.
It had been a matter of debate for years, McCarter said. The National Association of Black Journalists had been urging it. George Floyd just brought it to a head.
"We felt an urgency, just like many other outlets, to recognize what many were marching about," McCarter said. "Which was about wanting to be recognized, and heard, and understood."
For what it's worth, most editors who until 2020 had resisted the change would have probably said they were doing it for semantic — not political — reasons.
Italian, Armenian, Japanese are proper names of specific nationalities. So is African American. There has never been a question about capitalizing that.
But "Black" didn't seem to fit into that kind of box. There is no country of "Black." Black was not a single, monolithic culture, the way that Ghanian, Ethiopian, and so on, are specific national cultures. To capitalize it went against the editorial grain.
On the contrary, said the big B advocates: Black is the only proper name for a diverse group of people (Jamaicans aren't "African American") who — due to the tragic history of slavery and racism — often can't claim their original heritage.
What they have in common is a social construct: "Blackness."
For white people, it was a tool to oppress and stigmatize. To Black folks, it was an emblem of solidarity — as key to identity as Welsh is to someone from Wales. Therefore, capital B: Black.
"I understand that I am a displaced person," said Khadijah White, associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, who teaches courses on race, class, gender and media.
"Being a displaced person, that basically means you often don't feel you have a nation — particularly in a country where race alienates you on a daily basis," she said. "Black is key to creating a cohesive identity, for a people who have had a lot stolen from them."
Many descriptors, commonly capitalized, are neither national nor personal names, she points out. Catholic. Jewish. Southern.
Beyond this, we the affected people — not newspaper editors — should get to say what we are called. End of story.
"For me, it's almost a simple question," White said. "Should people be able to create their own identities?"
But in that case, what about capitalizing white?
Ah — the plot thickens.
There is one group very definitely on board with capitalizing white: white nationalists.
Their justification for the capital W, in their pronouncements, reads like a parody of the progressives. Since white people are now — they would argue — an oppressed minority, at the mercy of other races and their liberal enablers, the capitalized White is an emblem of solidarity for descendants of the English, Scots-Irish, and whoever else is considered "white" these days (Irish, in the 19th century, were not).
It is for precisely this reason — the overtones of racism and white nationalism — that most editors have been leery of capitalizing the w, although CNN, Fox News, The Washington Post and The San Diego Union-Tribune have opted for capitalizing both.
"Capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs," said the AP's John Daniszewski.
Care to go further down the rabbit hole? There are progressives who would also argue that the B and the W should both be capitalized. Only for them, it's in the name of racial justice.
Just as capital-B Black suggests a shared culture of struggle, so capital-W White reminds us that all white people belong to a privileged group. So seeing "White" with a capital W is a good thing. It should make us think.
"In my writings, I do capitalize both," said Jason R. Ambroise, history professor at William Paterson University in Wayne. "It highlights for me that race is ultimately the primary way we experience ourselves in the United States. It cuts to the heart of it."
These questions, for what it's worth, aren't new.
Back in the 1920s, W.E.B. Du Bois was urging newspapers to capitalize the N in Negro — then the accepted term for African Americans. The New York Times resisted for years, then capitulated in 1930. “Not merely a typographical change,” said the Times stylebook that year, but “an act in recognition of racial self-respect.”
Even then, not everyone claiming to speak for the Black community was on board with this.
In 1937, George Schuyler, the controversial star columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier — probably the most admired Black newspaper of its day — broke with his own paper and wrote a brief against capitalization.
"Negro clearly belongs with blonde, brunette…and such descriptive terms, and has no stronger claim on capitalization," he wrote. He also saw, in the capitalized "Negro," overtones of an Indian caste mentality. "When we eagerly accept it as a group designation," he wrote in 1943, "we are accepting all the 'racial' nonsense of Hitler, Bilbo (Theodore Bilbo, the segregationist Mississippi senator), and the myriads who believe as they do."
To this day, not all Black scholars and journalists are in lockstep about Black.
Some still see it as imprecise. Others feel the capital B adds to the consuming racial self-consciousness — on all sides — that is tearing America apart.
Some worry that it's just a cosmetic change — an easy fix for newspapers, earning them points for "inclusion" without the hard work of diversifying the staff and the coverage. And some are simply leery of labels.
"I don't want to be formally designated in a racialized way," said Juliette Harris, an independent editor and writer from Hampton Va., who has created a website, Who Are We?, dedicated entirely to this issue. "You should not refer to me as capital B Black. No way."
She's not a dyed-in-the-wool anti-capper, she said. She just feels that the big-B, small-b question should be fluid — left to context, and the preference of the individual writer.
"Why can't we do this?" she said. "I know there is a principle of journalistic consistency. But there are situations where consistency would be inconsistent.
She thinks the average Black reader — our cap, not Harris's — intuits a lot. "They understand that some people want to capitalize Black out of pride. Some people don't. Black people have become very flexible, in terms of how we think of ourselves and relate to the rest of the world."
'What's our style?'
Such a plan would probably be a non-starter with most news outlets, whose instinct is to codify, and standardize. But then what?
If capitalizing the B, and leaving the w in its shrunken state, is an “acknowledgment of the long-standing inequities that have existed in our country,” as the Chicago Sun-Times put it, what about other injustices?
"Shouldn’t we also have ‘Women’ and ‘men’, ‘Gay’ and ‘straight’, ‘Poor and rich’, etc? " asked Peter Franklin, writing in the iconoclastic British website Unherd. "This whole idea, which is bound to spread to Britain before long, is pointlessly divisive."
In the end, it probably all comes down to worldview.
For some people, race is the basic reality of American life. For them, the racial descriptor — Black, and maybe white — should be capitalized. It is key to identity.
For other people, race is, or should be, less important. Such people are liable to view the capital B as racial over-sensitivity, and the newspapers that adopt the style as pandering.
Some of those people, it's possible, have never been followed around in a department store, never been reprimanded because of a hairstyle, never had to wonder whether wearing a hoodie would get them killed.
"There are so many stigmas to being Black, and capitalizing the B in a way is like a balm, a way of assuaging that pain," Harris said.
Bottom line, this is an emotional issue — more, perhaps, than a grammatical one. And there are emotions on both sides. Clearly, there are white readers who don't enjoy seeing that capital B, with all the tiny w's bowing before it, like Joseph's brothers in the Bible. Over-sensitivity cuts both ways.
"Why are these critics' egos so fragile?" Ambroise said. "It's ironic."
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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