Koritha Mitchell writes extensively about race; through the years, she had gotten used to copy editors deleting the capital “B” in “Black” in her work.
Mitchell, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University who’s been working in academia since the early 2000s, has made a point to capitalize the B in recognition of an ethnic identity.
“Because lowercase ‘b’ was standard practice, doing otherwise usually required a struggle,” Mitchell, the author of “From Slave Cabins to the White House,” told HuffPost.
“When I was told that I would have to use capital W if I insisted upon capital B, I let it go,” she said.
As the professor saw it, there were bigger fish to fry when it comes to racial injustices than uppercase letters and “typographical equivalencies.”
But she knew it was more complicated than that: “I allowed myself to be content with how thoroughly I was representing the truth about the dynamism and dignity of Black people, even if the typography didn’t do it in every possible way.”
But this spring, amid nationwide protests about racial justice, everyone started talking about capitalizing Black.
A watershed moment came in June, when The Associated Press style guide ― which many newsrooms adhere to ― announced Black should be capitalized in “a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”
(The AP said it will now capitalize “Indigenous” in reference to the original inhabitants of a place, too.)
A majority of news outlets are now capitalizing Black, including this one and Fox News.
As race continues to dominate the national conversation, it’s worth digging into why a simple matter of typography is so meaningful. Sure, you could just start capitalizing Black ― that action isn’t just AP-approved, it’s culturally sensitive ― but the reasoning behind doing so matters.
As we make efforts to redress our past, simply erasing mistakes and oversights isn’t enough; we need to make an effort to understand the whys and the history that got us to this point.
Below, we unpack the arguments for capitalizing Black ― and explore the arguments for capitalizing “white” as well.
Why is it so important to capitalize ‘Black’?
Those who see the AP decision as superficial might argue that we should shift our focus; calls to end policy brutality and address institutionalized racism are obviously far more important. Correcting language may seem performative, a distraction from making real policy changes that impact Black Americans.
But two things can exist at once: We can fight for a more racially just America and fight for a more inclusive, racially aware language.
What’s more, there’s precedent for this: Capitalizing Black aligns with long-standing capitalization of other racial and ethnic identifiers such as Latino, Asian American and Native American, as the AP explained.
Writers of color and alternative style books have long stressed the need for capitalizing Black. Years before the AP decision, The Diversity Style Guide ― which is produced by San Francisco State University journalism professor Rachele Kanigel in consultation with some 50 journalists and experts ― recommended capitalizing Black.
“It’s true that Black, unlike African American, Asian American and Italian, is not derived from a proper noun,” she told HuffPost. “But it is an identity and to lowercase it robs Black people of a certain dignity.”
“To capitalize Black is to acknowledge that slavery 'deliberately stripped' people forcibly shipped overseas 'of all other ethnic/national ties.'”
“The widespread move by media organizations, universities and other institutions to capitalize Black restores this dignity to Black Americans, who have had so much taken from them for so many generations,” Kanigel said.
Alexandria Neason, a Columbia Journalism Review staff writer, said she “views the term Black as both a recognition of an ethnic identity in the States that doesn’t rely on hyphenated Americanness (and is more accurate than African American, which suggests recent ties to the continent) and is also transnational and inclusive of our Caribbean [and] Central/South American siblings.”
To capitalize Black, she explained in a blog post, is to acknowledge that slavery “deliberately stripped” people forcibly shipped overseas “of all other ethnic/national ties.”
Why is this a thing now? And what’s wrong with African American?
For people of African heritage scattered throughout the United States, what to call themselves has always been a question up for debate, said Prudence Layne, an associate professor of English at Elon University in North Carolina.
“We’ve seen the use of negro/Negro, Afro-Americans, African-Americans, blacks/Blacks,” she told HuffPost. “It is important to understand that the use of the term Black can be applied to persons in and outside the United States who choose to identify themselves in that way.”
There’s nothing wrong with African American. Some still choose to identify as Black and African American ― using them interchangeably. Others feel that “Black” is more inclusive to immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica or other Caribbean nations who don’t identity as African American even though their ancestors may have come from Africa centuries ago.
African American can also be a confusing term for people whose families immigrated from Nigeria, Ghana and other African nations in the past century, Kanigel said.
“They may see themselves as Nigerian Americans, Ghanaian Americans and so on.”
As for the issue of capitalization, this isn’t a new conversation. In his lifetime, sociologist and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois petitioned to get newspapers to capitalize the “N” in Negro — an argument over a different word, but one made in the same spirit.
“William B. DuBois wrote to the NY Times saying the lowercase was an insult and asking them to do otherwise,” said thandiwe Dee Watts-Jones, a psychologist and social justice advocate who writes about race. “That’s the thing when you have power: you control what is acceptable or not, what reaches the light of day, and what doesn’t.”
Why don’t we capitalize white?
Some media outlets, including The Washington Post ― have moved to capitalize white, too.
“Stories involving race show that White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States,” the paper wrote. “In American history, many White Europeans who entered the country during times of mass migration were the targets of racial and ethnic discrimination. These diverse ethnicities were eventually assimilated into the collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation. As such, White should be represented with a capital W.”
Capitalizing white, many argue, forces white people to see themselves as a racial group ― not just the default mode of experience.
The Center for the Study of Social Policy made a strong case for capitalizing white in March of this year, writing:
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.
Capitalizing white moves us toward being able to explicitly discuss the effects of whiteness without brushing them off, said Nicole Holliday, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.
“For example, we call some classes ‘Black History’ but the ones that focus on “white history” are just called ‘history,‘” she said. “That kind of erasure is an issue, because it continues to situate whiteness as ‘normal’ and everything else as ‘other.’”
Capitalizing white certainly doesn’t have widespread support, though, in part because white supremacist sites have also been known to capitalize the “w” in white.
“Capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs,” the AP said of its decision to leave white lowercase.
Some think it may do the opposite, as Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University suggested in the Atlantic in June.
“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,” he said.
For Mitchell, the argument for capitalizing white is understandable ― she wants to encourage white people to grapple with how they operate in a racial way, too; but she has her reservations, especially given how hard-won the fight to capitalize Black was.
“I’m not a fan of equating the terms via capitalization because, even though both whiteness and Blackness operate racially, there’s nothing equal about how,” she said. “I prefer more direct strategies for highlighting how whiteness works.”
Until those conversations become mainstream, she’s at least relieved that capitalizing B has become the norm.
“I’m thrilled that capitalizing B is no longer a fight,” she said. “I already have to fight on so many fronts.”
Kanigel, too, said she’s celebrating this win while also looking forward to more active, meaningful systemic changes, especially in the media industry.
“Media organizations have to make other, more significant, changes, including alterations in hiring practices, pay and promotion of Black people and other people of color,” she said. “They need to change the way they cover communities of color. This a positive step but it must not be the final step toward racial equity in media coverage.”