Black and white and Read All Over

In the wake of the George Floyd protests and the ensuing conversations about institutional racism, many publications changed their preferred style for describing people of African descent to “Black,” capitalized. The Associated Press said it was to convey an “essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black.” Many publications opted to leave “white” lowercase. But the tide is already turning on that front.

According to its Global Opinions editor, “The Washington Post will also capitalize the “W” in White, citing that “White is a distinct cultural identity in the United States…” and is a “collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation.” 

Put aside the fact that the Washington Post has readers and reporting subjects outside of America, and the stated reasoning seems particular to America. This is a bad idea for (primarily) a very simple reason: It’s not true that whites are a collective group or can be most usefully understood as acting as a group through history or in present politics. This style guidance reifies the false idea of white identitarians that there is a single meaningful interest and heritage that American whites share, that white is a more analytically useful category in understanding the world than it is a distracting one, and that white people will act more rationally in the world they are born into the more deeply they understand themselves as white. Did your family come over here on the Mayflower? Did it flee the Irish potato famine? Are you a white-presenting Cuban? Are you Jewish? (Some combo of all of these?) Did you, personally, get here fleeing Slobodan Milosevic a couple decades ago? Do you not know, or know but not much care? Well if you’re interviewed by the national newspaper of the capital, now they’ll ask. They care, and they think you should too. 

On Twitter, I said I think this is going to produce creepy results and ugly sentences, and that it was based on bad history. After all, in the last 100 years and change, the continent that “White” people are “collectively” from was the scene of barbaric infighting over intra-”White” ethnic identity hatred that drew the whole world in and nearly destroyed human civilization. Twice. That’s actually why some plurality of the “White” people in America are here. In reply to my anti-“White” style preference, an odd combo chimed vehemently in: woke people focused on emphasizing how explanatory “whiteness” is and explicit neo-Nazis with the opposite moral view but the same analysis.

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