Black and white and Read All Over

Is it a good idea to try to emphasize who counts as “Black” and who counts as “White”?

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.

According to my favorite authoritative American English usage guide, Garner’s, in its entry on capitalization of nouns, a proper noun “is the name of a specific person <Noah Webster>, place <Vancouver, British Columbia>, or thing <Gateway Arch>,” whereas a common noun is “the name of a general class of people <teacher>, places <mountain>, or things <iron ore>.” 

To be fair, this guidance settles some questions about journalistic writing. But, as social ideas develop, it raises others. There are always trade-offs. I’ve been in style guide meetings where we determine, more or less randomly, whether or not to capitalize “the Left/left” and “the Right/right” in politics. Do these terms name specific things, or general classes of people? Good question. 

Then there are words like the nouns “Asian” and “Jew.” We capitalize “Asian” in English for the same reason we capitalize “Bostonian.” It is the adjectival form of nouns for people from a specific proper-named place, Asia, and we’ve decided in English it is wrong to write “asians are from Asia,” though this is what Spanish and French and Danish (for example) do. With “Jews,” although Jews are sort of an ethnicity, we capitalize that word not because it is a nation or people or (composite) ethnicity, but because, overlappingly, Judaism is a religion, and we capitalize religionists. Think of it this way: The capital J in Jew comes from the same place as the C in “Roman Catholic,” not the same place as the R.

So I don’t mean to be dismissive of either the stylistic or the historical question the Washington Post is trying to deal with here. I just think the paper is handling it wrongly. Everyone who is capitalizing “Black” is handling it wrong too, partially because they don’t want to fracture an already marginalized community between descendants of slaves and the more recent (and willing) immigrants to America, which would be a more useful way but also more divisive way to categorize people. But it was always going to raise the “white” vs. “White” issue. Here is an example of what the Post is trying to avoid, from a July 28 New York Times article about the prospects of future NYC mayoral candidates:

“Several Democratic candidates are already raising money, including Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who is Black; Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker who is white; and Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller who is white. Some have called on Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate who is Black, to run as a forceful voice against police brutality, but he says he does not plan to run.”

I saw this passage noted by the journalist Noah Pollak, and I gulped and screenshotted for two reasons. First, how weird and novel it is to make it almost a matter of course to note the race of the subjects of political reporting. Times style has long been to use full names on first mention and then refer to subjects by their title—usually Mr. and Ms. As changing social attitudes regarding gender presentation have become a more prominent political matter, this has put practical and philosophical questions about identity on the desks of copy editors, where they don’t quite belong. Words designate things in the world, journalists describe things in the world, and so of course the way journalists can use words precisely and respectfully (or disrespectfully) is going to be a subject of debate. It should be. But thinking about meetings on exactly how to use “Black” and “White” made me squirm, because it made me imagine an editorial meeting where a “house style” policy on who counts as “Black” and “White” and why was discussed. The historical antecedents are ugly at best.

Second, I knew that it would cause issues that one racial designation was being capped and one was not. In September 2019, a dictionary blogger called the capital B a “mark of respect, recognition, and pride.” I liked the ideas of respect and pride, but recognizing the exact parameters of who qualifies for membership in a race using grammar made me queasy. By June 2020, the lowercase “black” was being replaced by upper-case “Black” (and, often “Brown”) to describe a global community that doesn’t seem to commune except in linguistic descriptors. To use the old “black” was potentially an “orthographic injustice,” which “can be seen as dismissive, disrespectful, and dehumanizing.” I’ve seen this movie before, where a small claim about the grammatical implications of a word becomes a big moral claim about America as a society. It happens all the time. So while I’m not really that alarmed about any given language change—they’re just words—I’m dead set against people who think we can dictioneer our way to Eden, or at least their way to power. I am suspicious of anyone who thinks justice is just a perfected style guide away.

Nicholas Clairmont is an associate editor at Arc Digital and a freelance writer based in New York. 

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images.