A typographical decision may seem minor, but this one isn’t trivial, for it bears on race relations in America and how we see them and characterize them in language.
In my lifetime, the acceptable word for African-Americans has morphed from “Negro” to “colored people” to “blacks”, and then to “African-Americans” and now “people of color” (the latter also includes Asians, Hispanic, and other unrelated populations united by a darker skin color). The last three terms are currently acceptable, and I use all three. When I’ve used “black,” however, I didn’t capitalize it, nor did I capitalize “white”, even though they could be taken to denote populations. (“Race”, as I’ve written before, is not entirely a social construct, as it does does say something about genetics, though the idea that there are a finite number of discrete and easily distinguishable “races” is simply not true in biology. That’s why I use “population” or “ethnic group” instead of the fraught term “race.”)
The term “African-American” seems a bit off to me, because while blacks are almost entirely descended from African ancestors, they are 100% American now, and should we designate all people by their ancestry, making me a “Russian-American”? And of course many people are of mixed race. Well, as long as the terms for “black” aren’t seen as offensive, I will use what seems appropriate.
But when I saw “Black” capitalized in some places but “white” written in lower case in the same places, I thought that was inappropriate—almost a reverse form of bigotry saying that somehow blacks deserved capitalization and whites did not. There isn’t really a biological justification for distinguishing them in this way.
It can be only a social justification, but that doesn’t seem right, either. And yet John Eligon, in the New York Times article below, notes that the increasing use of “Blacks” versus “whites” is largely based on a supposed difference in social experience. At any rate, newsrooms are struggling with the capitalization problem, with this article, written 6 days ago, reporting that the Times and the Washington Post hadn’t yet decided what to do.
But this article, published four days later, seems to show that at last the Times has come down on the capitalized “Black” and lower-case “white”. A screenshot:
I haven’t checked the Washington Post yet.
Eligon’s article notes that not all African-Americans adhere to the capitalization difference, or even to the term “Black” itself. One of them is Jesse Jackson:
“Black is a color,” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the longtime civil rights leader who popularized the term “African-American” in an effort to highlight the cultural heritage of those with ancestral ties to Africa. “We built the country through the African slave trade. African-American acknowledges that. Any term that emphasizes the color and not the heritage separates us from our heritage.”
Given that those who favor this usage see race as a social construct without biological roots, there can be no basis in biology for this usage. And, indeed, the rationale for the usage is based on a narrative and character supposedly shared by all African-Americans and distinguishing them absolutely from whites. (By the way, “Black” is supposed to be used only for “African-Americans”, which leaves one wondering how you designate, say, the black versus white inhabitants of other countries, like those of South Africa).
And, indeed, it is the “shared experience” of Blacks that, according to those in the article who favor the capitalization difference, mandate an uppercase “B” and a lowercase “w”:
The capitalization of black, which has been pushed for years, strikes at deeper questions over the treatment of people of African descent, who were stripped of their identities and enslaved in centuries past, and whose struggles to become fully accepted as part of the American experience continue to this day.
“Blackness fundamentally shapes any core part of any black person’s life in the U.S. context, and really around the world,” said Brittney Cooper, an associate professor at Rutgers University whose latest book, “Eloquent Rage,” explores black feminism. “In the choice to capitalize, we are paying homage to a history with a very particular kind of political engagement.”
I’m not sure how exactly they mean “blackness shapes any core part of a black person’s life . . .around the world”. That would seem to reduce the diversity of black people’s characters and lives to one common factor, presumably oppression, but even that is not always the case in places where blacks are in the majority. But let’s hear more:
For proponents of capitalizing black, there are grammatical reasons — it is a proper noun, referring to a specific group of people with a shared political identity, shaped by colonialism and slavery. But some see it as a moral issue as well.
It confers a sense of power and respect to black people, who have often been relegated to the lowest rungs of society through racist systems, black scholars say.
“Race as a concept is not real in the biological sense, but it’s very real for our own identities,” said Whitney Pirtle, an assistant professor of sociology specializing in critical race theory at the University of California, Merced. “I think that capitalizing B both sort of puts respect to those identities, but also alludes to the humanities.”
But if blackness is very real for one’s identities, is not whiteness as well? Not in the sense that all white people share a common culture, especially around the world, but in the sense that they are seen as monolithic oppressors of black people—indeed, of all people of color. My colleague Eve Ewing, a sociologist and poet who works at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, calls for capitalization of both nouns:
Whiteness is not incidental. It’s not just skin color. In fact, no racial category is just about skin color. Whiteness is a thing. Whiteness is endowed with social meaning that allows people to move through the world in a way that people who are not white are not able to do.
— wikipedia brown demands #MoreThanDiversity (@eveewing) June 21, 2020
Yes, for if you adhere to Critical Race Theory (CRT), which undergirds this movement, you will see that Whiteness is indeed a “thing”, albeit not a thing that most of us would like to be part of: our enjoyment of privilege couple with our oppression of others:
From the CRT perspective, the white skin that some Americans possess is akin to owning a piece of property, in that it grants privileges to the owner that a renter (in this case, a person of color) would not be afforded. Cheryl I. Harris and Gloria Ladson-Billings describe this notion of whiteness as property, whereby whiteness is the ultimate property that whites alone can possess; valuable just like property. The property functions of whiteness—i.e., rights to disposition; rights to use and enjoyment, reputation, and status property; and the absolute right to exclude—make the American dream more likely and attainable for whites as citizens.
And one of the tenets of CRT:
- White privilege: Belief in the notion of a myriad of social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race (i.e. white people). A clerk not following you around in a store or not having people cross the street at night to avoid you, are two examples of white privilege.
So yes, according to CRT, or any of those who see blackness as a fundamentally shared property of African-Americans, part of the core of their being, it’s hard to construe that core as not involving oppression. (And, indeed, oppression of blacks has been omnipresent throughout American history.) And whiteness is as surely a property of whites as blackness is of blacks: they are two sides of the same coin, deriving from slavery.
Given that both blacks and white are supposed to have shared moral (or immoral) properties, and there is no fundamental biological reason to capitalize one and not the other, I see no coherent case for writing “Black” and “white”. I suspect that a lot of the movement behind this intends to confer dignity on African-Americans but not on oppressive whites. The conferring of dignity on an oppressed group is laudable, but if you capitalize one “social construct” race, you must capitalize them all. Would you say “asians” or “hispanics”?
What will I do? Probably write either “blacks and white” or “Blacks and Whites”, but I won’t capitalize only one of them. There’s no good reason to do that.
And, as usual, I invite readers to weigh in below on this.