When I was writing about the New York Times music critic’s article calling for an end to blind orchestra auditions—although they have reportedly led to a dramatic increase in women orchestral players, they haven’t done squat for blacks or Hispanics—I noticed that the Times, like other venues, is now capitalizing “Black” and using lowercase “white” when it refers to ethnic groups. To wit:
I’ve objected to this because if we’re going to treat “races” equally, you have to use either caps for both of them or small letters for both. There was no rational reason I could see for this increasingly common practice. Now, however, the Associated Press has “explained” why their stylebook mandates this. You can read the explanation by clicking on the screenshot below:
I put the full explanation below; bolding is mine:
There was clear desire and reason to capitalize Black. Most notably, people who are Black have strong historical and cultural commonalities, even if they are from different parts of the world and even if they now live in different parts of the world. That includes the shared experience of discrimination due solely to the color of one’s skin.
There is, at this time, less support for capitalizing white. White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color. In addition, we are a global news organization and in much of the world there is considerable disagreement, ambiguity and confusion about whom the term includes.
We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore those problems. But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.
Some have expressed the belief that if we don’t capitalize white, we are being inconsistent and discriminating against white people or, conversely, that we are implying that white is the default. We also recognize the argument that capitalizing the term could pull white people more fully into issues and discussions of race and equality. We will closely watch how usage and thought evolves, and will periodically review our decision.
As the AP Stylebook currently directs, we will continue to avoid the broad and imprecise term brown in racial, ethnic or cultural references. If using the term is necessary as part of a direct quotation, we will continue to use the lowercase.
For more details, see the AP Stylebook’s race-related coverage guidance, which says in part: “Consider carefully when deciding whether to identify people by race. Often, it is an irrelevant factor and drawing unnecessary attention to someone’s race or ethnicity can be interpreted as bigotry.”
The guidance also says:
Reporting and writing about issues involving race calls for thoughtful consideration, precise language, and an openness to discussions with others of diverse backgrounds about how to frame coverage or what language is most appropriate, accurate and fair.Avoid broad generalizations and labels; race and ethnicity are one part of a person’s identity. Identifying people by race and reporting on actions that have to do with race often go beyond simple style questions, challenging journalists to think broadly about racial issues before having to make decisions on specific situations and stories.In all coverage — not just race-related coverage — strive to accurately represent the world, or a particular community, and its diversity through the people you quote and depict in all formats. Omissions and lack of inclusion can render people invisible and cause anguish.
To me this explanation is disingenuous, and leaves out the real reason. It’s disingenuous because it claims that all black people have “strong historical and cultural commonalities,” when in fact there are profound cultural differences between different black communities. What do the San people of Africa have in common with Trinidadians, with black Brazilians, with blacks in Alabama, or Somalis? Surely not oppression as a uniform experience!
As for historical commonalities, well, there is a genetic commonality, in that people who self-identify as black tend to be more genetically similar than people who self-identify as white, but I don’t think that this is the “history” that Danieszewski is talking about.
If white people don’t share the same history and culture, then neither do blacks. But, as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African History & Culture maintained, at least American whites all share the same culture. Here’s one of the two graphics it eventually eliminated, though the message of “white culture” permeates Critical Race Studies:
Further, all whites are said to share “Western culture” in a way that blacks don’t: the culture of the Enlightenment, purveyed, it’s said, by privileged white men.
Which brings us to another aspect of white culture: the shared traits of colonialization and oppression of minorities. If blacks are said to share a culture of experiencing discrimination based on skin culture, then surely whites, who are the oppressors, share the experience of being oppressors (remember, people like Robin DiAngelo say that bigotry and oppression are inherent in all whites, even if they don’t realize it). Why is one a shared “culture” and the other not?
In truth, the AP’s stylebook is all window dressing. My deep suspicion is that capitalizing “Black”, especially when the rationale is so dubious, is a misguided way to confer empowerment on blacks, and a small-case “white” is designed to label them as oppressors. This is one of the overreactions following the murder of George Floyd—though I hasten to add that many of the reactions, like calling attention to inequities, are laudable. But others, like Democrats kneeling on the House floor in kente cloth, are embarrassing.
Still, the inequities should not include capitalization, though I’m afraid we’re stuck with this for a while. As the AP itself said, flouting its own guidance, “
Avoid broad generalizations and labels; race and ethnicity are one part of a person’s identity.
Yet apparently, because of the purported (but false) sharing of culture among all blacks, it’s the main part of people’s identity. And that, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, and comrades, is one of the primary tenets of Critical Race Theory.