A short while back I highlighted the Associated Press’s (AP) decision to capitalize “Black” but not “white” when referring to ethnic groups, a decision that’s been adopted by, among other papers, the New York Times. The basis for the decision, which I criticized, was this:
. . . . .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.
On the other hand, “white” was to remain uncapitalized because of this:
White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.
The fallacies of these claims are obvious, and I won’t reiterate them here except to say that white people do have the supposed shared experience of being the discriminator: they share “white privilege.” My own take was that either both should be capitalized, or neither should be capitalized, and I frankly don’t care. (I also guessed that the above “rationale” was simply window-dressing for a decision based on the desire to empower black people in the wake of the George Floyd murder. That’s a cynical take, but one that I think has merit.)
Now, however, the Washington Post has bucked the AP/New York Times decision and is capitalizing both “Black” and “White”. That goes along with my desire for stylistic equality, but their rationale is contorted.
Read the announcement by clicking on the screenshot below.
I suppose I continue to write “black” and “white” because it refers to skin color rather than geographic origin (e.g., “Asian”, “African-American,” “Native American”), but I could easily capitalize both. The Post, however, has a more elaborate rationale based on shared identities of individuals within each groups. And this is where it flouts the reasons given by the AP.
The use of Black is a recognition and acknowledgment not only of the cultural bonds and historical experiences shared by people of African heritage, but also the shared struggles of the descendants of enslaved people, families who immigrated generations ago and more recent immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and other corners of the world.
Here we see a similar rational as that used by the AP, with all the fallacies of assuming that all non-African black people “of African heritage”, which apparently includes those not just in the U.S. but worldwide, have a similar culture. Even if you limit Black to “identify the many groups that make up the African diaspora in America and elsewhere”, what do you do with the Africans who are still in Africa? Do they, by the Post‘s definition, get the lowercase version?
The real disparity comes when the Post decides to also capitalize “White”, for this reason:
Stories involving race show that White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States. 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.
Well, yes, in the United States, but do you use “White” for U.S. whites and “white” for, say, Finns, Arabs, Italians, and Siberians? Those don’t have a shared cultural identity with other whites, and even to assume that all American whites have a “distinct cultural identity” that is absolutely distinct from the cultural identity of American blacks is to engage in tortuous nonsense. (I love, by the way, the paper’s emphasis on “discrimination against whites”, as it’s something you’d expect an alt-righter to say, not a liberal newspaper. I’d like to see the WaPo editors fight this one out with the NYT editors!).
The Post, in contrast with the AP and NYT, says it will sometimes put “Brown” in caps. Because “brown” describes the skin color of so many people of different geographic and ethnic backgrounds (Polynesians, most American “blacks”, Native Americans, and so on), this is an argument, I think, for keeping all the words in lowercase.
Further, this argument of the Post makes no sense to me at all:
And in crime stories, where cultural and historical identity aren’t key to a suspect’s actions, use the lowercase versions of black, white and brown as race descriptors.
This can be seen only as a way to “de-empower” members of ethnic groups if they’re involved in crimes, disassociating them from the non-criminal, capitalized majority. Identifiers are identifiers, whether or not they be connected with crimes.
Finally, there’s this:
In accordance with our style change, people who do not want to be recognized as a color also have the choice of representing themselves by their cultural background, as they currently do, identifying as German American, Irish American, Italian American or other representations of national heritage.
But surely many “German Americans” or “Scandinavian Americans” don’t retain an ancestral cultural background. Does this mean that the Post is going to ask everyone how they’d like to be described? That’s a recipe for madness. If they asked me, I’d say “Hebrew-Polish-Russian-American.”
All of this shows, I think, the duplicity involved in making stylistic decisions that, at bottom, are motivated by ideological preferences.