It’s complicated: WaPo tackles the difficult journalistic issue of racial designation and capitalization

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.


h/t: cesar

49 thoughts on “It’s complicated: WaPo tackles the difficult journalistic issue of racial designation and capitalization

  1. “many White Europeans who entered the country during times of mass migration were the targets of racial and ethnic discrimination.”

    They were targets of discrimination because they weren’t white enough. The southern and eastern European immigrants were subject to discrimination by Northern “really White” Europeans. In 1924,immigration laws were passed to keep these darker complexioned types from overrunning the country.

      1. Indeed! Celtic people like the Scots and Irish are so pale-skinned that Scottish comedian Billy Connolly joked, “I’m actually pale blue – it takes a week of sunbathing before I turn white”.

      2. I was thinking of the Greek side of my family, who had stories of discrimination because of their darker complexions. There is a national Greek organization that was formed after the KKK targeted Greeks, and immigration from Greece was cut off after 1924.

        1. I could well be wrong, but I seem to recall that Greeks in Australia got a hard time before the racists turned their attention to South Asians instead.

          1. You’re correct. Although Greeks still get a bit of a hard time in Oz, it’s immigrants from Asia that bear the brunt of discrimination. Aboriginals are still treated badly too.

    1. Not necessarily so; Irish is Northern European, and they were discriminated against just as much as, say, the Italians.

      Both groups were Catholic, though, like most Hispanics coming over the border today. And AFAIK all three groups also shared the trait that most immigrants were not wealthy, coming to the U.S. to look for opportunities and jobs. So while skin tone discrimination is and was a big thing, when it comes to immigration, you’ve got religious bigotry and classicism that also appear to be important sources of resentment.

      1. Lenny Henry had a stand-up persona who reminisced at length about arriving in London from the West Indies in the 1950s and teaming up with an Irishman to look for accommodation. They had no luck, with all of the rooming houses having “No blacks, no Irish” signs in the windows. Henry’s character observes that he was familiar with anti-black prejudice, but couldn’t understand the “No Irish” part until the pair went to the pub to drown their sorrows. “Watching Reilly down all that Guinness brought it home to me. He was black on the inside!”

    2. I have never heard of reputable historians who claim that the Irish were not considered white. Yet journalists seem to like this idea.

      Apart from anti-Catholic bigotry, the behavior of immigrant groups also has a lot to do with how well they are liked. Irish immigrants were often low-skilled and more clannish (with consequences like the Chicago machine) than other European ethnicities. And most Italian immigrants came from the southern part of Italy, which is even today notorious for organized crime and underdevelopment.

      If skin color was decisive, Americans would be more enthusiastic about harboring Chechen freedom fighters than permitting Japanese immigration.

      1. Yeah, I also wonder about the origins of that claim. I once sampled the available records of every US census going back to 1800 and there was never a time when the Irish or Italians were classified as non-white. So, at least officially speaking, they were always classified as white.

      2. The factors you mention also lead to (the racist and classist) version of guilt by association. I get the impression that the Irish in, say, Montreal, suffered sometimes because they shared characteristics (Catholicism and working-class) of many French. (I.e., the *sharing* did it – “you’re like *those* guys)

  2. Uhhh….I guess I’m Generic-Whitebread-North-European-British-Isles-American. Ho-hum. Boring. I had hopes that 23-and-Me would find something interesting.

    Oh, but wait! Yes, they did find something interesting! I’m Neanderthal-American as well!

    1. Sidney J. Harris had a great column on the many ethnicities that made up the British Isles.
      I grew up reading that guy and I still miss him.

  3. I totally agree that black and white should share the same case. I also would prefer both be lower case. The use of Black and White seem to say that each group is more homogenous (culturally, economically, etc.) than it is or should be. We should seek a world in which black and white designate skin color only.

    There is also a practical problem with requiring Black and White. It would eliminate the ability of authors to use them occasional rhetorical effect — when they want to refer to Black culture, say.

    1. I agree Paul.

      To me it’s a bit weird how US Americans get so tied up about all this. I’m a New Zealander, plain and simple. We don’t have people calling themselves “Asian New Zealander”, “African New Zealander”,”Irish New Zealander” etc. It only comes up in the demographic section of surveys, the Census, police reports etc. (I’m not claiming we don’t have racism. Humanity hasn’t evolved that far yet, unfortunately.)

  4. Like you, Jerry, I see capitalizing Black but not white as foolish – trying to fix racial disparities by inventing and locking in even more disparities in how we conceptualize race. This leaves the dual capitalization of White and Black as more acceptable than the asynchronous version, but still, (1) you then gain little over the old lower case for both, and (2) you lose something in that the caps reify and put permanent faux walls between what are really quite porous categories (studies show that “58% of African Americans have at least 12.5% European ancestry” and “about 30% of self-identified White Americans have recent sub-Saharan African ancestry,” not to mention the enormous cultural cross-fertilization that is elided). The goal seems merely to harden us-vs-them racial thinking for those who benefit from that way of thinking.

  5. “Does this mean that the Post is going to ask everyone how they’d like to be described?” It is already commonplace in Academia and other institutions to ask everyone what personal pronouns they would like to be described by. This is part of the zeitgeist that one can choose one’s genotype in regard to sex without reference to the X and Y chromosomes.

    Personally, I extend this principle to the whole genome, and have chosen my genotype as that of the Romanov heirs to the Russian throne. I require мы as my personal pronoun. And I insist on being addressed as Ваше Сиятельство, or “Your Radiance”, the correct form when addressing the Tsar.

  6. Obviously, there are people with very dark complexions from Australia and southern India. What about people who have been called Red or Yellow at times?
    I’m an old newspaper editor, and the AP stylebook has always been ridiculous. It used to spell “teenager” with a hyphen to avoid, as the book said, confusion with a “bird.” I can only assume they were talking about tanagers, which are spelled differently.
    They also used to insist on spelling “under way” as two words, except as an adjective, as in an “underway flotilla.”
    The Black-white thing will change soon enough, if history is any guide.

  7. I would never want to identify myself primarily as white, still less White, except when ticking boxes on census forms and the like. I am British, or for some purposes English, or for other purposes a Kentish Man (definitely not a Man of Kent). Enough identities already!

    1. My sister is a Kentish Maid. (I was born before my parents moved to the Garden of England.)

      1. My felicitations to her!

        My two eldest daughters are Kentish Maids; my third daughter is a Maid of Kent and my son is a Man of Kent.

        Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter much to them.

  8. 🤯Enough!!
    Should we capitalize Red for all those with red hair that have been discriminated by the sun??!!😩

    1. Mine too. If one can emphasize being Irish, etc., to the exclusion to the rest of one’s background for this or that reason, why can’t I emphasize my evolutionary kinship with panthers, bats, or lampreys?

  9. 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?

    I’d love to hear Trevor Noah speak on this. I suspect he’d make fun of WashPo for it, but who knows, maybe he thinks it’s a good move (…and if he does, it’s probably worth listening to his reasons why).

    1. Africa was colonized and partitioned by European powers after 1885. By 1960, however, almost all the former colonies had become free nations with democratic institutions. Although colonization was “evil”, it is hard to see how the states that have emerged from it could have done better through other available paths. The British, in particular, trained and employed local people in their colonial governments, allowing smoother transfers of power. There is no way the relatively brief colonization of Africa can be compared to America’s history of slavery and unremitting and almost universal exclusion of African descendants.

      1. it is hard to see how the states that have emerged from it could have done better through other available paths.

        It varies by state. I’m sure Namibia would be a lot wealthier if S. Africa hadn’t been allowed to use it basically as their own private diamond work camp for decades. But then again, South Africa would not be as wealthy as it is.
        And of course it varies by populace. I expect South African blacks would disagree with you that things couldn’t have turned out better, but maybe the descendants of the Dutch settlers wouldn’t.

  10. Here it is again: relatively simple things which have to be tortuously turned over, examined, spotlighted, dissected, recomposed, with all the inconsistency that can entail, and why? Pure ideology. More deeply, I think this stems from the postmodern Social Justice obsession with language. Language and discourses are the vehicles of power and therefore have to be tortuously examined in this way, even to such absurd degrees.

  11. Here is my very personal opinion: “black” and “white” are colors – like a black cat or a white sheet of paper. “Blacks” and “Whites” are people like German citizens or Americans. Lower case for colors, upper case for humans.

    1. Ya beat me to it. It isn’t hard, by the way, to find a Black person and a White person (as classified by vast majorities of Americans) whose skin tones are reversed from what the race names imply.

  12. Well, then the “G” in “gay” should be capitalized!

    Afterall: “people who are [Gay] 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 direction] the of [one’s sexual/affective attraction].

  13. My grandsons would identify themselves as 17/32 Scots – 1/4 Japanese – 1/8 German – 1/16 Dutch – 1/32 Irish American/Canadian.
    That weird 17/32 is just 1/2 from their lily-white pure bred Scots-Canadian daddy, augmented by 1/32 (and the other 1/32) from mommy and grandpa (me), ultimately the fault of my great grandma, Melinda McBriar Patterson. Grandma, (my wife) is the AJA (American of Japanese ancestry).

  14. If I had to list all the different ethnicities of my ancestors the list would go on far too long. It’s much easier to say that I’m a mongrel. I’ve never seen mongrel on any forms asking me for my ethnicity though so I always tick “other” and then clarify that by putting “human being” in the next box.

  15. I have two black Labrador-Americans in the family,

    Not sure if I should capitalize “black” in this instance though.

  16. The whole capitalization weirdness is, you’re right, illogical. I wonder where it is going, though? Its a one way street and where does it end? DOES it end? Are we to get madder and madder? Ever more divided in the service of “inclusivity”?

    Meanwhile ACTUAL racial injustice (War on Drugs, anyone? local funding of schools, cash bail, voter disenfranchisement etc) goes unaddressed.

    Hebrew-Russian-British-Australian-American-dog-owner (sorry, “Dog Owner” – I refuse to be marginalized for my pet status) NYer

  17. For the online edition they can let the reader opt for what kind of spelling nonsense She likes (the capital “S” is intended as a natural application of the same idiocy).

  18. What counts as “same and different” ethnically?

    Small town Germans are different from city Germans. And either could belong to one or other religion (or none).

    How do the groups fission or fuse? Can one join by choice (cf. _Surviving as Indians_) or leave by choice?

    To make many of these proposals work, one has to do the sociology and social technology above, yet almost nothing is done.

  19. A WaPo opinion writer, Karen Attiah, had a great Twitter conversation about this. She’s black, American-born of Jamaican immigrants. You can tell she struggles with the capitalization of Black because she recognizes that not every black person shares culture and history.

    The best argument I saw for capitalizing Black but not white was from Ida Bae Wells, of NYT 1619 Project fame. Her argument was that Africans sold into slavery, and their descendants, had their ethnicity taken from them, while voluntary immigrants still had a connection to their ethnicity. She sees “Black” as a means to reclaim what was lost.

    As valid as I find that argument, it still seems very specific to people descended from enslaved blacks. Which leaves one wondering if a recent Ghanaian immigrant is Black, or black. On the other hand, I don’t think racists particularly care if the black person they see is a recent immigrant or a descendant of slaves.

    Finally, some of the things Attiah said, and the way she said it, make me suspect that WaPo is capitalizing White as a dig at the overreach of identity politics. It’s certainly been interesting to watch people trying to justify Black, but not White. It’s exposed a lot of really bad arguments.

    1. BTW, “Ida Bae Wells” is a historical figure. The 1619 author uses that name as her Twitter handle, presumably in honor of the actual person, but she’s actually Hannah Jones.

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