Black and white: why capitalization matters

The killings in Charleston, South Carolina, heartbreakingly elicit another focus on race.

In our case, not about race as a social construct, but race as it appears in print: Specifically, when to use capital letters or not for people who are identified with the label “black” or “white.”

A website originally registered to the man accused in the Charleston killings, Dylann Roof, capitalizes “White,” but not “black,” as do many other white supremacist sites. Publications aimed at blacks often capitalize “Black,” but not “white,” and there are strong feelings that “Black” should be capitalized. (The home page of the church target in the attack, the Emanuel AME Church, does not capitalize “black.”)

To start with, let us stipulate that any discussion involving race is fraught: Even thinking there is such a thing as race is controversial, since many anthropologists believe that people cannot be so grouped biologically.

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Though there are more arguments for capitalizing “Black” than for capitalizing “White,” some have argued that “Black” and “White” should both be capitalized, the way Asian, Hispanic, Arab, etc. are. One difference is that those are all proper names, describing not the person, but the geographical or ethnic origin or ancestry of that person. And just as people might describe themselves as “Japanese” or “Chicano” rather than “Asian” or “Hispanic,” people who are “black” or “white” are just as likely to describe themselves as “African American” or “Irish.” “Black” and “white” are equally broad descriptions of skin color, not ethnicity or origin.

Most journalism-related style guides, like those of the Associated Press and New York Times, call for putting both “white” and “black” in all lowercase letters. Others, like The Chicago Manual of Style, allow capitalization if an author or publication prefers to do so. Dictionaries also allow both capitalization and lowercase versions. In other words, it’s fielder’s choice whether to capitalize “black” and “white” or not.

As the excellent Grammarphobia blog noted, The American Heritage Dictionary is conflicted on whether to capitalize “Black” but not “White.” “Orthographic evenhandedness would seem to require the use of uppercase White, but this form might be taken to imply that whites constitute a single ethnic group, an issue that is certainly debatable,” the dictionary says.

But using “lowercase white in the same context as uppercase Black will obviously raise questions as to how and why the writer has distinguished between the two groups,” the usage note says.

“There is no entirely happy solution to this problem,” American Heritage concludes. “In all likelihood, uncertainty as to the mode of styling of white has dissuaded many publications from adopting the capitalized form Black.”

So why does it matter? Capital letters jump off a page, and signal an Importance greater than that of the uncapitalized words. One reason partisans capitalize “White” or “Black” is to denote its importance in messages, even subliminally, magnified by lowercasing the “other.”

As always, we believe that labels can oversimplify, and that a specific description is better. But if someone prefers “African American,” use that term rather than a more generic “black.” And, as always, use such descriptions only if they’re relevant, if the reader understands the relevance, and if they are applied equally to everyone mentioned.

DiversityInc. has a column called “Ask the White Guy,” and in 2009 its author, Luke Visconti, explained “Why the ‘B’ in ‘Black’ Is Capitalized at DiversityInc.” His reasoning, in part, is that “Our capitalization of ‘Black’ is both a reflection of reality and of respect.”

[M]any Black people describe themselves simply as being “Black,” and this reality is reflected in a body of literature, music and academic study.

I do not believe “white” needs to be capitalized because people in the white majority don’t think of themselves in that way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this—it’s just how it is.

That opinion, though, creates a typographical inequality, if not a sociological one, that may subliminally convey a bias.

Language can reflect and foster bias and even invite violence, so respectfulness should always trump style or linguistic ambiguities. There may be contexts where bias is appropriately intentional, but absent that, equality should rule.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.