Language Corner

AP tackles language about race in this year’s style guide

April 1, 2019

A highlight of the annual conference of ACES: The Society for Editing is a session during which the Associated Press announces changes to its stylebook. This year, many of the changes centered on racial, ethnic, and gender entries, some new and some revised. (Disclosure: This columnist is a member of the executive committee of ACES.)

Among the small but big changes, presented by Paula Froke, the stylebook’s lead editor, was the decision to drop hyphens in expressions denoting dual heritage, like “Asian-American,” “African-American,” and others. The decision, she said, was made after consultation with members of journalism organizations and affinity groups.

Dropping a hyphen does not appear to be a big deal but it reflects a growing acknowledgment among news organizations that racial and ethnic identities are individual, that the individuals have differing views on how to portray themselves, and that news organization should be aware of those desires.

Asian Americans have eschewed the hyphen for years, but the African American community has been less unified in whether to use it or not: the National Museum of African American History and Culture does not use the hyphen, for example, while some other institutions, including student organizations, still hyphenate. The trend in recent years, though, has been to remove the hyphen.

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The Chicago Manual of Style has not called for the hyphen for some years. The 17th edition explains: “Whether terms such as African American, Italian American, Chinese American, and the like should be spelled open or hyphenated has been the subject of considerable controversy. But since the hyphen does not aid comprehension in such terms as those mentioned above, it may be omitted unless a particular author or publisher prefers the hyphen.” That wording is a change from the 16th edition, which, before picking up the current wording, said the hyphen was “regarded by some as suggestive of bias. Chicago doubts that hyphenation represents bias, but since the hyphen does not aid comprehension …”

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For now, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage uses hyphens in most expressions of compound nationality, like “Italian-American,” “Japanese-American,” “Irish-American” and “Asian-American,” but not others, like “Jewish American” or French Canadian.” Confusing.

AP also revised its entry on “Native Americans.” Where the previous entry allowed the use of “Indian” to refer to “Native Americans” or “American Indians” (the terms themselves are a matter of preference), the new entry says it should not be used as shorthand for “American Indians” and should be reserved for people from South Asia or the nation of India.

The AP changes reflect broad revisions on how to refer to “people of color” (now acceptable in the new stylebook, though the initialism “POC” is not), and show how terminology changes. In the 1977 stylebook, more than a decade after the civil rights movement, “Afro-American” was the acceptable term, along with “Anglo-American,” “Italian-American,” and “Mexican-American.” “Black” was “acceptable in all references for Negro,” and “colored” was to be avoided. Those entries were largely unchanged in the 1994 stylebook, with a major exception: “Afro-American” had disappeared, with “black” being the “preferred usage for those of the Negro race.” By the 2006 stylebook, “African-American” had an entry, but it said that “the preferred term is black,” and that “African-American” should be used only in proper names, quotations and if the “individuals describe themselves so.”

In another change, the stylebook now says that “Latino is often the preferred noun or adjective” for people of Spanish heritage. “Latina” is the feminine form. As for the gender-neutral “Latinx,” the stylebook now says its use “should be confined to quotations, names of organizations or descriptions of individuals who request it and should be accompanied by a short explanation.” (This is eerily reminiscent of the first uses of “Ms.,” which were often accompanied by the explanation that that was what the woman “preferred to be called.” It sounds quaint now, as does the admonition to explain if someone wanted to be identified as “African-American.” Perhaps the “Latinx” explanation will be as well before too long.)

Writing about race and ethnicity always requires care, and the stylebook has consolidated many of its entries under a new section, “race-related coverage.” Among its revised advice is to avoid accusatory expressions like “racially charged,” “racially motivated,” and “racially tinged”: or “similar terms as euphemisms for racist or racism when the latter terms are truly applicable.” That definition, of course, is often open to interpretation.

“The terms racism and racist can be used in broad references or in quotations to describe the hatred of a race, or assertion of the superiority of one race over others,” the stylebook says, though it also urges descriptions of a person’s words or actions rather than labeling them, something we are fond of saying as well. But for individuals, “In general, avoid using racist or any other label as a noun for a person; it’s far harder to match the complexity of a person to a definition or label than it is a statement or action.”

Next week, other changes to the stylebook.

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