by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 18
June 2020

Why capitalise ‘Black’ but not ‘white’?

One American newspaper has made a strange change to their style guide
by Peter Franklin
The front page of the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper

The Chicago Sun-Times bills itself as “the hardest-working paper in America”. Well, they’ve certainly been hard at work on their style guide. In a special message to readers, the paper announces a significant change in policy:

On Monday, we joined the growing list of news organizations around the country that have opted to capitalize Black when using the word to describe a culture, ethnicity or community of people…

We also instructed our journalists that in the event the terms Black and Brown are used together to collectively describe a group, we will capitalize the ‘B’ in both words, such as ‘Black and Brown communities.’

- Chicago Sun Times

However, they also told their journalists “to continue to lowercase the ‘w’ in white.”

Why the inconsistency? The reasons given don’t stand-up. For a start, it is claimed that the paper’s decision “puts Black on the same level as Hispanic, Latino, Asian, African American and other descriptors.” Except that it doesn’t, because all of those descriptors are capitalised because they are derived from capitalised place names i.e. Spain, Latin America, Asia, Africa and America. In this context, the descriptor ‘black’ is not derived from a place name — and neither is ‘white’.

Why then, would the two adjectives be treated differently? Various reasons are given, none of them especially convincing. For instance, there’s the argument the paper’s new policy is an “acknowledgment of the long-standing inequities that have existed in our country”. In which case, shouldn’t we also have ‘Women’ and ‘men’, ‘Gay’ and ‘straight’, ‘Poor and rich’, etc? In fact, why not put these pairings in differently sized fonts?

The paper also wishes to recognise “the unique role that Black art and culture have played in our society” while asserting that “cultural trends among white people, e.g. Italian Americans, Irish Americans, etc., are much more disparate, which was a key factor in our decision not to capitalize white.” But black American culture speaks for itself — it doesn’t need a capital letter awarded to it like some special prize. As for the notion that white America is “disparate” in a way that black America is not, that’s a sweeping generalisation on both sides. What about black immigrants to America from various Caribbean and African countries? Just like immigrants from any other diverse range of backgrounds, they too are “disparate”. Does that mean they should be referred to as black but not Black?

This whole idea, which is bound to spread to Britain before long, is pointlessly divisive. After all, if we don’t need capital letters for ‘human being’ then that should be fine for all of us.

Join the discussion

  • The article makes a valid point of course but I would want to go further. I strongly dislike ethnic monitoring forms that force me to define myself as ‘White British’ (or ‘white British’?!), ‘White Irish’, etc. I have Scots-Irish heritage and am not Chinese despite my moniker!
    The reason is that I would never, ever describe myself as ‘white’ (or White). I might mention British, Irish, European, human, proud ‘Citizen of Nowhere’ (as a tribute to poor Mrs May), a gay man (but certainly not ‘LGBT’😡). However I would never mention colour or complexion and don’t see those as part of my identity.

  • Having recently moved to the US from Europe, I was very surprised at how attached Americans are to group identity. I’m a student at grad school and one of the black students was explaining to the class how proud she was to be black. I replied that I found her skin color her least interesting attribute and was more curious about who she was as a person. The same with being gay. Since when did the gender of your sexual partner become so wrapped up in personal identity.

    Politics is Hollywood for ugly people. Identity politics emphatically so.

  • It’s hilarious. Except isn’t it going to start to look a bit racist when they report on Black things that don’t necessarily represent ‘the culture’ (whatever that is when referring to a global demographic of 142 million people worldwide) in the most favorable light -Black crime figures etc… it’ll just look as if they are very racistly keen to point out the ethnic ‘ownership’ of these sorts of things, whereas by contrast those pesky ‘whites’ will be able to lie low and escape their culpability behind a diminutive little ‘w’.

    Looks like it will probably Blackfire.

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