Ask a Radical Copyeditor: Black with a Capital “B”

Ask a Radical Copyeditor

“Black” vs. “black”

Q: Can you explain why sometimes Black is capitalized, but white isn’t (when referring to people)? I did this in a paper but my advisor told me to make them both lowercase.

A: A fantastic question, and one that deserves a thorough answer!

There is no universal rule on whether, when referring to race, Black and white should be lowercase or title case. Style guides vary widely on the subject: AP style calls for black and white, APA style calls for Black and White, and Chicago style defaults to lowercase but ultimately leaves it up to the discretion of the author or editor. Most dictionaries note that both forms are in common use.

The general, simplified rationale for “Black with a capital B” is that it puts the word on par with other “proper names of nationalities, peoples, races, tribes, etc.” (in the words of the AP stylebook). People of the African diaspora, although they are by no means homogenous, generally understand themselves as sharing an ethnic or racialized identity. People with European ancestry, on the other hand, tend to trace their ethnic identity to the country of their ancestors (because they can), not to an entire continent or to their lack of melanin.

But please don’t take it from me (a white person). In his book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now, author Touré explains:

I have chosen to capitalize the word “Black” and lowercase “white” throughout this book. I believe “Black” constitutes a group, an ethnicity equivalent to African-American, Negro, or, in terms of a sense of ethnic cohesion, Irish, Polish, or Chinese. I don’t believe that whiteness merits the same treatment. Most American whites think of themselves as Italian-American or Jewish or otherwise relating to other past connections that Blacks cannot make because of the familial and national disruptions of slavery. So to me, because Black speaks to an unknown familial/national past it deserves capitalization.

Hari Ziyad of the site RaceBaitR offers a similar distinction and explanation for that site’s use of Black and white.

Writer Lori L. Tharps compelling argues at her blog why she refuses to remain in the lower case, in a piece that was later excerpted or adapted in a number of other publications, including The New York Times. She shares important relevant history:

Ironically, W.E.B. Du Bois fought this very same fight almost 100 years ago. Only back then, he and other activists were demanding to have the “n” in Negro capitalized. Du Bois targeted local and national newspapers and like me, viewed the lower case letter as a form of disrespect and overt racism. And he wasn’t wrong. Reportedly, one editor of a Georgia newspaper said he’d never capitalize the “n” because it might “lead to social equality.” Finally, on March 7, 1930, The New York Times agreed to change their policy and wrote in a stirring editorial, “In our ‘style book’ ‘Negro’ is now added to the list of words to be capitalized. It is not merely a typographical change; it is an act of recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in ‘the lower case.’”

Not long after Du Bois won his battle, language shifted and Black replaced Negro as the term the folks in question best identified with. Several decades later, Audre Lorde wrote her incredible poem “Coal.” The piece starts with the words:

     I
is the total black, being spoken
from the earth’s inside.

The final stanza includes:

As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am Black because I come from the earth’s inside

Clearly, Black means something very different than black to Lorde.*

I choose to use Black and white in my own writing out of a dedication to centering the leadership, authority, and truths of the people I’m writing about—particularly when those people are marginalized. Although all people of African descent by no means agree with each other on everything, in the United States the Black press and many Black authors use Black and white.

I’m also following the lead of other white anti-racist educators and organizers, such as Tema Okun, a Southern white educator dedicated to teaching other white people about race and racism. In her book The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know, Okun explained:

In this book, I use capitalized words to refer to Black people, Indigenous people, Latino/Hispanic people and People of Color generally while using a lower case to refer to white people, white communities, white groups. Although [style guides differ in their treatment], I am following the lead of the historically Black press.

In my experience, publications and authors who use Black and white are always either writing for a Black audience or specifically centering anti-racism in their writing. In contrast, publications and authors who use black and White are unilaterally white supremacist in their content and intentions.

To my fellow editors and copyeditors who cringe at anything that appears inconsistent, what it comes down to for me is simple: General editorial standards of consistency may call for equal treatment when it comes to the words Black and white, but until equal treatment exists in our larger society, calls for equal treatment in language only serve to whitewash cultural context, identity, and history.

To close with Lorde:

a sound comes into a word, coloured
By who pays what for speaking.

What’s your take on Black? Comment below! Want to ask a radical copyeditor something? Contact me!

* Fascinatingly, if the comprehensive 2000 collection The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde is true to the original publications it draws from, when Audre Lorde first published “Coal” in 1968 in her seminal collection of poems, both instances of black in the piece were printed lowercase, but when she republished the poem in 1976 as the title poem in her fifth collection, the first appeared as black and the second as Black.
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3 thoughts on “Ask a Radical Copyeditor: Black with a Capital “B”

  1. One problem I see with using “Black” and “white” is that it will be interpreted as a statement that the formerly privileged must be made lower in stature to the liberated minority rather than enjoying an equal footing in a more inclusive world. Can we create a safe space not only for those who we know need liberation, but also for those struggling with their shift from privilege to equality? I am primarily concerned with those who live in the “default” world, rather than those who continue to actively work to maintain their status as oppressor. Centrally, I seek tools to teach equality as something BETTER than the zero-sum game of “Someone’s got to be oppressed.”

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    1. Thanks for your sharing your thoughts, Bill!

      In terms of your concern that “Black and white” seems to privilege people of African descent over people of European descent rather than treating them equally, I’ll reiterate what I said above: until equal treatment exists in our larger society, calls for equal treatment in language only serve to whitewash cultural context, identity, and history. Although capitalizing Black and keeping white lowercase seems on the surface to privilege the former over the latter, that isn’t actually what it does– it actually serves to acknowledge the fact that Black is a proper name on par with Latinx, Irish, or Jewish, while white does not carry the same proper noun meaning/status.

      I also want to encourage you to think about your use of the word “safe,” because I think a word that would be more accurate is “comfortable.” Can white people who are struggling to shift from privilege to equality maintain the level of comfort they currently enjoy? The answer is no. There is no way for people who are oppressed and people who are profoundly comfortable to meet in the middle without the comfortable giving something up. I couldn’t agree with you more that equality (or, in my words, liberation) is better than a zero-sum game and I will just remind you that writing “white” lowercase is not a form of oppression. Being uncomfortable is not in any way analogous to being oppressed. The first sign of movement toward equality is for the comfortable to experience discomfort. Being curious about discomfort rather than defensive or rejecting of it is thus a positive thing that white people can do.

      I hope this helps! ❤

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  2. Alex, you’ll be pleased to hear that one of my students asked me this same question for her final paper and I referred her to this blog post. Thank you so much for answering this question and giving me a place to refer both my teachers and my students!

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