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:
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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17 thoughts on “Ask a Radical Copyeditor: Black with a Capital “B””
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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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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I was brought up with the understanding that I am of German and Swedish decent, primarily, with a possible bit of Irish in my ancestry. I have never learned any of the customs of either of these cultures. My understanding of Germany is about as deep as beer, and I was once accused of dancing like a German. Recently I submitted my DNA for analysis and it turns out that a British/Irish signature is strongest in my genetic code. This did little to change my sense of identity, although it did make me curious about history of Irish immigration. Nonetheless, despite many white Americans identifying with Italian, Swedish, etc., most of us whites are a bug mixture and have little or no connection to a specific European country. I am just white. I didn’t even mention the other minor ethnic influences in my ancestry. If I am not white with a capital W, I have no ethnicity. I don’t think it’s whitewashing to capitalize both. I recognize the ongoing racism and inequality for many ethnic groups in the US, and I recognize the responsibility we all have to work against these.
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!
an alternate idea is that by capitalizing white it forces white people (of which I’m one) to acknowledge the category white and our place in it. I’m thinking of my realization that a barrier to looking more critically at my racism is that i resist seeing myself as a member of the White race. It’s kind of an imperfect rationale and hard to explain in certain kinds of writing. Thanks for getting me to think about it some more.
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Alex, thank you so much for this analysis. I have been capitalizing “White” in papers for the past several years, exactly because I recognize the need to capitalize “Black” and I wanted to be even-handed. A prof recently questioned whether I need to capitalize “white,” so I have been reading about it online, and your blog is the first that has given me a rationale that speaks to me. The line about “specifically centering anti-racism in [one’s] writing” was the clincher. I am going to favourite this post so I can quote it in case I am challenged in future on my choice to use Black and white.
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I’m revising a novel in which discussion of race by various characters is central, so this analysis is a big help, since I was sort of haphazard and inconsistent about capitalization (always capitalizing Black but sometimes white and sometimes not) and my editor has asked me to be careful with consistency. So thanks for this analysis.
My question has to do with similar uses of the term “brown”–since the novel is set in South Texas where the primary colorline is between Mexicanos and Anglos. Like “Black,” “Brown” refers to a political identity, usually used in self-description, one that has been shaped by racialization/minoritization within a specific regional/historical context. But as a vernacular term infrequently heard or used outside those contexts, it looks funny when it’s capitalized–like that gives it a formality that it just doesn’t have in regular speech. Certainly you would say “Brown Power movement” versus “brown power movement”. But using it the way you hear it (i.e. “these politicos may look brown but they ain’t down”)…it just doesn’t look right capitalized. And since it’s not widely used, there’s really no rule for it.
So here I am back with a manuscript that references not only Black and white but also brown and Anglo, Mexican and Anglo (a common South Texas/Mexicano term for white folks that is always capitalized) and an editor that wants some sort of consistency I can’t quite figure out!
Just a point of interest, you reference Lorde’s seminal work… isn’t it telling that the word we use to mean “of ground breaking importance and influence” also means “relating to or denoting semen.”
(thanks for everything you do! I only came across your blog recently, but I work at a university writing centre and am finding your insights and clear explanations all kinds of useful).
That’s because they’re both derived from the Latin word for “seed” (from before fertilization was actually understood).
I find it thoroughly inaccurate to say that most (w/W)hite Americans “trace [our] ethnic identity to the country of [our] ancestors.” Do you have research to back that claim? The sheer popularity of DNA tests seems to go against that assumption.
I’m from the States, but I live in Latin America, and I’m constantly having to explain to people that I don’t know where most of my ancestors came from. As I tell folks, most of us are mutts.
Anecdotal, but that’s how nearly everyone I know identifies. If you’re white and your ancestors came to the US after 1880 or so then you most likely know, and if before then it’s a fairly safe bet they were Irish, Scots-Irish, or English (some French as well). Growing up in New England, no one ever identified as “white”, and the difference between Italian and Irish was much more significant than between black and white.
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It never occurred to me to not capitalize Black. Context matters. I want us to reach out to “spell checkers” like Grammerly, Google, and others to ensure a red line is placed on lower than proper use of Black and white when referring to people.
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Your article is one of the reasons our staff wrote this staff editorial in our current issue.
Hi, thanks for the post. Fellow copy editor here (white British), and I’ve been working on a book to be published in Germany. We’ve been debating a similar issue with an American contributor. We usually lowercase both black and white, and so it’s been an interesting discussion, especially as it’s not one I can find much instruction on in the European context.
One thought that was brought up is that the majority of black Europeans are not in Europe as a direct result of trans-Atlantic slavery, and many identify as, for example, British Caribbean, German Angolan, (similarly to your point about white Americans being Irish, German, British, etc.). Therefore, the group ‘Black European’ is something that may be unnecessarily homogenising, and which many would not preferably identify with. As this is not the case with Black Americans, we’re considering formalising the capital B for this particular group but not in general. The question is, is this diminishing the racial subjugation of black people in Europe compared to Black Americans, and would capitalising be creating a delineated racial group for people who have not seemingly called for one? By extension, are American publications that always capitalise black doing so by assuming a universalism that’s actually specific to the American experience?
Any thoughts would be great. I wouldn’t want to insufficiently recognise a racial group, especially as a white person from an area of the world that benefited so extensively from the exploitation of that particular group.
This is all crazy nitpicking nonsense! Either capitalize BOTH Black and White, or capitalize neither. This choosing to capitalize Black but not White is only perpetuating racial tensions and frankly, it is pretty obvious that those who insist on doing so have an agenda involving racial animus. Brookings Institute, for example, has a Black dude who “justifies” capitalizing Black but not White. No.
Make it consistent or just forget about it!
From your comment about the the idea that capitalizing Black but not white perpetuates racial tensions, I can only assume that you believe that it is the acknowledgment of difference that creates discord, rather than the presence of oppression. But pretending that we are all equal just makes things worse, because equality doesn’t happen as a result of saying we are all equal, it only happens as a result of actively removing the barriers to equality.
Another example of capitalization of identity-based terms that on the surface might seem inconsistent or confusing is deaf vs. Deaf. The uncapitalized deaf refers to the experience of not hearing, whereas the capitalized Deaf refers to a shared cultural experience of deafness. People can be deaf but not part of Deaf culture.
Similarly, Black is a shared cultural experience (and black is a color). White doesn’t have the same meaning — it was constructed as a legal category, first and foremost, and a melting pot to assimilate into, not a shared cultural experience. So “consistency” in this case calls for Deaf, Black, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, etc. — not black and white. They are different categories of identity and experience.
Bela, a lot of editorial work may be described as “crazy nitpicking nonsense”–but for those who believe that words matter, and that injustice is real, “Black” and “white” makes real sense. I am white, but I in no way feel a sense of kinship or shared identity with other white people based on having pale skin. Thus, I see no argument for capitalizing “white,” while Alex has presented several compelling reasons for capitalizing “Black.”