Spell It with a Capital “B”
By Anne Price, President
“When a copyeditor deletes the capital “B,” they are in effect deleting the history and contributions of my people.” — Lori L. Thompson
Last week, in a step to modernize and commit to greater inclusion, The Brookings Institution, a well-established Washington D.C. think tank, announced that it would update its writing style guide to capitalize “Black” when referencing Black or African American people. For Brookings, this is not merely a typographical change but, rather, an intentional effort to recognize how people’s experiences are represented.
While there’s no standard rule on whether references to race should be lowercase or capitalized, most media outlets and publications that rely on the AP Stylebook refer to Black people in the lowercase. The APA style calls for capitalized Black and White, and The Chicago Manual of Style allows the authors to capitalize Black based on their preference. Major news outlets like The New York Times and the Associated Press both use lowercase black and white.
The question of how to properly refer to Black people in print has deep historical roots. In an 1878 editorial entitled “Spell it with a Capital,” Ferdinand Lee Barnett, husband of Ida B. Wells and founder of a Black weekly newspaper, asserted that the failure of white people to capitalize Negro was to show disrespect to, stigmatize, and “fasten a badge of inferiority” on Black people. In 1898, sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois proclaimed, “I believe that eight million Americans deserve a capital letter.”
This is precisely why capitalizing Black also matters.
For the last few years, the Insight Center has been deliberate about capitalizing Black. We made that decision not only because Black people — like Asian Americans, Native Americans, or the Latinx community — make up a specific cultural group that requires the use of a proper noun, but also because capitalizing Black gives Black people the power to define themselves, their identity, and their specific history that reflects centuries of injustice.
Capitalizing “B” to represent Black people is not a typographical detail. Rather, it recognizes that there are systems of power that operate to marginalize Black Americans, and it offers a way, through language, to combat that marginalization.
Lori L. Thompson, Associate Professor of Journalism at Temple University, makes a powerful argument for capitalizing Black:
“This is about identity and respect. With a mere slash of a copyeditor’s pen, my culture is reduced to a color. It seems silly to have to spell it out, that black with a lower case “b” is a color, whereas Black with a capital “B” refers to a group of people whose ancestors were born in Africa, were brought to the United States against their will, spilled their blood, sweat and tears to build this nation into a world power and along the way managed to create glorious works of art, passionate music, scientific discoveries, a marvelous cuisine, and untold literary masterpieces.”
Perhaps the most controversial writing practice is capitalizing Black and leaving white lowercase, a practice that the Insight Center also embraces.
One argument is that although not homogeneous, Black people share an ethnic and racialized identity, experiencing anti-blackness throughout multiple systems and institutions. Capitalizing Black is about claiming power.
We strongly believe that leaving white in lowercase represents a righting of a long-standing wrong and a demand for dignity and racial equity. Editorial standards may call for consistency in capitalizing both white and Black, but until we address the interactive effects of discrimination and subjugation on the lives of Black people and how they are baked into our policies, practices, and institutions, we cannot embrace equal treatment in our language.
A style guide should be a fluid and dynamic living entity that reflects shared experiences and how communities want to be identified. We are at a critical moment in our culture in which intersectional exclusion, oppression, and privilege are being questioned.
The use of the identifier “Latinx” provides a good example of how language is shifting to become more inclusive. The term is born out of a collective effort to move beyond the traditional gender binary and to begin to acknowledge the spectrum of gender and sexual identities to include trans and non-binary people of Latin descent.
According to scholars Alan Aja and María R. Scharrón-del Río, the use of Latinx allows us to engage in a decolonizing approach and examine the very paradox of language that can act as both oppressor and liberator. For these reasons, we have also been using Latinx in our work, including our forthcoming paper, Latinx Families in the Golden State: When Working Hard Isn’t Enough.
If we are to ground our social and economic justice work in a proactive vision of what racial equity means, we must be willing to counter oppressive language. Advocating for the capitalization of Black to represent Black people and supporting the use of Latinx as an inclusive identifier are liberatory acts that can foster greater solidarity.
Toni Morrison, a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, reminds us that “oppressive language does more than represent violence, it is violence; it does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”
UPDATE 10.17.22: Many of you have noticed that the Insight Center does not capitalize Black in the term anti-black and have asked why. To answer this question, we offer this:
As written above, “Capitalizing “B” to represent Black people is not a typographical detail. Rather, it recognizes that there are systems of power that operate to marginalize Black Americans, and it offers a way, through language, to combat that marginalization.”
As such, when we use the term anti-black, we don’t capitalize there because anti-blackness is a form of marginalization. In that context, we didn’t want to give the word more power since capitalization is a form of typographical power. We understand this may not make grammatical sense but embrace the complication. Language and grammar are not static, but fluid in accordance to political and social dynamics.