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Writers and Editors (RSS feed)

Differences of Agreement on Capitalizing Black and White (or Not) as Race Terms

What should it be? Black and white?  Black and White? black and white?

A few well-expressed opinions, handy for classroom and copy desk arguments.

Frequently updated and as of 2-24-24 there is clearly no concensus on which of the two words (black, white) to capitalize or why.

Capitalization Style for Black and White as Race Terms (Right Touch Editing's useful chart of various organizations preferences, as of 10-26-21)

Why we will lowercase white (AP) "[P]eople who are Black have strong historical and cultural commonalities, even if they are from different parts of the world....White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color."

Uppercasing ‘Black’ (New York Times, 6-30-30) 'The Associated Press and other major news organizations have recently adopted “Black,” which has long been favored by many African-American publications and other outlets. The new style is also consistent with our treatment of many other racial and ethnic terms: We recently decided to capitalize “Native” and “Indigenous,” while other ethnic terms like “Asian-American” and “Latino” have always been capitalized.
      We will retain lowercase treatment for “white.” While there is an obvious question of parallelism, there has been no comparable movement toward widespread adoption of a new style for “white,” and there is less of a sense that “white” describes a shared culture and history. Moreover, hate groups and white supremacists have long favored the uppercase style, which in itself is reason to avoid it.'

    The term “brown” as a racial or ethnic description should also generally remain lowercase and should be used with care.

Capitalizing for Equality (Conscious Style Guide) The New York Times, Poynter, and Columbia Journalism Review "have argued for capitalizing black and white when used as racial terms, for the sake of respect, equality, and typographical integrity. Other groups are entitled to the visibility conferred by a capital letter—Hispanic, Native, Asian American—and despite the lack of consensus that any of these are one people, these overly broad and arbitrary labels endure."
       However, "If your editorial directive is to call people what they want to be called—including names, pronouns, and labels—then look to Black media outlets like Ebony and Essence for accepted usage and avoid overriding their terminology. By capitalizing black and white, we also make necessary distinctions between color and race—black hair and Black hair—similar to distinguishing between native and Native. Don’t wait for your style guide to catch up, because it’s waiting for you to demonstrate sufficient usage."

Why we capitalize ‘Black’ (and not ‘white’) (Mike Laws, Columbia Journalism Review, 6-16-20) "For many people, Black reflects a shared sense of identity and community. White carries a different set of meanings; capitalizing the word in this context risks following the lead of white supremacists." "...as my CJR colleague Alexandria Neason told me recently, “I view the term Black as both an ethnic identity in the States that doesn’t rely on hyphenated Americanness (and is more accurate than African American, which suggests recent ties to the continent) and is also transnational and inclusive of our Caribbean [and] Central/South American siblings.” To capitalize Black, in her view, is to acknowledge that slavery “deliberately stripped” people forcibly shipped overseas “of all other ethnic/national ties.” She added, “African American is not wrong, and some prefer it, but if we are going to capitalize Asian and South Asian and Indigenous, for example, groups that include myriad ethnic identities united by shared race and geography and, to some degree, culture, then we also have to capitalize Black.”

The Case for Capitalizing the B in Black (Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Atlantic, 6-18-2020) Black and white are both historically created racial identities—and whatever rule applies to one should apply to the other.

Why ‘White’ should be capitalized, too (Nell Irvin Painter, Washington Post, 7-22-20)


•  After a long discussion on the Copyeditors' listserv, participants tended to agree that at the moment the best thing is to follow the style guide of your publisher or publication, because there are reasons, many of them good, to capitalize both Black and White, to capitalize only Black, and to capitalize neither. (H/T Jeannette de Beauvoir)


• James McBride, in The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, uses lowercase for both black and white.

The Washington Post announces writing style changes for racial and ethnic identifiers (7-29-20) 

      "The Post to capitalize Black to identify groups that make up the African diaspora."

      "[P]olitical terms used to promote racist ideologies or to advocate ethnic superiority or separation should remain lowercase (i.e. white supremacist, black nationalist). And in crime stories, where cultural and historical identity aren’t key to a suspect’s actions, use the lowercase versions of black, white and brown as race descriptors."

Ask a Radical Copyeditor: Black with a Capital “B” (Alex Kapitan, “Black” vs. “black,” Radical Copyeditor, 9-21-16) 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.'
      '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.' [It is worth reading this full entry.]

A Debate Over Identity and Race Asks, Are African-Americans ‘Black’ or ‘black’? (John Eligon, NY Times, 6-26-2020) The push to capitalize black to refer to African-Americans is far more than a typographical change.

Recognizing Race in Language: Why We Capitalize “Black” and “White” (Ann Thúy Nguyễn and Maya Pendleton, Center for the Study of Social Policy, 3-23-20)

Why We're Capitalizing Black (NY Times, 7-5-2020) The Times has changed its style on the term’s usage to better reflect a shared cultural identity. Here’s what led to that decision. Here's Tony Mancini's good argument against it.

Why hundreds of American newsrooms have started capitalizing the ‘b’ in ‘Black’ (Elahe Izadi, Washington Post, 6-18-2020) A good overview of why it's changing.

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