Why We Capitalize ‘Black’ and Not ‘White’

Why We Capitalize ‘Black’ and Not ‘White’
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After we published my editorial, “God is Not Colorblind” (Feb 2021), a number of eagle-eyed readers noticed we capitalized “Black” in the racial sense as well as other races or ethnic groups (such as Asian, Indigenous, etc.), but we did not capitalize “white” in the same way. So I received a number of questions about that. Some think we have double standards or even some sort of reverse discrimination. The real reason, however, is a lot more innocuous. We were simply following the industry standard.

Even before I started as editor, The Banner has followed the Associated Press Stylebook. The AP Stylebook, as it is known, is “the gold standard for newswriting” or “the bible for journalists” (from the back cover and the foreword of AP Stylebook’s 2015 printed edition). It has been the news industry’s best-selling reference for over 30 years and is updated annually. The Associated Press itself is the most trusted independent global news network. Publications across the world use the AP Stylebook as a guide for their own style. The Banner follows this industry standard, supplementing it with a few CRC-specific terminologies and titles.

In June 2020, AP decided to capitalize “Black” in a racial, ethnic, or cultural sense. Lowercase “black” is now used to refer to the color. A month later, in July 2020, AP announced it would continue to lowercase “white,” even in a racial, ethnic, or cultural sense. It gave its reasons in two blog posts on its website (linked in the previous sentences). Let me summarize those reasons for you.

First of all, AP did not make these changes without first doing research and extensive consultation. These revisions resulted “after more than two years of in-depth research and discussion with colleagues and respected thinkers from a diversity of backgrounds, both within and from outside the cooperative.” And these consultations were done with people from around the world.

From this research, AP found that there was a clear desire and reason to capitalize “Black.” The most notable reason is that “people who are Black have strong historical and cultural commonalities, even if they are from different parts of the world and even if they now live in different parts of the world. That includes the shared experience of discrimination due solely to the color of one’s skin.” This is not equally true, however, of white people. “White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

For example, most white people in North America can and will trace their ancestry back to their immigrant roots in Europe. They would tend to identify themselves as either Irish, Scottish, English, Scandinavian, Dutch, German, Italian, or something else. They tend to have very specific cultural and ethnic identities, rather than a generic “white identity.” On the other hand, unless they are recent immigrants, many African Americans and African Canadians trace their ancestry via slaves who were forcefully brought to North America and might not accurately know their ancestors’ countries of origin. They cannot always identify as Senegalese or Ghanaian, for instance. Often just African. And their ancestors’ original cultures—traditions, customs, languages, and beliefs—were often stripped from their lineage. Hence, by default, they often have greater commonalities and greater shared experiences as Black, rather than as any particular African culture.

Capitalizing “Black,” therefore, conveys “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa.” This practice also aligns with the long-standing practice of capitalizing other racial, ethnic, or cultural groups, such as Latino, Asian, Indigenous, Native American, and others.

There is an additional complication to capitalizing the term “white” as a racial identifier. White supremacists routinely capitalize “white” in that sense in their writings. Hence, “capitalizing the term ‘white,’ as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.” Lowercasing ‘white,’ therefore, acts to distance us from the beliefs and writings of white supremacists.

AP knows this decision is controversial. As they wrote, “Some have expressed the belief that if we don’t capitalize ‘white,’ we are being inconsistent and discriminating against white people or, conversely, that we are implying that white is the default.” This is why they will continue to monitor the situation and periodically review their decision. It is possible that, in the future, given different contexts, these changes might be reverted. Many other publications have capitalized both “Black” and “White.” The discussions and debates are ongoing within the journalism industry.

However, given their extensive research and consultations, with their reasonable reasons, I saw no compelling reason to stop following AP’s stylebook in this matter. We have routinely followed AP in our style, so I didn’t feel the need to dramatically depart from our routines. The ultimate goal of these style and language changes is “the need to be inclusive and respectful in our storytelling.” That is what we strive for as well in The Banner.

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

You can follow him @shiaochong (Twitter) and @3dchristianity (Facebook).  

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Comments

Used within the context of discussing peoples, neither "black" nor "white" should be upper-cased, because neither describes something significant about people who happen to have "black" or "white" (or something else) in skin tone.

The word "black" is misused to describe a culture, or a "people," or even a life perspective.  Persons with that skin tone are not culturally or viewpoint homogenous by any means.  And to assume they are is, well, a bit racist (by the classic definition of that word).  Can you imagine, for example, a long conversation between, say, Ibram X. Kendi and Thomas Sowell?

The word "white" is misused to describe a culture, or a "people," or even a life perspective.  Persons with that skin tone are not culturally or viewpoint homogenous by any means.  And to assume they are is, well, a bit racist (by the classic definition of that word).  (I don't need to use an example here, do I?).

Ditto as to any other color skintone one might want to reference.

The same, by the way, can be said of "place of origin," immediate or by ancestor (e.g., Africa, France, China, India, North America, Netherlands, Italy, wherever).   People from any one of these places, whether immediate or by ancestor, think differently from one another, and fundamentally believe differently from one another.  If you don't think so, that means you simply don't know enough about the people from those places.

It is unfortunate, heartbreaking really, that the significance of of "race" (skintone, even if used interchangeably with "culture," "ethnicity," or other words), as a indicator of just who one really is, has so increased in the last decade or so.  The greatest cause for that increase, in my view, is that enhancing the perceived significance of "race" is a means intentionally used to seek and acquire greater political power.  Emphasizing "racial differences" (quotes intentional) allows one to create "them and us" categories that otherwise might not exist (or exist but to a lesser degree).  Many political strategists (and these days, media organizations turned political strategists) love to enhance the perceived reality of "them vs us" groups.  Those strategists have done well in the last decade or so, very well.

Positing "them and us" categories in a rather absolute, without-any-exception kind of way is a core belief element in what is called Critical Race Theory (CRT).  And yes, CRT represents not just a way of looking at peoples (demanding that people be dominantly understood by skin tone) but also a very intentional political strategy -- and a highly successful one.  The Church should clearly and unequivocally reject CRT as a racist perspective (as that word is truly defined).  Sadly, the Church has equivocated instead.

Thank you, Shiao, for a lucid and thoughtful answer to why certain words are capitalized and others are not. 

Thanks, Chong, for your explanation as to why the Banner capitalizes the word Black when referring to racially Black people but not for whites. At least, we have an explanation for your grammatical choices. So if the standard is to follow our culture’s pattern, then we follow?

Thanks, Doug, for an alternate and well reasoned point of view on the subject. I wonder what direction our editors will go in the future?

Last night, Senator Tim Scott gave the "rebuttal address" to the address of President Biden.  In response to Senator Scott's address, he became a Twitter world object of accusations that he was "Uncle Tim" (a play on the phrase "Uncle Tom" of course -- Senator Scott is black).

When we (CRCNA) acquiesce in little things like this (capitalizing "Black" and not "white"), we perpetuate the notion of race based homogeneity (and thus race based distinction/separation), which is nothing less than the essential ingredient in the practices of racial profiling and racial segregation.  To repeat my earlier comment, "Black" does not describe a homogenous community of culture, worldview or otherwise, and to act (or write) as if it does is counterproductive to the goal of reconciling peoples (whatever skin tones happen to be).

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