Capitalizing for Equality

When Black and White are used as racial terms.

Rows of little plastic human toys in a variety of occupations, ages, and skin tones.

By Karen Yin • February 22, 2017

In The New York Times, journalism professor Lori L. Tharps writes, “Black should always be written with a capital B. We are indeed a people, a race, a tribe. It’s only correct.” Both 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.

Both Poynter and Columbia Journalism Review have argued for capitalizing black and white when used as racial terms . . .

Black and White, capitalized, already appear in Merriam-Webster Unabridged and American Heritage Dictionary, but we editors lean on style guides out of safety and habit: If they’re not on board, then neither are we. New York Times and Associated Press both lowercase black and white. The Chicago Manual of Style also lowercases them in lieu of an overriding preference. One standout that treats these designations as proper nouns is the American Psychological Association, which also says to avoid unparallel terms, as in African American and White people.

However, when words labeling an entire people are at the root of a language dispute, that’s reason enough to seek direction outside of our usual resources, especially if the resources are outdated. 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.

Karen has long wavy hair and is smiling into the camera. She's wearing a gray T-shirt and an aquamarine pendant.Karen Yin is the author of the upcoming book Conscious Language (Little, Brown Spark) and founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language; Editors of Color, tools for diversifying your staff and sources; and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” She received the 2017 ACES Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing.

Note: This article originally appeared in Copyediting newsletter and is reproduced with permission from the Pilcrow Group.

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