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If Black is up, do we capitalize White?

I’ve devoted quite a bit of thinking time over the past several weeks on the question of whether white as a racial designation should be capitalized. My thought process has not been pretty — most arguments for and against seem worthwhile to me.

This morning, the Associated Press Stylebook decided that, for now anyway, white should be lowercased in its news articles and by those who adhere to its style. I don’t disagree. My first thought was that I’m glad I didn’t have to make this call.

AP Stylebook decisions are not edict, and you need to make your own choice for your publication. A longtime client recently asked me about capitalized Black, and I was able to recommend its adoption. I also, unasked, recommended capitalizing White.

The first reason for capital White was unique to this client, which has a blended style but follows the style of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association in many regards. APA Style has been capitalizing Black and White for decades. The subject matter and the audience should be part of the decision process, and in this case that style fit the topic and its associated literature.

Another reason for my recommendation is probably the most cited: consistency. Copy editors abhor inconsistency, and we will continue to stumble over sentences that talk about, for example, differences in the numbers of Asian, Latino, Black and white students. The capitalization choice itself makes a statement, and that may detract from the statement the writer is trying to make.

The idea that leaving white as the generic also suggests that it is the norm, and everyone else is the other. Certainly, there is a cultural Black identity more so than there is a cultural White identity. This is what naturally happens when one race dominates the cultural narrative. White people don’t need to identify as white because the prevailing assumption is white.

In an email to subscribers, AP Stylebook said that “white people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

More significantly, where there is a cultural White identity, it’s often espoused by those who believe in the superiority of their race. I tend to discount this as a reason because I stubbornly don’t want my own language choices altered by a tiny fraction of people embracing a particular style. I don’t believe uppercasing White plays into the hands of supremacists; I think it removes from them a symbol of their movement and makes it harmless. We can take away the negative power of a word by making it common.

Another argument has more to do with capitalizing Black: the suggestion that there is a broad and inclusive Black identity rather than many Black identities. White people don’t have one culture; they may identify as Italian, Southern, Midwestern, Jewish, Cajun and so on. Black people, likewise, trace their heritages in myriad ways and have different self-identities. Leaving white lowercase may suggest that, in contrast to the many cultures and identities of white people, there is a monolithic Black culture and identity.

With much reading and thinking, this is where I, a white copy editor, came down on the decision on whether to capitalize White for this client. I expect to follow that in my own writing. But for a news organization or a corporate client that follows the AP Stylebook, I might suggest a different approach.

We want language to be structured, yet it is messy. Both options present problems. Everyone who has a say in their publication’s style should be reading and thinking about the issue in the context of their own audience and editorial viewpoint.

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