Seeing black written with a capital b means more than you think

As a diversity and inclusion commentator, I’m used to copy editors crossing out the capital “B” in my work and replacing it with a lowercase letter.

In fact, it’s become so regular that I’m often audibly shocked to see black instead of black when any edits are sent back to me.

Because let me tell you, as a black woman living in a western world, I am all too familiar with the experience of being erased.

People often ask why I get so involved in something that is literally tiny – a few millimeters, maybe, the size of peppercorns – when it comes to larger racial injustices.

The answer is simple: capitalizing the “B” in black is more than just a matter of typography.

Capitalizing black means acknowledging an ethnic identity.

For clarification, black with a capital “B” refers to people of the African and Caribbean diaspora.

While black with a lower case ‘b’ refers to the actual color, like a crayon.

The uncomfortable reality is that for centuries, with minor exceptions, the fate of Black identification has been left to whites to juggle as they see fit.

The Pew Research Center — a nonpartisan fact tank that educates the public on the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping the world — noted, “Black people have moved from ‘slaves’ (1790) to ‘blacks’ (1850) to ‘ Negroes” developed. (1900) to Negro (1930) to Negro or Black (1970) to Black or Negro (1980)”.

And Black people have been forced to conform and distort to these harmful and restrictive racial categorizations.

In an 1878 editorial entitled Spell it with a Capital, Ferdinand Lee Barnett, the founder of a weekly newspaper that brought black issues into the mainstream (similar to The Voice in Britain), emphasized: “…the failure of white people, capital hitting “Negro” was meant to show disrespect for Black people, stigmatize them, and “pin them with a badge of inferiority.”

Additionally, many powerful western countries throughout history have continued to dehumanize black people by refusing to put salutations such as Mr, Mrs, Miss, Dr, Professor, etc. before their names.

For this reason, the reclaiming of language to affirm black identity is neither performative nor superficial.

Abi Adamson

In a rare moment as a black woman, I felt safe, heard and accepted (Image: Abi Adamson)

Instead, it is an integral part of the fight for racial justice.

And yet it was – and remains – up for debate.

In June 2020, the Associated Press (AP) updated its style guide — commonly known as the “Bible of Journalism” — to capitalize the “B” in the term “Black” when referring to persons in: “a racial, ethnic, or cultural senses, instilling 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. The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”

This tiny typographical change, made about a month after George Floyd was killed, was a game changer.

It was a moment that moved me to tears.

I felt my dignity as a black woman — long threatened by entrenched racism and social injustice — was on the way to being restored.

And in a rare moment as a black woman, I felt safe, heard, and accepted. And in a broader reflection, I experienced a sense of justice for all those whose existence was plagued by oppression and even worse extinction.

Unfortunately, it takes a controversial stance to balance black privilege and power.

It’s been over two years since the AP drew renewed attention to black capitalization. And while the conversation is moving in the right direction, the fight goes on.

For since the initial fanfare, I’ve seen little noise or support.

In fact, many people found the change confusing and confusing and opposed it.

Some commentators have noted that these stylistic changes are superficial, narrowing the Black experience, and linguistically incorrect.

While it’s true that black, unlike African American, Asian, and Italian, isn’t derived from a proper noun, it’s an identity. Writing it lowercase robs black people of a certain dignity.

Others have argued that the imposition of a black capitalization rule, and subsequently its policies, dictating what is best for blacks overall, should not be in the hands of institutions. Rather, it should be in the hands of the individual author to make the choice.

But we only have to look back at history to see how toxic the liberty of individual power can be when it comes to dictating what is best for Black people overall.

And some people – including those who felt that black was now given a respect that white was not given (if you could see me now, I’m rolling my eyes) also ignited a campaign for white capitalization.

Now let’s realize that there are only arguments for and against capitalizing white.

On the one hand, it has been suggested that capitalizing white might better enable us to discuss the influence of white people and their role in history, particularly how white people operated in racist ways.

In fact, it would help create a more equal world if white people didn’t see themselves as the standard experience.

In fact, in July 2020, the Washington Post switched to capitalizing white.

Additionally, it has been argued that capitalizing white as the norm might weaken its power as a racist gesture.

On the other hand, why should we capitalize white?

I have decided Not Capitalize white for this article, because let’s not lose sight of why this conversation exists. It is the black race that continues to be marginalized and dehumanized.

Establishing a mandate, rather than allowing the author to choose capitalization, reinforces critical, cultural significance and accurate representation.

Believe me as a black woman when I say I never want to take anyone’s will away.

But if we are to positively and enduringly lay the foundations of social justice work and establish just practices in society, then we must be willing to confront oppressive language.

And that includes a language that reduces Black people to an object, like a black pencil.

Black people have earned the right to have their identity capitalized and not reduced to one color. Not just in the media, but also in our workplaces and in communities.

Nothing about the Black Justice Campaign was ever written in lower case. There is nothing small about what we have contributed to the world.

Using a capital “B” reclaims a power that has been lost for hundreds of years. It is this force that helps create an equal world.

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Justin Scacco

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