Column: When writing about race, what is the best way to reflect equity? | Opinion


Recently I read an article describing a book and its author who “grew up in Kenya and has family ties with Indians, blacks and whites”.

Note the capitalization of “Indians” and “Blacks”, but not “Whites”. The author of the article may have felt he had no choice. If he had capitalized the “w” in white, the editor would probably have capitalized it. The publisher would probably also have felt constrained.

On May 25, 2020, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, prompting the media and others to examine their race practices. Just a month later, the Associated Press changed its “Stylebook” language rules, which most American news media no doubt follow. Normally, AP rules settle.

The first AP change dictated capitalizing the “b” in black when referring to people of African descent. A month later, the second AP change required the lowercase “w” in “white” when referring to people of European ancestry. In justifying its new rules, AP wrote, “Black conveys recognition of people who share a sense of history, identity and community.”

Presumably, the AP changes were made in good faith by well-meaning people. However, adhering to PA rule changes now requires unequal treatment between two races, fostering a division the United States can ill afford.

Black people may feel belittled by the artifice of ostentatiously elevating them with a capital “b” while “white” remains lowercase. It’s paternalistic. Strong, proud individuals of color don’t need to be bolstered by diaphanous tricks. They see through this specious character. And it’s offensive.

White people can feel denigrated by a thinly veiled “woke” effort to burden them with virtually any cultural inequality. John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards, said “white skin color plays a role in systemic inequalities and injustices.”

The Happy Grammarian on the inconsistency: “Normally, most media follow the AP. This time some do, some don’t, and some originally did but then adopted their own style, leaving everyone confused.

The New York Times has its own style book but quickly changed it to reflect the APs. “We believe this style best conveys elements of a shared history and identity, and reflects our goal of being respectful of all the people and communities we cover,” said Dean Baquet, editor of the Times.

The road to these divisive rules of writing reached at least the mid-1920s. It was then that William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, or simply WEB Du Bois, campaigned to capitalize the word “nigger.” A prolific writer, Harvard graduate with his Ph.D., and founder of the NAACP, Du Bois became hugely influential.

Initially, the media dismissed Du Bois’s efforts. But he persisted, noting that it was blatantly disrespectful to address his race – “twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings” – with a lowercase letter. In 1930, The Times agreed, explaining its style book change as “not merely a typographical change, but an act of acknowledgment of racial self-respect”.

All good. One can only wonder, however, if the same logic does not apply to “whites” today. Not according to the New York Times: “White does not represent a shared culture and history as ‘black’ does, and has also long been capitalized by hate groups.”

Not all media agree with the AP, NY Times and other outlets. CBS News, CNN, Fox News, and The San Diego Union-Tribune, for example, also capitalized “white,” noting that it corresponds to black, Asian, Latino, and other ethnic groups. Fox News, citing advice from the National Association of Black Journalists, capitalizes on “white” and “black” when writing about race.

In turn, the NABJ capitalizes references to all races and ethnicities, as recommended by the American Psychological Association. The Center for the Study of Social Policy states, “Failing to name ‘White’ as a race is, in fact, an anti-black act that defines whiteness as both neutral and the norm.”

Lisa McLendon, former vice-president of The Society for Editing, an international association of editors, favors the capitalization of “black” and “white”, saying, “It makes sense for me to stay consistent”. Even “The Chicago Manual of Style”, the “bible” of scholarly publishing, recommends using both capitals, unless the author has a valid punctuation preference.

In fact, capitalizing “black” but not “white” doesn’t hold up to anyone’s scrutiny. The capitalization of “black” is justified primarily, as the Seattle Times explains, as a way of identifying “people who are part of the African diaspora” while “white” should not be capitalized “because it is used to describe people whose origins may arise from many different cultures.

The problem with this, as Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, notes, is that “Africa is just as culturally diverse as Europe.” Additionally, many, if not most, African descendants arrived here after being sold into slavery by members of their own race.

And then, who verifies the applicability? When was the last time you asked someone if their ancestors came from Africa?

I’m sure savvy readers can highlight some gray areas, but to me it’s black and white. Both words – or neither – must be capitalized.

Michael Smith lives in Southern Pines.

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