B&w

August 25th, 2011 by Editor B

I’ll take this article with a grain of salt, but I did find the parenthetical explanation of the racial politics of capitalization helpful.

Readers frequently write to ask why I capitalize “Black” but not “white”. Often the question comes with racial resentment attached: there is a feeling that the use of the capital letter reveals some sneaky political agenda. The reason is not some kind of bending-over-backwards PC leftie orthodoxy; it is because I think the terms refer to two different kinds of groups. African Americans are an American ethnic group like Irish Americans, Mexican Americans, German Americans or Jewish Americans. We normally capitalize the name of such ethnic groups: Tibetans, Kurds, Jews, Gypsies. White in America is not one ethnic group; it is a larger, less defined group who do not share the kind of strong common identity that smaller groups do. White is an attribute but it is not an identity. I don’t capitalize black when referring to black Africans or Jamaicans; using the capital letter is a way to specify American Blacks, not blacks at large. It’s eccentric, maybe, but it seems logical.

I’ve long used lowercase for both descriptors. Capitalizing “white” felt wrong; I thought I was being egalitarian by not capitalizing “black” either, even though I saw that many respected writers did so. The usage guides I’ve read over the years offered unsatisfactory meditations that left me scratching my head. But I find this pretty convincing.

One Response to “B&w”

  1. PJ Says:

    In our house we have never referred to an African American as black. Everyone is a person first, a personality second, and a skin color a distant everything else. Abe calls Euro American people Peach-skin which I think is hilarious. It honestly never occurred to me to capitalize one and not the other.

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