July 20, 2020

The Associated Press announced Monday it will continue to lowercase the term white when used in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense. The statement comes one month after the AP changed its style to capitalize Black when used in a similar way.

AP vice president for standards John Daniszewski wrote that people who are Black share historical and cultural similarities, including discrimination based on the color of one’s skin, whereas white people across the globe do not have strong commonalities.

“We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore those problems,” wrote Daniszewski. “But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”

Black journalists worked privately and in public for years to capitalize the B, but it wasn’t until this summer that major American newsrooms made the switch, many following suit after the AP changed its guidelines.

Many applauded the decision, but some linguists worry about the inconsistency of capitalizing Black and not white.

“From a language and linguistic point of view, to me it would make sense to capitalize white and brown also. If you’re transferring it from a generic color adjective to a descriptor of ethnicity that is more metaphorical, it makes sense to me to keep it consistent,” said Lisa McLendon, former vice president of ACES: The Society for Editing and author of “The Perfect English Grammar Workbook.”

The inconsistency might draw attention away from the capital B, said Steve Bien-Aimé, an assistant professor at Northern Kentucky University who researches on race and gender portrayals in news and sports media. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Poynter.

“If you want to highlight the political nature of race, then the discussion about it might be obscured by people arguing whether we should be capitalizing the W versus capitalizing the B,” he said. “(The inconsistency) is distracting.”

Race is often an irrelevant factor in reporting, notes the AP Stylebook’s guidance on race-related coverage. It reads, in part, “Avoid broad generalizations and labels; race and ethnicity are one part of a person’s identity.”

The AP said it will continue to monitor trends and discussions around the capitalization of white and will periodically review its decision.

“When we look at language, we have to understand that it’s always evolving,” said Bien-Aimé. “The guideline that the AP gives today or the societal convention for today may not be the guideline or societal convention five years from now.”

Eliana Miller is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College. You can reach her on Twitter @ElianaMM23, or via email at news@poynter.org.

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  • Initially, I was intrigued by the observation that “people who are Black share historical and cultural similarities” sufficient to warrant capitalizing the word, and that white people do not.

    But they lost me with the phrase “across the globe.” There may be logic in capitalizing Black as a result of the impact of Black Lives Matter and a long history of civil rights issues. But I highly doubt that black people “across the globe” suffer from discrimination in similar ways.

    Blacks are not even a minority in some countries! The blacks I’ve met in France or London have very different attitudes and complaints than the ones I’ve met in Louisiana or Los Angeles. Saying blacks are the same everywhere in the world but white people are different now sounds ill-informed and sadly provincial.
    I’d hoped they’d had a better argument than that. Disappointing.