July 8, 2021

AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying 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. — Associated Press, June 19, 2020

It’s been a year since U.S. news organizations decided that black should be capitalized. Some black journalists had long advocated that mainstream media make the shift and, suddenly in June 2020, it was time to heed that call.

But the “should black be capped” question is a subjective call. Some black writers were elated by the shift, others were ambivalent and some were dismayed. In a podcast, The Washington Post provides a glimpse into the range of thinking on the issue among its black staff members.

Considerations that journalists generally make about black case style can differ from those made by other professional writers, particularly authors who are scholars. Scholars consider the neutral, generic function of the lowercase black identifier.

Journalists and scholars both contribute to the realm of print and digital publication (i.e., the “public discourse”). And right now that wordscape is unsettled. Journalists have the most immediate impact but scholars build the canon of knowledge and culture.

Writers’ case style preference for black and white IDs is shaped by numerous factors, including perceptions of oneself, other people and the requirements of finely nuanced thinking in writing based on scholarly research and objectivity in writing based on scientific research. So the personal issue of black identity and case style preference becomes a public question with no single answer. Because of its inherent ambiguity, this question should be examined further by journalists.

Over the past year, I’ve reviewed news organizations’ rationales for capping black, queried noted black scholars who retain lowercase black style in their recent and/or forthcoming books and have more generally discussed the b/Black capping question with university professors and journalists. I’ve also queried editors and publishing executives about the flexibility of their policy for black case style. And I’ve observed case style usage among the black general public.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned.

(Editor’s note: Poynter generally follows AP Style guidelines. However, when it is relevant to refer to a person’s racial or ethnic identity, we defer to that person’s preference whenever possible.)

The “who identify as Black” clause in The Associated Press’ rationale is problematic because most people in Africa and the African diaspora formally identify by ethnicity and/or nationality, not as uppercase Black.

Black scholars and other professional black writers who retain lowercase black style are keenly aware of the sense of formal identity, pride and solidarity that uppercase black implies. They feel this sensitivity and still have specific reasons for their own lowercase usage. Some also are concerned about the pervasive standardization of uppercase black style.

Blanket standardization obliterates the nuanced nature of black identities and assigns them to an official catch-all category.

The “shared history and culture” rationales for capping black overreach because the black peoples (plural) of the world do not share more history and culture than white peoples. The Melanesians (black people) of the South Pacific and the black people of Halifax, Nova Scotia, are as historically and culturally different as white Mississippians and the people of the Russian steppes.

The rationale that black should be capitalized because it is a national identity for black Americans who do not know their African ethnicities makes uppercased black a provisional, placeholder ID. Black Americans can compensate for the amputation of African and other unknown identities by identifying them.

Some black writers use lowercase black style because this looser fit allows for the emergence of more precise ways of identifying ourselves.

The lowercase black identifier is generic because it represents a broad range of ethnicities and nationalities. Its generic function requires a lowercase style.

The neutrality and generic nature of the lowercase black and white style is often necessary for academic writers, for example scholars who specialize in physical anthropology, or medieval and early modern European history (there were black people in Europe at that time). For such scholars, capping black in referring to African and African descended peoples would be an inappropriate, symbolic embellishment.

The convention of capitalizing black has been an appropriate in-group style within the popular black press in the United States. However, the sweeping standardization of uppercase black style in mainstream media has the unintended effect of fortifying categorical conceptions of race. That fortification has racializing repercussions throughout society, including the increased capitalization of white.

The question of capping black is not simply one of whether it validates an outworn concept of race. It’s a question about the plurality of black identities. While standardization provides a formalized identity for African descendants in the U.S., it obscures the diversity of black being worldwide.

A cursory review of public commentary by average black adults who are interested in discussing social and political issues reveals no consensus that black should be capped. For example, lowercase black usage is prevalent among commentators on YouTube black public affairs channels such as “The Breakfast Club,” “For Harriet,” “Roland Martin Unfiltered,” “Dr. Shonna Etienne,” “Chrissie” (a colorism specialist), and “The Pink Pill.” Oprah Winfrey’s OWN YouTube channel uses uppercase black in blurbs about shows on racial issues. The show’s commentators tend to use uppercase black when the blurb contains this usage but, even in this instance, many commentators also use lowercase black.

An authoritarian practice is developing in U.S. journalism: capitalizing black in referring to the works of black writers who deliberately use lowercase black and, more egregiously, capping black in directly quoting from their writings.

Now that the shift is established, the next step can be to consider the multiplicity of black American identities and formulate IDs based on those considerations.

DNA analysis is getting more precise. And interactive digital humanities projects can help us restore the missing pages of our African diaspora histories and genealogies. The projects could map trans-Atlantic migrations, aggregate, correlate and codify genetic and genealogical data, and historical and demographic information.

Most African descendants in the Americas have multiple African ancestries. Many have non-African ancestries as well. And because ethnicity is lived, not just genetically acquired, DNA analysis would not transform an African American into, for example, an instant, card-carrying Akan-Ewe-Hausa-Mandinka-English-Irish-Chotow American. We’ve not had continuous connections with these peoples and the mix is too extensive.

An article on the “Who are we?” project website suggests how black Americans can formulate specific IDs that are succinct distillations of complex ancestries.

Most international English-language media do not capitalize black, even those such as the BBC with extensive coverage of black people at home and abroad.

Because identity — who I am — is profoundly personal, black case style can assail a person’s sense of self as well as affirm it.

Standards editors should consider amending their style guides to allow more latitude for black writers to use lowercase black style.

On June 22, following the AP shift, the Chicago Manual of Style announced that it changed its recommendation to prefer uppercase black. Chicago also allows white to be capped “for editorial consistency.” It further stated that it recognizes that “individual preferences will vary” but the weight of the recommendation is on capping black. Chicago could consider a more balanced recommendation, one more evenly based on the requirements of academic writers and journalists.

Standards editors in news organizations could consider recommending that black contributing writers who have good reason for using lowercase black (e.g., contributing opinion writers) should be allowed to do so in their published copy.

Contributing writers of any racial identity who are scientists and scholars should be allowed to use lowercase IDs in reporting on research about black, brown and white people. Similarly, when reporting on scientific findings that use the neutral lowercase style for these IDs, staff writers should retain that style.

When interviewing black persons who figure prominently in a story and who are being identified by race or ethnicity, journalists should inquire about their preferred ID, including case style. The Washington Post recommends flexibility for black subjects to determine how they’re identified but does not include lowercase black among the ID options it cites.

When quoting from the works of writers who use lowercase black, that case style should be retained by organizations who otherwise capitalize it.

A website on the b/Black question and related topics is launching soon. The scholars and other respondents for this inquiry are listed below.

Just as there’s no one right answer to the capping question, the risk-benefit ratio of the shift is mixed.

An advantage of the shift is that it has catapulted us to this moment in which some black Americans are motivated to take the next — and much more specific and stable — step in our long renaming journey: to formulate new constellated identities based on our richly variegated genealogies.

And there was a serendipitous aspect to the shift’s timing. Black Americans whose families migrated to this country within the last generation or two were publicly declaring their preferred identifiers (like Nigerian American and Bajan American). Even though they’re Americans of African ancestry, they don’t interpret African American to mean themselves.

So b/Black has become a one-fits-all ID for African descendants in the United States and, compared with the clunkier African American ID, it’s pithiness is a boon to journalists and minimalist writers such as myself.

Although I believe the AP could have met the concerns of black journalists who advocated capping black with a policy that was more flexible than its unequivocal decision about the style, I understand the exigencies of that moment in June 2020 and am impressed by the way the AP and U.S. news organizations generally responded to the uprisings.

There have been major advances in black staffing (such as the promotion of Krissah Thompson to managing editor for diversity and inclusion at The Washington Post), increased intern opportunities for journalists of color at Forbes and other publications, intensified investigative reporting on criminal and social justice issues, and new networking opportunities such as Poynter’s The Collective, a newsletter by and for journalists of color.

Juliette Harris is an independent editor and writer.  A platform addressing the “should ‘black’ be capitalized?” question is in development. The homepage is active now. To be notified when the full site is active, contact planetary.kinships@gmail.com.

Persons responding to queries for the discussion on the site include: Badia Ahad-Legardy, associate professor of English, vice provost for faculty affairs, Loyola University Chicago; Christopher Beha, editor of Harper’s magazine; Adrienne Childs, independent scholar; Margaret Gray-Bayne, secondary school literacy specialist; Kendra Hamilton, former journalist and now associate professor of English and director of southern studies at Presbyterian College (Clinton, South Carolina); Ali Jackson-Jolley, journalist; Jacquelyn McLendon, professor emerita of English and Africana Studies, William and Mary; Reuben Jonathan Miller, assistant professor, University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice; Hermine Pinson, Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of English and Africana Studies, William and Mary; Marielle T. Poss, director of editing, design, and production at Columbia University Press; Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art & Art History at Duke University; Valerie Sweeney Prince, associate professor, African American studies, Wayne State University; Claudia Rankine, Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry, Yale University; Debra Rosenberg, editor of Smithsonian magazine; Ayanna Thompson, Regents Professor of English and director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Arizona State University; Adam Rothberg, senior vice president of corporate communications, Simon & Schuster; and Vilna Bashi Treitler, (full) professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara.

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Juliette Harris is a Virginia-based editor and writer who formerly edited the International Review of African American Art published by Hampton University. She can be…
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