School Board equity discussions last week prompted two people to contact the newspaper about our use of language.
“Why do you capitalize Black when referring to a person but not white?” one reader asked.
The simple answer is that we capitalize Black when referring to people, following the Associated Press change last summer.
AP style sets the journalism world’s word usage standards. Today, news organizations capitalize Black when used 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,” as AP puts it.
(African diaspora, for you would-be grammar geeks, is a term used to describe the mass dispersion of peoples from Africa throughout the world and eventually the New World during the transatlantic slave trades, from about 1500 to the mid-1800s.)
We don’t capitalize white because there isn’t that same sense of shared history or discrimination due to skin color.
The reader and I had a thoughtful discussion about how people tend to define themselves.
If you ask someone, “What’s your heritage,” many people of African diaspora will reply, “I’m Black.”
Ask a caucasian and you’re more likely to hear something like “Norwegian and German, with a bit of Irish.” I’ve never heard anyone answer, “White.”
Due to the slave trade, many Black individuals are unable to track their ancestral roots like many white individuals can.
Another caller said, “Some African Americans take offense when you call them Black, you know.”
Yes, we know. A fellow reader challenged us on this shortly after we made the change. No single word fits all situations and certainly not all people. In general, we think Black reflects a shared identity and culture in America today rather than a skin color alone.
English is a living language. New words join our lexicon every week, it seems, and our use of familiar words changes at the same pace.
So for now we will continue to lowercase the term white in racial, ethnic and cultural senses and capitalize Black.