Column: When writing about race, how do you best reflect fairness? | Opinion


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

Note the capital letters of “Indians” and “Blacks”, but not of “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. Barely a month later, The Associated Press changed its “Stylebook” language rules, which most of the US news media undoubtedly follow. Normally, AP rules prevail.

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

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

Blacks may feel belittled by the artifice of ostensibly raising them with a capital “b” while “White” remains lowercase. It’s paternalistic. Strong and proud individuals of color don’t need to be supported by diaphanous stuff. They see through this specious character. And it is offensive.

Whites can feel belittled by a thinly veiled “awakened” effort to subject them to virtually any cultural inequality. John Daniszewski, AP vice president for standards, said that “white skin color plays a role in systemic inequalities and injustices.”

The Happy Grammarian on inconsistency: “Normally most of the media follow the PA. 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 stylebook but quickly changed it to reflect AP’s. “We believe this style best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal of respecting all of the people and communities we cover,” said Dean Baquet, editor of The Times.

The road to these divisive writing rules extended at least until the mid-1920s. It was then that William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, or simply WEB Du Bois, campaigned for the word “negro” is capitalized. A prolific writer, trained at Harvard through his doctorate and founder of the NAACP, Du Bois has become extremely influential.

Initially, the media rejected 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 his stylebook change as “not just a typographical change, but an act of recognition of racial self-respect.”

All good. However, one may wonder 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 like ‘black’ does, and has also long been capitalized on by hate groups. “

Not all media agree with AP, NY Times, and other media. CBS News, CNN, Fox News, and The San Diego Union-Tribune, for example, also write “white” in upper case, noting that it matches black, Asian, Latino and other ethnic groups. Fox News, citing advice from the National Association of Black Journalists, capitalizes “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, “Not naming ‘white’ as a race is, in fact, an anti-black act that views whiteness as both neutral and standard. “

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

In fact, capitalizing “black” but not “white” does not stand up to anyone’s scrutiny. As the Seattle Times explains, the capitalization of “black” is primarily justified as a means of identifying “persons who are part of the African diaspora”, whereas “white” should not be capitalized “because it is used to describe people whose origins may arise. 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.

So also, who checks the applicability? When was the last time you asked someone if their ancestors were from Africa?

I’m sure astute readers can highlight gray areas, but for me it’s black and white Both words – or none – must be capitalized.

Michael Smith lives in Southern Pines.


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