I have to admit: Initially, I read the piece and didn’t think a thing about it.
As of Wednesday, the Seattle Times, the Pacific Northwest’s paper of record, announced it would be capitalizing “Black” as it refers to a person of color. The change, they say, came out of shifting mores around race in America.
“The Times regularly reviews its style guide and makes adjustments as language and society change. New guidance on usage of ‘Black’ arose from discussions in the broader culture about what constitutes a people, and the historical use of various words to describe the people and descendants of the African diaspora,” a Thursday explainer by the Seattle Times staff read.
“While many news outlets continue to use the word ‘black’ with a lowercase ‘b,’ increasingly grammarians argue that capitalizing it puts it on par with other identifiers of race, such as Native American and African American. Many style guides and dictionaries say both versions are equally accurate, depending on the preference of the author, publisher or subject of a story.”
“The time was overdue for this kind of reassessment,” Ray Rivera, managing editor of the Seattle Times, is quoted as saying in the piece.
“We felt this was an important move. It is increasingly clear this is the preferred term among many Black publications and presses. It seems appropriate and respectful for us to follow suit.”
KTTH-AM host Jason Rantz procured a copy of the memo that editors at the Seattle Times sent to employees about the change, in which they said the “decision was made after research by staffers, discussions with members of the Diversity & Inclusion task force and senior editors.”
The Times also published their style guide regarding the use of the word black — as well as the use of the word white (still lower-cased) just so you know where they’re coming from.
Black (adj.): Belonging to people who are part of the African diaspora. Capitalize Black because it is a reflection of shared cultures and experiences (foods, languages, music, religious traditions, etc.). Do not use as a singular or plural noun. When ethnicity is relevant to the story, ask the source which ethnic identifier they use. Black is not necessarily synonymous with African American; some argue the term Black is more inclusive of the collective experiences of the U.S. population, which encompasses recent immigrants.
Here’s their style guide’s take on white, for comparison:
white (adj.): Belonging to people with light-colored skin, especially those of European descent. Unlike Black, it is lowercase, as its use is a physical description of people whose backgrounds may spring from many different cultures. Capitalized white is often used by the white nationalist/white supremacist movement. Do not use as a singular or plural noun. When ethnicity is relevant to the story, ask the source which personal ethnic identifier they use.
I’m completely on board with that last part, by the way. Nobody should be capitalizing “white.” It’s a personal rule of mine to be immediately skeptical of anyone who employs it as their primary cultural identifier as opposed to, say, Irish-American or Polish-American.
When used as such, “white” isn’t a declaration of ethnicity but a declaration that you aren’t some other ethnicity — usually for reasons one can too easily infer.
If a writer finds it necessary to identify a subject as white, it’s not because that individual has shared experiences with other people lacking in melanin, it’s because we genuinely need to state that the person is white for the purposes of the story.
Whether their ancestors came over on the Mayflower or a steamer from Italy or on a plane as they fled communism is pretty much irrelevant if we’re not mentioning it. Their stories are as different as their Social Security numbers.
That, you might have guessed, brings us to the problem with using “Black” as opposed to “black.”
It’s far too easy for journalists to fall into the trap of overgeneralizing the homogeny of the black community. The Seattle Times actually gets it right when they say that African-American isn’t an all-encompassing descriptor, particularly given how many black individuals are immigrants from the Caribbean (or may not be American).
The use of “African-American” as a preferred nomenclature didn’t grow out of any legitimate desire to more accurately describe the black community, mind you. The term’s adoption only became widespread after a speech by Rev. Jesse Jackson back in 1988: “Just as we were called colored, but were not that, and then Negro, but not that, to be called black is just as baseless,” he said. “African-Americans have hit that level of maturity.”
Except they were not all that, either — but we picked up and ran with it, and 31 years later the limitations of that label have become clear.
Now the Seattle Times is circling back to black-with-a-capital-B to describe a wide swath of people with wildly divergent experiences who came to this country under wildly different circumstances at very different times. By putting the capital letter there, however, we’ve again reified the black community as a single bloc — one where the “shared cultures and experiences” outweigh any differences in lived experience or positionality individuals in that community might have.
This is nothing more than the empty politics of identity. For those of you who disagree, I’d like to hear you explain how further agglomerating every black person in this country — especially as that group gets more diverse — into a bloc by capitalizing their skin color is a win for social change.
Furthermore, the style guide acknowledges the inadequacy of the identifier “African-American.”
Riviera is the editor of one of the country’s larger newspapers, so I’d assume he’s familiar with the etymological shift that happened due to Jesse Jackson’s 1988 remarks. When he says “[i]t is increasingly clear this is the preferred term among many Black publications and presses,” does he not realize he’s falling into the same trap the media did 31 years ago?
It’s part of the media’s job to separate the opinions of those conspicuously involved in actively shaping the public concept of identity from the opinions of the public at large.
It’s just a blurb, but when it comes to actively thinking about what this entails, Riviera’s brief quote can be seen as a bit of a shrug emoji. Hey, “many Black publications and presses” are capitalizing it. Sounds legit.
When someone self-identifies as black, it doesn’t set off mental klaxons the way it does when someone self-identifies as white. There is a deeper story behind the identity of every black person, however, and it doesn’t do black individuals (or anyone else, for that matter) any favors to capitalize Black as if there is more similarity than divergence in their lived experience.
This is especially true when social change, a certain distance from de jure discrimination and immigration from the Caribbean and Africa are making the black community in America far more heterogenous than it was during the many decades where lower-case black sufficed for the Seattle Times.
The move toward the capitalization of black is part of a wider set of assumptions that all black people think the same, eat the same, vote the same, have the same experiences with racism, have the same socioeconomic concerns — all of those wonderful generalizations that, were they not considered so well-meaning, would be classified as stereotypes.
For the Seattle Times, those stereotypes are pervasive enough that they constitute “a reflection of shared cultures and experiences (foods, languages, music, religious traditions, etc.).”
But they’re still just stereotypes. Laundering stereotypes through the politics of virtue signaling doesn’t make them less stereotypical.
Like I did, you may look at this article and think nothing of it. Maybe it’ll induce an eye roll before you move on.
However, I’d argue this is something more problematic — a thoughtless embrace of the politics of identity at the expense of treating black people with the individual dignity they deserve.
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