In a newsroom, it’s rare that a question of whether to capitalize a word sparks intense discussion and debate. But in June, an issue of textual style became an urgent topic at The Washington Post: Should journalists begin capitalizing the word “Black” when used as a racial identifier? And if so … what does that mean for “White”? And “Brown”?
“During my lifetime, this decision has come up a lot,” says Jesse Lewis, who leads The Post’s copy editing desk. “I was born in the ’50s, and at the time, ‘Negro’ was the preferred term. … Then you get to the late ’60s, early ’70s, ‘African-American’ was used as the term of discussion. There are things that happen in society that bring these issues to the forefront.”
The story of how The Post’s final decision came about — with intense discussions within our newsroom and throughout the journalism industry — says a lot about our moment of racial reckoning, and the thoughtfulness and deliberation that moment demands.
And the results can be controversial — especially when it came to the decision on whether to identify America’s White community with a capital W.
“There’s a certain denialism to the idea that race isn’t an issue,” Lewis said, arguing for the need to classify White as a racial identity. “Writers have said, maybe you just uppercase ‘White’ because then it’s recognized, or Whites recognize it as a racial category, and they will have to deal with the consequences of being categorized by race.”
The Washington Post memo on writing style changes for racial and ethnic identifiers: The Post will capitalize Black to identify groups that make up the African diaspora.
Nell Irvin Painter: Why ‘White’ should be capitalized, too.
Eve Ewing: I’m a Black Scholar Who Studies Race. Here’s Why I Capitalize ‘White.’
Kwame Anthony Appiah: The Case for Capitalizing the B in Black.
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