Why I'm Capitalizing Black Now and Henceforth

Why in the world am I talking about writing rules on a parenting blog? There must be more important things to discuss. Oh no, white friends. This is critically important! Let me tell you why.

Recently, I came across a post in a group about cultural fluency in which the author expressed frustration at seeing people use a lowercase b when referring to Black people. It surprised me. I’ve been using lowercase letters for Black and white for as long as I can remember. It was a requirement for my college papers many years ago.

My initial reaction was to get defensive. How could I have been wrong all this time?? Maybe I’m not wrong after all. When I’m feeling defensive, I know it’s because I’m actually feeling convicted. So, I took that energy over to a trusted resource group and posed a question about capitalization. One response, in particular, hit me hard. The author, a Black woman, is an Arts & Culture writer, so you better believe I took her position seriously. She explained:

Black is capitalized when used in reference to Black people because Black is then a proper noun, referencing a people. When not capitalized, black is a color, an adjective. An adjective by nature is an “added descriptor” that modifies another word. This implies that you can remove the adjective. In a post-colonial, diasporic world, folks feel compelled to assert that their identity is not an added factor to their being, but essential. Blackness (as it has been driven from colonial concept to tangible reality in our world) is a way for peoples of the diaspora to connect in identity beyond the borders in which they find themselves and outside the context of colonization. It’s similar to how native and Native mean completely different things. Now, white was not capitalized in the recent past because white was not something that people identified as… Italian-American, Jewish, etc were the proper nouns because these were used as markers of identity that were attached to, adjacent to, “whiteness.” HOWEVER, in the present with the rise of white supremacy, people are capitalizing white because it is becoming (being framed as) an identity in and of itself. A lot of white supremacist manifestos capitalize white to prove a point that whiteness is a thing to rally around and unite behind. I have much less to say on that. So that’s that on that. But yes, Black is capitalized if you’re referencing the people. It makes my eye twitch to see it in lowercase at this point.

Whew. Each point she makes is absolutely relevant. Every time I’ve used a lowercase b, I’ve been actively disenfranchising Black people. I’ve been using my platform, as a white woman, to minimize Blackness. And, countless people watched me do it. I have no idea whom I may have influenced subconsciously. And influenced I most certainly did.

Last year, The Brookings Institution changed its style guide to remedy the lowercase b once and for all in their publications. In describing their reasoning, they note the history of capitalization and the harmful influence of failing to capitalize cultures:

In fact, after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the federal government struggled to determine what to call freed Black people. The government used various labels: black, negro, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon. It wasn’t until 1930 that the U.S. Census Bureau finally settled on one prevailing term: “negro.” Years earlier, W. E. B. Du Bois, activist and co-founder of the relatively new NAACP, had launched a letter-writing campaign to major media outlets demanding that their use of the word “negro” be capitalized, as he found “the use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings a personal insult.” After initially denying the request, the New York Times would update its style book in March 1930, noting, “In our Style Book, Negro is now added to the list of words to be capitalized. It is not merely a typographical change, it is an act in recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the ‘lower case.’”

However, over several decades, as the term Negro grew out of favor, the spirit of that decision fell by the wayside. Since that time, the U.S. Census Bureau and many major institutions—including Brookings—have used the lowercase term “black” to represent more than 40 million Black Americans.

Not just a typographical change: Why Brookings is capitalizing Black

The trouble with a deceptively small issue, like the capitalization of a single letter, is that these small issues pile up over time and become big issues. This week, a story hit the headlines about DeAndre Arnold, a Black student in Texas, who has been both suspended and barred from walking at his graduation because his hair doesn’t meet the standard of the school’s dress code policy.

Supporters of the policy point to its explicit ban against hair on male students that is longer than their collars. That policy, clearly, wasn’t written with this Trinidadian family in mind. The men in Arnold’s family grow their dreadlocks out well past collar length. Up to now, Arnold’s mother had been carefully styling her son’s hair to ensure that it met the requirement, but the powers that be decided that it wasn’t enough.

Let’s be real. That policy was written for white students. Period. And, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Because the policy isn’t culturally inclusive, and it normalizes white grooming protocols, a young man has been forced to make a choice between his culture and his education. At first glance, the policy may look innocent enough. It’s not. It’s harmful.

By the same token, the lowercase b isn’t innocent either. Don’t think I didn’t notice that, based on the article I linked about Arnold, the Washington Post has obviously opted for a style guide that minimizes Blackness when talking about a Black family. Even in an article that seemingly provides a well-rounded account of what’s happening with this student and his family, there is glaring anti-Blackness just two words into the read. When Blackness is undermined so gracefully in publications across the country, it adds up. Readers who are passing judgment on the ruling that placed Arnold on suspension are reading about a (lowercase b) Black student. The entire controversy is about nothing but his culture, yet articles like the one I linked openly downplay Black culture in an insidious way.

White is not a culture. It is a descriptor. But Black… Black is a culture, a shared life, a way of existing in a space that tears you apart at every turn. So, for my part, I have updated this blog to ensure that all references to Black people have been appropriately corrected. Furthermore, I am committed to using this blog for the elevation of Black people in any way I can, including the tiniest clack of the keyboard.

Kindness vs Niceness

A friend asked me to talk about the difference between kindness and niceness, as both concepts are used in an effort to point children in the direction of appropriate social skills. This topic had been sitting in my bank of ideas when the perfect moment arrived. Ellen Degeneres drew heat this past week when it came to light that she enjoys a close friendship with former President George W. Bush, a man responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people both domestically and internationally and one who chipped away at the rights of swaths of U.S. citizens. Given her claim that she is kind to all, this crisis presents a unique opportunity to take a deeper look at kindness versus niceness. Kindness has many benefits and it’s certainly a noble trait to pursue. So, what’s the difference between kindness and niceness? Is Ellen’s situation truly an example of kindness?

Dictionaries don’t offer much of a distinction, but clearly we do differentiate in common parlance. Niceness is demonstrably synonymous with politeness, whereas kindness exists in a deeper, more committed space. I propose my own definitions for the sake of clarity. 

Niceness is the quality of being polite in pursuit of respectability and maintaining the status quo. Niceness avoids conflicts and behaves in socially acceptable ways in order to reveal our best intentions. Niceness derives from humanity’s basic drive to be accepted within a social group. Clothes can be nice. Days can be nice. Dogs can be nice. People can be nice. Niceness is the overarching compliment paid to those who make us feel good. However, it can be misleading at best and fraudulent at worst. Niceness uses adherence to social standards as a means to improve a person’s social standing and, therefore, it cannot be relied upon to advance all people equally. Not when our culture suffers from disparities in equity across all aspects of identity.

Niceness brings us school flyers like this one where children are told they are responsible for the bullying that happens to them, that only they can stop it by appearing strong, and that they can hope the bully moves on to hurt another child.

Kindness, on the other hand, is active compassion and connection built out of intentional service to others. It accounts for its impacts. Kindness can be maintaining close ties to problematic people out of genuine love, and resting on the strength of that relationship to discuss difficult topics. Kindness can also be setting boundaries that limit our exposure to people who mean us harm, and using our energies instead to provide radical advocacy for oppressed people. Kindness exists in many places across the spectrum of justice. Kindness looks like states taking steps to assess children for childhood trauma (and presumably moving to include identity-based injuries, such as race-based traumatic stress, in the ACEs assessment). It looks like entire school systems addressing the problem of bullying by teaching children about boundaries, consent, and cooperation. It looks like zero tolerance policies that elevate – and at the very least believe – children who speak out against bullying while at the same time placing bullies into programs that help them work through their inner turmoil and learn better coping skills. 

In Ellen’s case, kindness could have been saying that she had found common ground with Mr. Bush, acknowledging his problematic positions, and using her proximity to him to advocate for the rights of disenfranchised people. It could have been using her white and economic privilege as a unsettling force. It could have been openly recognizing that Mr. Bush holds views that fundamentally conflict with her own. Views that inflict intentional harm on people she loves. Or, she could have joined the ranks of those who rightfully decry the massive injustices faced by enormous segments of our population.

I understand the conflict as I admittedly feel compelled to stay connected to people in order to be what may be the only contentious voice in their lives. I believe I’m responsible for using my privilege and my access to challenge my peers to abandon destruction in favor of restoration. I hope to use my voice to give them pause in the voting booth as I contextualize the effects of their choices, correct the misinformation they receive, and quell their anger that rages against the unknown.

I believe there’s kindness in connecting with the humanity in people who do harm and urging them to stop. And, I believe there is kindness in stepping back into the ranks of the harmed and standing up for people whose needs are not being met. Both are valid forms of activism. But, I do not see Ellen doing either as she digs in her heels regarding her relationship with Mr. Bush. I hope that she does carry the activism she wields in other areas of her life into this friendship. I hope that it’s already happening and she just hasn’t found a way to express it. And, I hope we, as Peaceful Parents, strive to understand the difference between niceness and kindness, and to acknowledge that Peaceful Parenting is going to be divisive in a culture that actively advances the status quo. Niceness is permissive. Kindness is brave.

The Peaceful Parenting Philosophy, Oppression, and Grace

It’s launch day for the blog, and I have so many thoughts spinning in my mind. Peaceful Dad and I had a conversation tonight over supper about my post on privilege. It was difficult. He reminded me that, as a white person, some people may be inclined to regard my words over those of a Black person saying exactly the same thing. He said that, while there’s not much I can do about how other people perceive me, I can and should be explicitly clear about my impetus for making controversial statements about something as sensitive as discipline in a public-facing blog; that to some I will look an awful lot like another white person colonizing a way of life. Ouch. And, he’s right. The vast majority of Peaceful Parenting “experts” are white. The vast majority of people in Peaceful Parenting discussion groups are white. I asked him if I should write at all and he said he couldn’t answer a binary question like that. He said that there’s value in what I’m doing, but that I should accept rightful criticism from people who don’t experience the world the way I do. 

I will absolutely grant that Peaceful Parenting is a special interest of mine. The philosophy and all its manifestations show up in my dreams, in my conversations, in my writing, and in every encounter I have with my children. It’s an extension of my world view… of my faith. I probably speak with too much authority about it and offer advice where I’m neither wanted nor needed. I will be working toward waiting for an invitation to offer my perspective rather than jumping right into a conversation. I will try to ask if my presence is welcome.

I want my readers to know that I do not consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve read a lot and learned a lot from others, but I don’t know what it’s like to parent a teenager or a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder or one who has been bullied. In my heart of hearts, what I strive for is to bring people together to brainstorm solutions. I don’t have all the answers, but together, we can accomplish much.

I also need to work on extending grace. I need to affirm that people parent differently than I do, because they’re doing their best with the circumstances they face just as I am. I firmly believe that Peaceful Parenting as a philosophy is a head above other approaches to discipline and that adopting an inclusive, respectful viewpoint about children will naturally lead to kinder interactions and more resilient kids. I see so many memes about Peaceful Parents giving ourselves grace when we don’t meet our own expectations. I have yet to see one about Peaceful Parents being non-judgmental toward parents who use traditional methods.

I’m committed to presenting alternatives and asking my readers to consider why they do what they do. I celebrate anyone who chooses to be kind whether or not their entire parenting philosophy aligns with mine. I hope we can find some commonalities and better understand each other.

I appreciate all of you.