The Anti-Childism Scale

If you’re not familiar with childism, you aren’t alone. Most of the people I talk with aren’t familiar with it. Some even scoff at the idea as though the concept of prejudice against children is so preposterous, it could not possibly exist. If you’re struggling to see how we systemically discriminate against children, consider the following ways, as described by Happiness is Here, in which we treat children differently from adults:

It’s every time a parent is asked ‘is she hungry?’ or ‘does she like strawberries?’ instead of the question being directed at the child who is very capable of answering.

It’s every time a child’s emotions elicit laughter instead of empathy.

It’s withholding food/water/affection until a child says ‘please’ to satisfy an adult ego.

It’s adults believing they have the ‘right’ to physically punish people because of their age.

It’s countries where hitting children is legal and there are guidelines as to where and how you can smack them. Guidelines for hitting your wife would be abhorrent, but age somehow changes perspectives.

It’s a general intolerance for childish behaviour interfering with an adults desires, and the view that children should be ‘seen and not heard’.

It’s adults making decisions about cosmetic alterations to their child’s body such as circumcision, ear-piercing, haircuts, without consent.

It’s forced affection or ‘give me a cuddle or I’ll be sad and cry’, sending the message that a child does not get to make decisions about their own body.

It’s whenever a child’s photo is posted online in an effort to shame them as a way of getting them to submit to an adult’s will.

It’s adults who believe they deserve automatic respect (most often defined as ‘obedience’) for nothing more than their greater age.

It’s children’s emotions being dismissed or stifled for adult comfort.

It’s every time children are talked about in a conversation as though they are not even in the room.

It’s rejoicing in their absence when it’s back-to-school time.

It’s developmentally inappropriate coercive education systems.

It’s finding it acceptable to use punishment and rewards to manipulate a person’s behaviour to meet your needs, if that person is a child.

It’s a world where there are books, tv shows, and blogs devoted to teaching parents how you can ‘train’ your child, often by means of ignoring their needs.

It’s needing research to prove that abandoning a child so that they will learn to ‘self-settle’ is detrimental, instead of just treating babies like humans.

It’s reading this list and dismissing it as ‘over the top’, ‘ridiculous’, or ‘not a big deal’.

By Sara at Happiness is Here

The term childism was coined in the early 1970s after which it remained a relevant concept within the realm of children’s rights. However, the term didn’t really enter mainstream discourse until the late psychotherapist and children’s rights activist, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, wrote her groundbreaking work, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, which was published posthumously in 2012. Her mission in proposing that our culture adopt the word childism was not to “launch an inquiry into prejudice against children” but rather to establish a term that would “have political resonance, something that [could] operate as sexism did to raise our political consciousness” (page 8). According to Darcia F. Narvaez Ph.D., Young-Bruehl’s solution to childism can be summarized in four actions:

  1. Understand the ideas and institutions that perpetuate childism. See how it is manifest in individuals, families, institutions and the wider culture.
  2. Educate society about the causes and meanings of these prejudices, and the harms they have done and continue to do.
  3. Create program [sic] to repair the damage of childism, secure the progress that has been made and continue to work to eradicate the prejudice.
  4. Demand full and equal civil and political rights for children.

Here, I need to pause and explain a disagreement among children’s rights advocates. Some people take issue with the way Young-Bruehl defined childism. They prefer the term adultism to mean “prejudice against children,” and they view childism as akin to feminism in that it is a term of empowerment for children. While I understand the arguments for using childism in this way, my fundamental disagreement rests in the systemic nature of childism which I use as akin to sexism. Children can both reinforce and internalize prejudice against themselves in addition to that prejudice being levied by older people. I believe that the term adultism risks suggesting that the issue is adults disliking children. That is not the case. Childism requires a cultural breach of humanity and is bolstered by harmful influences like White Supremacy Culture. You may disagree with me and that’s ok, but I do want to make clear why I use childism in the way I do.

Origin of the Scale

I’ve been thinking about developing an anti-childism scale for years. It’s been a long time coming. I initially got the idea from the work of Dr. Barnor Hesse, Associate Professor of African American Studies, Political Science, and Sociology at Northwestern University, who produced a scale of white identities that increasingly cultivate genuine anti-racism. For a text version of this list of The 8 White Identities, check out this post.

Based on Dr. Hesse’s work, I set out to form a similar scale toward the neutralization of childism that borrows from the Transtheoretical Model to foster growth and behavior change.

My scale is meant for personal reflection and self-improvement purposes only. I would be disappointed to see it used as a weapon against people who do not agree with my belief system. My hope is that it will get people thinking and give them an idea of where they stand with respect to embracing or rejecting childism.

The Anti-Childism Scale

The following six identities increasingly represent an anti-childist worldview and indicate the level of action a person is willing to take in opposition to childism.

  1. The Dominator: Believes children must be controlled by adults and must be respectful of adult authority. Grants only minimal rights to children.

The Dominator aligns with traditional cultural values in which children effectively live their lives at the pleasure of the adults around them. This person has no insight into their own childism. Moving from this stage may prove the hardest as such movement requires a significant worldview shift.

  1. The Inquirer: Questions the power dynamic between children and adults and is open to discussion. Continues to behave as Dominator-lite.

The Inquirer has realized something isn’t right and works to determine if childism is worth investigating or if it is nonsense. Moving through this stage may be frustrating as it sits on the cusp of full understanding.

  1. The Convert: Accepts that children face discrimination at the hands of adults. But may be uncomfortable taking action beyond discussion.

The Convert is the first stage of intentional anti-childism work. This person is convinced that childism is unacceptable but is either uncertain or uncomfortable taking action. This person likely discusses actions and attitudes toward kids and validates the reality of children’s lived experiences.

  1. The Critic: Regards children as deserving of protection from discrimination. Expresses beliefs when safe, but may not speak out when the cost is too high.

The Critic wants to help and is willing to speak up if doing so will not result in blowback. For instance, Critics may debate childism online but may not speak up in real life even when they know something is wrong. Moving from belief to action can be scary, but this person is making progress.

  1. The Embracer: Recognizes children as equals in humanity and chooses inclusion whenever possible, even in the face of open criticism. Retains unexamined childism.

The Embracer actively advocates for kids and speaks up no matter who is listening. This is a transitional stage where we learn how to do what needs to be done and gain the courage to do it.

  1. The Subverter: Elevates children in word and deed, believes children deserve equal rights as adults, understands that children have varying capacities to manage freedoms, meets children where they are, and encourages others to do the same. Seeks out and actively resolves internalized childism.

The Subverter is a powerhouse for kids, working alongside children rather than in place of them. This person understands that children are not helpless or unaware. As such, the Subverter seeks out the needs and wants of children and works toward true allyship. This is the person who speaks up when others don’t and boldly treats children with respect even in the face of chastisement from other adults. This person works to change societal views toward children and undermine institutional childism. This person is capable of starting a chain reaction up The Anti-Childism Scale and effects change through discussion, action, and activism to help others achieve elucidation.

Working Through the Scale

The Anti-Childism Scale is not strictly linear nor is it neat. There is transmutational space between each of the identities where we work through the discomfort of growth and struggle against our fears. Even as we take big steps, we will have moments when we slip back into a more comfortable state. It’s crucial to remember that this is not an all-or-nothing metamorphosis. Our choices matter, moment-by-moment, for life. Each new stage we enter brings us self-awareness and self-improvement, and it elevates children at the same time.

Some of the things we can do as caring adults to ensure the rights of children are:

  1. Read and understand the 54 “Rights of the Child” as adopted by the United Nations. These are children’s most basic rights. We can do even better with a little effort.
  2. Share the 54 “Rights of the Child” with our children so that they understand the standards to which they should hold all adults.
  3. Consider how our choices affect our children and ask them for their input.
  4. Respect our children’s names and avoid using them as a threat. (Most of us know what it means to be called your full name by a parent.)
  5. Accept our children’s unique identity and genuinely see who our children really are.
  6. Listen to our children’s opinions and be open to negotiation.
  7. Recognize that children are intelligent. Assume competence and protect our children’s freedom of expression.
  8. Give our children adequate privacy and access to information. Where issues of safety arise, work it out with the child, not for the child.
  9. Find ways to teach and coach our children that do not involve punishments.
  10. Provide our children with ample opportunities to play and rest.

I hope I’ve given you something to think about. You can expect more posts from me on childism and how to root it out. For now, I’d love to find out where you see yourself on the scale. And, of course, please feel free to share it to give others the same opportunity for self-exploration.

White Supremacy Culture and You (Yep, You)

Have you ever heard the term __________ People Time to refer to someone running late? That blank could refer to Black people, Latinx people, or any number of other cultures. Do you know why it’s a thing in the first place? Because of something called “time orientation.” Some cultures don’t have any real investment in the passage of time, some are polychronic, and some are monochronic. Perhaps, unsurprising, it’s been theorized that the less concerned people are about time, the warmer the climate in the culture’s ancient past. The idea is that inhabitants of warmer climates, historically, had to concern themselves less with clothing and food than did inhabitants of colder climates who spent more time on basic survival. If you have a short growing season and a long winter, time will feel in very short supply.

Polychronic cultures are those in which people are lax about time. Their focus in on community and relationships and they value things like relaxation. Monochronic cultures are centered around time and schedules. They work through time in a linear direction and they value things like promptness. So, when I tell you that predominantly white cultures are primarily monochronic, including the colonizers who settled in the United States and built a culture around their values, does it come as a shock? Probably not. Fast-forward to today and people from historically polychronic cultures are made to feel that they are wrong for being late or for talking for too long or for assuming context or for interrupting. However, they aren’t wrong. They’re just different.

The characteristics of any culture arise from legitimate needs during that culture’s history. However, one group’s cultural values, in particular, have obfuscated the valid cultural traditions of people groups the world over via mass colonization: White Supremacy Culture.

As defined by DismantlingRacism.org,

White Supremacy Culture is the idea (ideology) that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.

White supremacy culture is reproduced by all the institutions of our society. In particular the media, the education system, western science (which played a major role in reinforcing the idea of race as a biological truth with the white race as the “ideal” top of the hierarchy), and the Christian church have played central roles in reproducing the idea of white supremacy (i.e. that white is “normal,” “better,” “smarter,” “holy” in contrast to Black and other People and Communities of Color.

White supremacy culture is an artificial, historically constructed culture which expresses, justifies and binds together the United States white supremacy system. It is the glue that binds together white-controlled institutions into systems and white-controlled systems into the global white supremacy system.

Dismantling Racism names the following fifteen characteristics of White Supremacy Culture. I will seek to describe each in brief and explain how White Supremacy Culture influences childism, though you will likely see the problem before I get there.

  1. Perfectionism: Inadequacies matter more than competencies, mistakes reflect badly on the person rather than being seen as neutral opportunities for reflection and growth, and problems are more identifiable than strengths.
  2. Sense of Urgency: Schedules are more important than people, decision-making and strategizing are rushed, and results are more important than the process.
  3. Defensiveness: Saving face and not ruffling any feathers get prioritized, hierarchies control for perceived insubordination, and leaders reject constructive feedback as unjust criticism.
  4. Valuing Quantity over Quality: Meeting measurable goals takes precedence, emotions have no place, and completing the checklist wins out over any harm or the actual outcome.
  5. Worship of the written word: Documenting everything accurately is more trusted than putting faith in people, and alternative communication styles are abhorred.
  6. Belief in Only One Right Way: Divining the perfect solution to a problem is the goal and no flexibility exists to apply a fundamentally good solution in ways that address differences.
  7. Paternalism: Only people in power are capable of making the right decisions for the people they rule and little vertical collaboration in the hierarchy occurs.
  8. Either/or Thinking: Binary thinking rules, all nuance is lost, and the agenda of people in power gets advanced.
  9. Power Hoarding: Preserving power toward the top of the hierarchy is key and those not in power are viewed as incompetent and emotional when they defy the power structure.
  10. Fear of Open Conflict: Politeness rules all, conflict is unbearable, and emotional responses signal lack of intelligence or capacity.
  11. Individualism: The ability of the individual is valued over the ability to work as a team, people should solve problems on their own, individuals want credit rather than cooperation, a rampant lack of accountability for those in power exists, and everyone is pushed into isolation as a result.
  12. I’m the Only One Who Can Do This Right: The focus is on concentrating knowledge and effort into individuals, others cannot be trusted to do the thing correctly
  13. Progress is Bigger and More: Progress matters more than process and those lacking power are exploited and excluded.
  14. Objectivity: Neutrality is the priority, emotions invalidate the emotional person, perceived illogical thinking is met with impatience, and out of the box thinking is discouraged.
  15. Claiming a Right to Comfort: Comfort for those in power is emphasized, those who cause discomfort get blamed, and fragility is the result.

Tema Okun, author and social justice advocate explains further that “the characteristics listed [above] are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. Because we all live in a white supremacy culture, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – people of color and white people.”

We are all influenced. Our worldviews are impacted. And, the way we approach parenting is affected. Here are a few of the ways in which White Supremacy Culture is impacting the way we treat our children.

Signs You’re Buying Into White Supremacy

At this point, your chest might be tightening a little. You might already be convincing yourself of how wrong I am. You couldn’t possibly be buying into White Supremacy Culture! Could you? Let me me the first one to admit that I struggle. I truly struggle. I see clearly where White Supremacy Culture has molded my thinking, even as a Peaceful Parent. The truth is that acknowledging reality and being honest with myself is the only way forward. Not only is it a way to become a better parent, for me, it’s also a way to help me become a better, more responsible white person.

I invite you to read through this list and see if your parenting has also been influenced by White Supremacy Culture like mine has.

  1. Children can’t make mistakes without being punished
  2. They are pulled to and fro by the draw of our schedules
  3. We become incensed when our kids “disobey”
  4. If our children aren’t progressing then they must be falling behind
  5. Preliterate children in particular are infantilized by our communication requirements
  6. We push kids toward the “right” way to do things and ignore their unique ideas
  7. Children have no say in their upbringing
  8. Children are either good or bad
  9. Parents hold 100% of the power in the relationship
  10. We demand politeness over realness
  11. We expect our kids to figure things out on their own (“I’ve told you a hundred times! Go figure it out!”)
  12. We react to mistakes by taking over
  13. We praise progress and criticize mistakes made during the process
  14. We believe we are more objective because we are less emotional than children
  15. We punish children for “embarrassing” us in public

In the beginning of this piece, I looked at the ways in which cultures perceive time to illustrate the legitimate differences that exist across cultures. I talked about White Supremacy Culture and how ubiquitous it is. We are impacted by it without knowing it. I laid out the characteristics of White Supremacy Culture, followed by some of the ways in which White Supremacy Culture affects our children. If we accept that White Supremacy Culture does not contain exclusive knowledge of the only right way to believe and behave, what does that say about the way we treat children as isolated subordinates under the influence of white supremacy?

In 2013, Ghanian researcher, Patricia Mawusi Amos, authored a chapter in a book called Parenting in South American and African Contexts. Her chapter, Parenting and Culture – Evidence from Some African Communities, highlights common parenting practices in Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia that produce positive results in children. Notably, she includes the extended family system, folktales, and puberty rites. These practices defy the White Supremacy Culture values of Paternalism, as multiple family and community members help care for the children; Sense of Urgency, as time is taken to teach children through storytelling; and Individualism, as children are included in cultural rites of passage.

And, research backs it up. For instance, Tadesse Jaleta Jirata’s 2014 paper, Positive Parenting: An Ethnographic Study of Storytelling for Socialization of Children in Ethiopia, concludes that the tradition of intergenerational storytelling “is a means for parents to accomplish their parenting responsibilities in line with the needs and concerns of their children,” “fosters close social relationships between parents and children and facilitates intergenerational transmission of knowledge and values,” builds “creative child-to-child interactions and help[s] children adapt themselves to their social world.”

So, if you find yourself locked into a White Supremacy Culture mindset, try moving in another direction. Read up on how parenting happens in other cultures. Look to find ways in which you can reduce the childism inherent in White Supremacy Culture. At this point, I should note that simply by engaging in Peaceful Parenting, you’ve already begun the work. One of the most common criticisms I’ve received about Peaceful Parenting is the amount of time it takes to go the gentle route. So, you know what? Go the gentle route! Ready for a final list?

How to Make a Positive Change

It’s one thing to say we want to reject White Supremacy Culture and quite another to actually do it. It’s hard to go against the grain. How about starting with a few resolutions to incorporate into your daily life?

  1. Let children make mistakes without judgment. Check out this really cool research on how allowing people to self-correct their behavior builds executive function.
  2. Slow down and be more choosy about the activities your family will engage in. Psychology Today has a great piece on how to do just that.
  3. Try shifting your mentality from demanding obedience to inviting cooperation and consider these ideas from Positive Parenting Connections.
  4. Live in the present! Delight in your child’s unique process. And learn about the benefits of focusing on process over outcome.
  5. Find out how you can support your child’s communication through all stages of development from ZERO TO THREE, a global organization powered by leading researchers and clinicians.
  6. Incorporate these amazing recommendations from Scholastic.com for encouraging divergent, creative thinking in children.
  7. Stop railing against “giving in” to your children and trying giving choices instead. Children who learn early how to make wise choices are better prepared for a lifetime of decision-making.
  8. Understand that people are too complicated to be either good or bad. We are a culmination of all our experiences and all our reflections. Children benefit from being guided toward wisdom rather than being held to the impossible standard of “good.”
  9. End the power struggles by keeping children’s power buckets full.
  10. Read up on Kindness versus Niceness and why Kids Don’t Owe Anyone Good Manners.
  11. Recognize that kids don’t just choose not to do what we ask of them. Their executive function is developing and they need our help to figure things out. Check out this great overview for more details.
  12. Resist the urge to step in and take over for your child. See this post at GoodTherapy.org to find out why.
  13. Instead of praise and criticism, try opting for empowerment and motivation.
  14. Recognize that you are not an objective observer removed from your relationship with your child. Both you and your child have human emotions that should be validated, not shunned.
  15. Stop worrying about what other people think about your parenting and practice skills to help you connect with your child instead.

I know this was a tough post to read. Did it help you see something you didn’t see before? Do you have a game plan for how you’d like to move forward with your new (or renewed) knowledge?

Ugly Isn’t Just a Word. It’s a Full-Bodied Enemy.

Learn 9 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Body Image Today

When children as young as three years old are concerned about their body size, it’s clear we have a serious problem. Preschoolers are supposed to be learning their colors! Not examining their baby fat in disgust. Last year, I wrote a post on Fostering Competent Eating to help families encourage a positive relationship between their children and food. And now, we really need to talk about body image and the ill effects of Diet Culture.

Building Children Up in the Face a Culture that Tears Them Down

Children receive messages about their appearance everywhere they turn: from us, from their peers, from advertising, from toys, from media (social and otherwise), and elsewhere. When a child gets battered about the head by toxic messaging over time, it has a detrimental effect. Our sweet little babies who were so fascinated with their fingers and toes become teenagers who say the most devastating things about themselves. How they get there is an easy-to-track trajectory of negativity and perfectionism.

Mom.com posted a revealing piece about children and body image several years ago and every point still rings true today. In it, Jenna Birch notes the following shocking facts:

  • Girls Are Dieting by Age 10
  • ‘Thigh gaps’ have become teen status symbols
  • Board Games Becoming More Image-Conscious
  • Body-Image Issues in Boys Could Lead to Steroids
  • Teens Find ‘Thinspiration’ on Social Media
  • More Kids Under 12 Hospitalized for Eating Disorders
  • Concept of ‘Fat Prejudice’ Starts as Young as 4
  • Schools May Perpetuate Bad Eating Habits
  • Clothes Becoming More Sexualized
  • Anxiety May Trigger an Eating Disorder

What can we do as parents in the face of such awfulness? To start, we have to understand that there really is no end game. Our work in counteracting negative body image has to be constant both for our children and for ourselves. Coming at this issue from a peaceful perspective, here are some ideas for how to make that happen.

  1. Stop making negative comments about your body and others’ bodies. It’s such a tough habit to break when you’ve done it for as long as you can remember. You can start by never again commenting on someone’s weight loss or weight gain. “I’m glad you’re happy!” is a neutral, kind way to acknowledge weight fluctuations that people wish to celebrate.
  2. Embrace Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size. Reject the tenuous link between weight and health, and focus on giving your family every possible opportunity to love their bodies as they are. If you need help finding a new perspective on fatness in particular, check out this (long) post on “obesity” facts, complete with a robust bibliography of primary sources.
  3. Talk with your child about what you see in tv shows, movies, and magazines. Pull back the curtain and point out everything that’s unrealistic, making sure to be specific and accurate. Your goal is to present the truth and give your child space to figure out the rest.
  4. Get your child involved in physical activity early on. Kids who see the amazing things their bodies can do are less likely to view their bodies negatively. To that end, team sports are especially effective at improving self-esteem.
  5. Avoid general praise altogether and, instead, focus on specific remarks about effort as much as possible. Instead of “Well done” try “I see how hard you’re working on your book report.” Instead of “Good game” try “You practiced so hard and now you’re making almost every basket!” Instead of “Good job” try “You did it! I know how much effort you put into getting it right.”
  6. Expose your child to the body positivity, size acceptance, and fat liberation movements. No, they aren’t perfect but what is? Letting voices outside of your family speak to your child about how important it is to love our bodies unconditionally can counteract much of the messaging coming through media.
  7. Teach your child about their body and use proper terms for body parts. It can be tough, but it’s important to talk about topics like menstruation, masturbation, and sex as factually and honestly as you can. Using euphemisms and appearing in any way like you’re uncomfortable with the discussion can send a message that something is inherently wrong with our bodies. You can prepare for these discussions by practicing talking openly about bodily functions. For instance, starting in infancy, rather than naming feces things like “stinky” and making comments about how bad your child’s diaper smells, try simply stating “You pooped! Let’s get cleaned up.” Reserve the commentary for your child’s sake.
  8. If your child is struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other treatable mental health burden, prioritize professional intervention. Positive and negative body image fluctuate over our lifetimes, influenced both by external messaging and our internal mental health. Therapists can make a huge difference in the life of a child and, by teaching your child to seek help as a matter of course, you will set them up for a lifetime of well tended mental health. **If your child is displaying symptoms of an eating disorder no matter how much they weigh, get help immediately.
  9. And, of course, this piece wouldn’t be complete without plugging Peaceful Parenting! All of the work you’re putting into being respectful of your kids, honoring consent and bodily autonomy, and speaking lovingly will go a long way toward supplying your child’s inner voice with the power it needs to fight back against negative ideation.

Getting Through Those Tough Conversations

When you need to craft a response to your child’s self-deprecating commentary, remember three things:

  1. Avoid invalidating your child’s feelings and empathize where possible
  2. Acknowledge truth
  3. Challenge the narrative

Example Comment: “I can’t wear what the other girls wear. They’re a lot skinnier than I am.”

  1. Avoid Invalidating And Empathize: Resist the urge to say “You’re not fat” or otherwise deny your child’s feelings. Neutrally recognize how they feel in the moment.
  2. Acknowledge Truth: “You’re right that different people have different body types.”
  3. Challenge the Narrative: “ALL body types are good body types. Wear what makes you feel great. They can do the same.”

Example Conversation

Daughter: I can’t wear what the other girls wear. They’re a lot skinnier than I am.

Parent: You’re right that different people have different body types. ALL body types are good body types. Wear what makes you feel great. They can do the same.

Daughter: You don’t understand! I’m so FAT. I hate myself.

Parent: Uh uh. I DO know how it feels to hate my body. I get it. I’ve felt exactly the same way. It’s hard to overcome those feelings when everyone seems to be telling you to hate yourself because you aren’t their version of perfect. It’s hard. Really hard. I’m here for you anytime you need to unload.

Unfortunately, negative body image can’t be overcome in a single conversation. If it could, the weight loss industry wouldn’t be dealing in $70+ billion every year. You’re going to have thousands of these moments to deconstruct what our culture has built in your child’s mind. Your child likely won’t be receptive at first and may go through many setbacks as the years go by. Give it time and give your child grace. Every effort on your part brings your child one step closer to abundant self-confidence. You are the living stopgap measure standing in the breach until your child finds their own best weapon against this brutal enemy. It’s a hard place to stand, but there is no better person than you to protect your child.

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.