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.