Give the Washington Post credit for consistency, anyway. When the Associated Press decided to start using capitals on racial identifiers rather than proper names alone, they later clarified that the new policy only applied to “Black.” To capitalize “White” could contribute to white supremacy, argued John Daniszewski, AP’s editor at large for standards:
“White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color,” Daniszewski said.
We’ll get back to that argument in a moment, but the Post decided to choose consistency over distinction:
Starting now, the @washingtonpost will uppercase the B in Black to identify the many groups that make up the African diaspora in America and elsewhere.
The Post will also use other racial and ethnic identifiers as follows (per company email): pic.twitter.com/D9FQUKc4vi
— Rachel Leah Siegel (@rachsieg) July 29, 2020
The @washingtonpost will also capitalize the “W” in White, citing that “White is a distinct cultural identity in the United States…” and is a “collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation.” https://t.co/k5d57qK1fD
— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) July 29, 2020
White is a “distinct cultural identity”? That might be news to many white people in the US, at least those outside of supremacist circles. Most others take their cultural identity from their actual ancestry, not the color of their skin. They identify as Irish-American, Italian-American, Polish-American, and so on. That is why EWTN reporter Kevin Jones asked this question:
How do I know if I’m white?
I know my ethnicity due to family history and cultural upbringing. Nobody treated me as white until I went to college.
— Kevin J. Jones (@kevinjjones) July 29, 2020
There is a common problem in both the WaPo and AP explanations. They differ on whether “white” is a “distinct cultural identity” while assuming “black” is a singular cultural identity. Is it, though? Perhaps as a political identity (and even that is too simplistic), but this glosses over the fact that African-Americans in the US have distinctions that a single label tends to obliterate. Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Karen Bass, and Ilhan Omar all have very different backgrounds, experiences, and likely very different cultural identities. Isn’t it somewhat presumptuous to assume that they all share one culture merely on the basis of the color of their skin? Even apart from the capitalization use?
This wasn’t a problem when media outlets stuck to basic grammatical rules in their style guides. The adjective and noun uses of black, white, indigenous, and aboriginal didn’t get capitalized, while proper names or forms such as Asian, African, Pacific and so on did. That allowed for a neutral handling of the issue by media outlets, and a less jarring experience for readers. Once media outlets caved to one group demanding the capitalization of one word, it created pressure to address all of the other adjective and noun uses in one way or another. And it inevitably led to silly distinctions and even sillier non-distinctions that erode credibility — while annoying readers.
Thus it goes in the Great Cultural Revolution, however. We do not ask questions or rely on language standards; instead, we must appease or put ourselves at the mercy of whatever caste of Robespierres are in ascendancy at the moment. At least this form of appeasement is one of the more benign taking place, and at least the Washington Post’s new style guide has the virtue of consistency.