Style guide update: Capitalize the "B" in "Black" when referring to people

We’re going to go down a bit of a linguistic rabbit hole today, but it’s an issue that deserves a bit more attention than it will probably receive in the press. There’s been yet another update to the Associated Press Style Guide and for once it doesn’t have to do with obliterating the English language in the name of social justice warfare. (Though it does touch on issues of race as we’ll see in a moment.) The decision has been made to use the upper-case B when referring to Black people, though not when simply referring to the color black, obviously. The AP has the details of their own story.

The Associated Press changed its writing style guide Friday to capitalize the “b” in the term Black when referring to people in a racial, ethnic or cultural context, weighing in on a hotly debated issue.

The change conveys “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa,” John Daniszewski, AP’s vice president of standards, said in a blog post Friday. “The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”

The news organization will also now capitalize Indigenous in reference to original inhabitants of a place.

As you can see in the excerpt above, they are also now capitalizing “Indigenous” when referring to a specific group of people native to a particular region. I’m not as sure about that one because it’s more of a basic adjective or descriptor than a specific racial reference.

As far as capitalizing Black people goes, I actually started doing that over the winter following a discussion of the subject with a liberal friend of mine on Twitter. Some of you actually noticed already and I got a few, though not many, “interesting” emails in response.

When this was first brought to my attention, I found myself somewhat surprised that it had never even occurred to me before. I’m talking about the raw mechanics of the English language here, by the way, rather than some overarching discussion of racial issues in our culture. We already capitalize Asian-American and Hispanic as well as Native American. We also already capitalize African-American, but the fact is that there are other groups of Black people who do not trace their roots directly to ancestors from the African continent. (Examples include people from some Caribbean islands others from certain regions of India.)

The word “Black” (as a reference to people) has evolved quite a bit just over the course of my own lifetime. There was a time when it was seen as a pejorative, but that’s really changed since the early days of the civil rights era. There’s probably also a certain amount of confusion in some corners because of the fact that we’re talking about the only recognized race regularly referred to by color except for whites. (More on that below.) There was a time when Asians were mockingly referred to as “yellow” and Indigenous Americans as “red” but neither was ever accepted as a non-pejorative term. The use of “brown” to refer to a variety of other racial groups, including Hispanic people (“Black and brown people” is now in common media use) still seems to be in flux.

But in the end, we’re really just talking about standardized conventions that likely won’t amount to a pile of figs for anyone who doesn’t make their living committing acts of wordsmithing. If you find yourself objecting to the capitalizing Black people, what is the basis for your objection? Unless you actually think that Black people are somehow inherently less worthy of the same level of recognition as any other racial group, I’m hard pressed to think of a reason why you would be bothered by it.

In closing, allow me to address the one subject that I absolutely know will be coming up in response to this topic. What about white people? Why aren’t we capitalizing white? Well, you’ve got me there. I honestly don’t have an answer for you. White is the other color that’s commonly accepted as a reference to people. We capitalize European and Caucasian, but that really doesn’t encapsulate the full expanse of white people on the planet at this point But this is also just not an issue that I find myself being bothered over. If you want to capitalize White people, go for it. If the style guides start moving in that direction, I’ll adopt it as well. But it’s not one of the logophile hills I’m interested in dying on at the moment.