Why "White" Should be Capitalized, TooRoundup
tags: racism, journalism, Whiteness
Nell Irvin Painter is the author of The History of White People.
Let’s talk about that lowercase “white.”
Restructuring policing in ways that matter will take years, and many more Confederate monuments remain standing than have come down. But in these past few earth-shaking months, one change has advanced with startling speed: All this social upheaval has suddenly and widely restored a capital B to the word “Black.”
I say “restored,” because that capital B appeared in the 1970s. I used it myself. Then editors, uncomfortable with both the odd combination of uppercase “Black” and lowercase “white,” and the unfamiliar, bumpy “Black and White,” took off both capital letters. “Black” returned to “black.”
In the wake of massive George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, however, media outlets and journalist associations are re-embracing the capital B. The Associated Press, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and many others took the step. (The Post has said it is considering the change.) Even Fox News joined the crowd. The most common motive can be summed up as respect. To many, the case for capitalizing “Black” seemed obvious, whether as an ethnicity or a racial designation.
But what about “white”?
I had been inclined toward the new formula: capital B for “Black”; lowercase w for “white” and lowercase b for “brown” (another important question to resolve) — but with serious reservations.
My initial thinking: When I compare the cultural, intellectual and historical heft of the three categories, “Black” comes out well ahead of “white” and “brown.” We have whole libraries of books and articles about “Blackness,” world-beating traditions of music and literature, even entire academic departments 30 to 50 years old specializing in African American/black studies. Compared with blackness, whiteness and brownness are severely under-theorized.
But, in a June statement, the National Association of Black Journalists articulated a different view, stating, “NABJ also recommends that whenever a color is used to appropriately describe race then it should be capitalized, including White and Brown.” Such a recommendation from the leading organization representing black journalists should give anyone pause.
A second reservation arose as I considered the asymmetry of racial identities of blackness and whiteness — and how they function differently in American history and culture.
These two identities don’t simply mirror each other — one works through a pronounced group identity; the other more often is lived as unraced individuality. However much you might see yourself as an individual, if you’re black, you also have to contend with other people’s views. W.E.B. Du Bois summed this up as “twoness,” as seeing yourself as yourself but also knowing that other people see you as a black person. You don’t have to be a black nationalist to see yourself as black.
In contrast, until quite recently white Americans rarely saw themselves as raced — as white. Most of them, anyway. The people who have embraced “white” as a racial identity have been white nationalists, Ku Klux Klansmen and their ilk. Thanks to President Trump, white nationalists are more visible than ever in our public spaces.
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