Seeing Black written with a capital b means more than you think it does

People often ask why I get so hung up on something that is literally tiny when there are bigger racial injustices to tackle.

October 1st 2022

Seeing Black written with a capital b means more than you think it does

As a diversity and inclusion commentator, I’m used to copy editors striking through the capital ‘B’ in my work and replacing it with a lower case.  

In fact, it has become such a regular occurrence that I’m often audibly shocked when I see Black in place of black, when I’m sent any edits back. 

Because let me tell you: as a Black woman living in a western world, I am all too familiar with the experience of being erased.

People often ask why I get so hung up on something that is literally, tiny – a couple of millimetres perhaps, equivalent to the size of peppercorn – when there are bigger racial injustices to tackle.

The answer is straightforward: the capitalisation of the ‘B’ in Black is more than just a simple matter of typography.

To capitalise Black is to recognise an ethnic identity. 

For clarity, Black with a capital ‘B’ refers to people of the African and Caribbean diaspora. 

Whereas black with a lowercase ‘b’ refers to the actual colour, like a crayon.

The uncomfortable reality is that for centuries, the fate of Black identification has, with minor exception, been left to white people to juggle however they see fit. 

The Pew Research Centre – a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world – noted ‘Black people have gone from being called “Slaves” (1790) to “black” (1850) to “negro” (1900) to “Negro” (1930) to “Negro or Black” (1970) to “Black or Negro” (1980)’.  

And Black people have been forced to conform and contort themselves into these harmful and limiting racial categorisations.

In an 1878 editorial titled Spell it with a Capital, Ferdinand Lee Barnett, the founder of a weekly newspaper that brought Black issues to the mainstream (similar to The Voice in the UK), highlighted that, ‘… the failure of white people to capitalise “Negro” was to show disrespect to, stigmatise, “fasten a badge of inferiority” on Black people.’

In addition, throughout history, many powerful western countries continued to dehumanise Black people by refusing to put salutations, such as Mr, Mrs, Miss, Dr, Professor etc. in front of their names.

Which is why reclaiming language to affirm the identity of Black people is not performative nor superficial.

abi adamson
In a rare moment as a Black woman, I felt safe, heard, and accepted (Picture: Abi Adamson)

Instead, it is an integral part of the struggle for racial justice.

And yet, it has been – and remains – up for debate.

In June 2020, the Associated Press (AP) updated its style guide – commonly known as the ‘bible for journalism’ – to capitalise the ‘B’ in the term Black when referring to people in: ‘a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying 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. The lowercase black is a colour, not a person.’

This tiny, typographical change, which came around a month after the murder of George Floyd, was a watershed moment.

It was a moment that brought me to tears.

I felt my dignity as a Black woman – which had long been compromised by deeply embedded racism and social injustice – was on its way back to being restored.

And in a rare moment as a Black woman, I felt safe, heard, and accepted. And in a broader reflection, I experienced a sense of justice for all those whose existence was plagued by oppression, and even worse, erasure.

Sadly, it takes a controversial stand to balance out privilege and power for Black people.

It’s over two years since the AP brought fresh attention to the capitalisation of Black. And although the conversation is moving in the right direction, the fight is still on.

Because since the initial fanfare, I have seen little in the way of noise or support.

In fact, many people found the change to be perplexing and confounding and spoke out against it.

Some commentators have noted that these stylistic changes are superficial, narrow the Black experience, and are not linguistically accurate.

While it is true that Black, unlike African American, Asian American and Italian, is not derived from a proper noun, it is an identity. To lowercase it robs Black people of a certain dignity. 

Others have argued that the imposition of a rule around the capitalisation of Black, and subsequently their guidelines to dictate what is best for Black people at large, should not be in the hands of institutions. Rather, it should be in the hands of the individual writer to make the choice. 

But we only have to revert to history to see how toxic the freedom of individual power can be when it comes to dictating what is best for Black people at large.

And some people – including those who felt Black was now being accorded a respect that white was not (if you could see me now, I’m rolling my eyes) sparked a campaign for the capitalisation of white, too. 

Now, let’s recognise there are just arguments for and against the capitalisation of white. 

On one hand, it has been suggested that the capitalisation of white may better enable us to discuss the impact of white people and their role in history, particularly how white people have operated in a racial way. 

Indeed, it would help create a more equal world if white people did not think of themselves as the default mode of experience.

In fact, The Washington Post moved to the capitalisation of white in July 2020.

Plus, it has been argued that the capitalisation of white as a norm may weaken the force of it as a supremacist gesture.

On the other hand, why should we capitalise white?

I have chosen to not capitalise white for this article because let’s not lose sight of why this conversation exists. It is the Black race that continues to be marginalised and dehumanised.

Establishing a mandate instead of leaving capitalisation to the writer as a choice, amplifies the critical, cultural importance and accurate representation.

As a Black woman, believe me when I say I never want to take away someone’s will.

But if we are to positively and permanently lay the foundations of social justice work, and build equitable practices in society, then we must be willing to counter oppressive language.

And that includes language that reduces Black people to an object, like a black crayon.

Black people have earned the right to have their identity capitalised and not reduced to a colour. Not just in the media, but in our workplaces and in communities, too.

Nothing about the campaign for Black justice has ever been lowercase. There is nothing small about what we have contributed to the world.

Using a capital ‘B’ reclaims a power that has been lost for hundreds of years. It is this power that is helping create an equal world.

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(Source : https://metro.co.uk/2022/10/01/seeing-black-written-with-a-capital-b-means-more-than-you-think-it-does-2-17480271/)
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