Why Capitalizing “Black” Matters
Ask SAPIENS is a series that offers a glimpse into the magazine’s inner workings.
In the last few weeks, major media organizations have made the decision to capitalize Black in recognition of the significance, as the Associated Press (AP) wrote, of “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black.” The AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and numerous other news organizations have announced this change. For most, it’s a deeply considered decision that is also reflective of the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is working to create “a world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive.”
In the past, SAPIENS only capitalized Black upon an author’s request. Now we join with these other organizations and adopt this change to our magazine’s standard style. (We also will capitalize White, except in references to white supremacy and white nationalism, and other historical “race”-based terms that are still in use, in contradiction to AP’s recent decision.)
We recognize that in the U.S.—where our publication is based—and around the world, the term “Black,” although it originated in racist systems of the past, has become about self-determination and community. Alongside the increasing use of the term, the capitalization of Black has had its own trajectory and proponents. Many in the Black diaspora and beyond have been capitalizing the term for decades. In June, Sarah Glover, the former president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), wrote the AP and other news organizations to request they capitalize Black in references to people and the Black community.
Many have argued that lowercase black signifies a color and does not recognize the full humanity and resonant meanings of the identity of Black.
As an anthropology magazine, we have long been concerned whether, for some, capitalizing Black and White might reinforce historical—and faulty—ideas about “race”: that race is a scientifically proven biological phenomenon that supports the hierarchical ranking of human groups. This influential myth linked behavioral and physical features of “racial groups” to justify European and Euro-American oppression of “others.” Whites were at the top. Blacks were slotted in at the bottom, with other “racial” groups placed somewhere in between—or, even worse, Black people were viewed, along with Indigenous peoples, as not even human.
This myth has been firmly debunked. But it still retains currency. In adopting the capitalization of Black and White, are we countering—or reinforcing—this “myth of race”?
It depends on usage, context, and intent. But, overall, we hope our capitalization will help recognize the contemporary realities of racial identities and convey long-overdue recognition of and respect for Black identity, without supporting old racist ideas or systems that reflect them. The capitalization may also, we hope, encourage authors to think more deeply about how and why they are using racial terms.
After centuries of use, racial terms are complex and have different meanings for various communities. Discussions about such terms often use wording that has been normalized, so it can be challenging to parse their exact meaning.
The AP Stylebook, which SAPIENS draws heavily from, advises: “Black (adj.) Use the capitalized term as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges.”
What’s taken-for-granted is the notion that a “racial sense” exists as a fixed and distinct category, as a given—as a rational way of describing an intent, people’s experiences, or the world at large. What’s left unquestioned is what is meant by “racial.”
It relates to race—so, is racial a biological term? A social one? A cultural one? Is it historical? How does it differ from an “ethnic sense”? (“Ethnic,” too, has its issues. Race and ethnicity are not the same thing.) Has the meaning of race changed over time or remained static? What exactly does “racial” point to—and who gets to say?
Biological anthropologists have shown that race has no biological basis. The social categories of race don’t map onto genetic differences between populations. The myth of race says they do.
This myth was born from European colonialism, which began in the 15th century, and was buttressed through the generations by legal canons, religious creeds, pseudoscience (including from the discipline of anthropology), and more. Race is inextricably linked to a history of domination based on an invented racial hierarchy that became global in its reach through colonialism, slavery, imperialism, and racial capitalism.
So, the term Black has an integrity and strength of meaning globally in part because it offers a way to make visible ongoing and historic anti-Blackness, white supremacy (both explicit and the subtler forms that are embedded in social systems), racialized imperialism, and colonial-style violence. Just as “Indigenous” gained new meaning in the 1970s as a way to describe common experiences of colonialism and other historic and ongoing injustices, unity comes from similar experiences across racist structures.
Some style guides and dictionaries explain that racism is a doctrine (per AP’s current wording) or belief. But racism is not only a belief or doctrine (a principle or policy), it’s much deeper and more widespread. Institutions and systems (affecting entire social systems)—constitutions and laws, geographical boundaries, health care, policing, and knowledge production are examples—can uphold and reproduce racist ideologies on a massive, but often hidden, scale.
Writing explicitly in racial terms and capitalizing Black, in particular, thus recognizes present and historic systems that harm, exploit, and terrorize Black people: From redlining to the prison industrial complex to the policing of Black communities to how enslavement was central to the rise of the U.S. as an economic powerhouse to massacres and widespread lynching, among other examples.
“White people don’t fully realize that ‘being Black’ is not a kind of fixed experience that automatically differentiates Black people’s experiences based on skin tone,” writes Anastasia Kārkliņa, a graduate student in literature at Duke University. “Rather, racial experiences arise out of having to deal with white (sic) people and, therefore, being forced to learn about them, watch them, and, above all, watch out for them.”
The impacts to those who are affected by ongoing racism need to be unveiled, named, tracked, and changed—and the “racial” group that largely benefits from racism, White people as a collective, also needs to be named, made visible, and scrutinized. (Of course, it’s much more complicated in light of classicism, gender discrimination, and other forms of harm. We focus on racism here.) It’s not a contradiction to both work to unseat false biological concepts of race while giving voice to all the ways “racism creates race” and the ongoing impacts of racism, at all levels, that threaten individuals, communities, and societies.
Far from only being an issue in the U.S., the effects of racism are global. “Race … is a central organizing feature of world politics,” write scholars Kelebogile Zvobgo and Meredith Loken.
Anthropology, which has long been complicit in many of these racist systems, perhaps has a particular obligation to help illuminate how race is experienced socially and systemically, even as it fights against the very systems that perpetrate anti-Black racism and white supremacy.
The way we apply these insights at SAPIENS varies across our articles. How do we know when an author is supporting the “myth of race” or not?
We ask ourselves whether they are using race terms to:
- counter the myth of race (anti-Blackness, white supremacy, the racial hierarchy, et cetera),
- analyze racism and its impacts,
- describe the lived experiences of Black or other racial communities,
- expose the privileges or ongoing oppression of racial groups due to the myth of race,
- explain how race is a social construction, neither natural nor biologically real (although its impacts can be biologically real),
- historicize racial categories and unpack how they have changed over time and why.
If they are not, the author may be implicitly or explicitly defending and reproducing the myth of race. The issue, then, is not only whether a racial term is capitalized or not—but why and how it is being used.
As anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote, the French language helps us understand that “conter (to tell a story) is always conte redire (to retell a story), which can also be written contredire (to contradict).” What anthropologists understand about myths is that language, social relationships, and rituals keep them alive.
Communicators are either naturalizing the myth of race (taking it as a given), or, hopefully, writing against it by “retelling” the stories of race and the lived experiences of it.
People in the African diaspora have been doing this retelling for centuries, taking down racist ideologies and countering the power imbalances created by that foundational myth. Such counternarratives “are the antithesis to stories that benefit the lives of the few,” writes educator and writer Jehan Roberson. “In looking at the works of Black women [for example], they are an ongoing conversation, a sisterhood of reference and retrieval that arcs back to 1619 and the beginnings of African enslavement.”
“There is no question,” journalist and author Andrea Collier says, “that storytelling for Black America is a way of saying, I am here and I matter.”
Of course, some people don’t use the term “Black.” Most style guides encourage communicators to use whichever term people prefer. “This lineage, while collective, contains a diverse array of histories, cultures, and experiences,” says the Diversity Style Guide. And as publications, we need to share stories from across the spectrum of lived experiences and avoid elevating only dominant voices, political voices, or those that fit a particular narrative. We can recognize the “danger of a single story.”
Through careful usage and conscious framing, authors can also challenge historical arrangements of power, which brings us to the loaded question of why we have decided to capitalize White. If this racial term, too, is formalized in this way, are we not setting ourselves back to previous generations who believed humanity could easily be divided into clear racial groups based on skin color and other physical attributes?
Moreover, one could argue that capitalizing White does not bring to the social category any further humanity—unlike capitalizing Black. “White” has long been seen as problematic, in part for the colonial and imperial history of the term but also for how some contemporary white supremacist groups have capitalized the term.
On the other hand, if capitalizing Black is a critical way to make visible the social realities of race and expose the colonial histories of racist thinking, then White people should not be excused from these legacies. They are neither exempt from history nor unaffected by race and racism.
Some who have grown up as White think they don’t have a “race”—an understanding that is often taken-for-granted but is incorrect. Ideas about “Whiteness” were constructed over time and systematized through legal, religious, sociopolitical (including pop culture), economic, and other means to support the exploitation, annihilation, and oppression of particular groups of “non-White” people. White people benefit from being born into the top of the pernicious and persistent racial hierarchy, the power of which has been kept invisible so the system could be perpetuated. This interweaving of privilege and power needs to be unpacked and interrogated.
Historically, “Whiteness” has been viewed as the norm or the default by which other groups are measured against. Thinking of White solely as a physical descriptor erases the fact and impact of white supremacy and white supremacist systems—and how those have shaped our collective social world. It erases the force of a troubling historic global identity of “Whiteness as domination.”
Globally “retelling” and reconfiguring that inherited position and identity is a powerful way to counter the myth of race.
“As long as White people do not ever have to interrogate what Whiteness is, where it comes from, how it operates, or what it does,” sociologist and poet Eve L. Ewing writes, “they can maintain the fiction that race is other people’s problem, that they are mere observers in a centuries-long stage play in which they have, in fact, been the producers, directors, and central actors.”
Our decision to capitalize White, and Brown, in addition to Black has been influenced by the Diversity Style Guide and the guidance of the NABJ, which recently advised: “It is important to capitalize ‘Black’ when referring to (and out of respect for) the Black diaspora. NABJ also recommends that whenever a color is used to appropriately describe race then it should be capitalized, including White and Brown.” We also have turned to the Global Press Guide’s tip sheet for guidance on ensuring the dignity and personhood of people represented in stories.
We encourage authors to consider the overt and hidden meanings of these terms and to be intentional and clear about when, how, and why they are using them. Authors should examine why they are opting for race-based terms over other descriptions and question whether the capitalized term conveys a message of power, history, or identity—or a mix of all three?
Numerous mainstream publishing organizations are now putting their support behind the capitalization of Black, accepting and adopting the reasons why many in the African diaspora have been styling it that way for decades. What was once seen as an “outside” contradiction has been adopted by popular media organizations (largely of historically White origins) to further unseat the grip of the myth of race, particularly its notions of anti-Blackness.
We celebrate this shift for that reason and for how it recognizes and honors Black people and communities.
Alongside fully supporting this change, we remind readers that “race” as a way of organizing human groups has not always existed. Racial ideologies originated and took hold at specific points in history, and racism does not have to exist. In the evolutionary arc of humanity, racism and ideologies of race are a relatively small—but horrifically damaging—sliver of our timeline.
Only in fully divesting from abusive systems of power that reinforce, either explicitly or implicitly, white supremacy and its institutions and systems can we as a species have any hope of creating a future where the “myth of race” has no traction. By paying attention to capitalization—and our usage, contextualization, and intent—we can continue retelling humanity’s stories.