Caps vs. lowercase; Black and white

Hiya! This is Jeffrey Bouley. Yeah, you might note the similarity in last name with Shay Stewart-Bouley (a.k.a BGIM or Black Girl in Maine). I’m the back-end support and editor around here, and a verrrrrrry junior partner in this BGIM Media venture (as well as a co-parent, friend and former spouse of BGIM).

Normally, I like to be a silent partner. But being in the back end of this site as I often am, I had noticed the other week a comment awaiting approval that asked why, in reference to race, Black is capitalized (for the most part) around this site and white (for the most part) is not.

Well, as a guy who makes his living as a magazine editor (and occasional freelance writer) and makes a lot of judgment calls regarding style here (don’t worry; BGIM has full veto rights and I’m glad to let her have them; this is her show), I figured maybe I should pop my head out of my editorial hole and address the matter.

First, I can point you to an excellent piece titled “The Case for Black With a Capital B” and another very good piece that, while I don’t necessarily agree with, talks out the concerns related to using Black but not White, titled “Black and white: why capitalization matters.”

Second, I can promise you that nothing is ever cut-and-dried in language (yeah, it changes, and sometimes fast), and thus is never unchangeable around here at BGIM Media, either. What is general style for the site now (Black but not White) might not always be style. For example, BGIM and I are wrestling with some of the terminology around indigenous people (more on that in a moment, though), and so there might (or might not) be changes there one day.

So, why personally do BGIM and myself prefer to use “Black” for the group that has for so long in media been known as African American (and previously other terms like Afro American or Negro) and “white” for Caucasian people (itself an odd term since relatively few white people in the United States trace their ancestry to The Caucasus)?

Well, as far as Black, it’s like this: First of all, it seems that brown-skinned Americans whose roots lie generations past in Africa and mostly hail from descendants who were enslaved here in the U.S. are more apt to use “Black” than “African American” these days. As such, we want to honor and respect that seeming preference, given that this whole entire blog is about honoring and giving voice to people of color. Also, it’s how BGIM self-identifies and refers to African American people.

Also, Black people represent a clear racial category in America. From the way they look to their genetic and historical origins to the way society treats them, they are generally a single broad racial bloc in the same way that Latinx and/or Hispanic people are. The way that Asians are. Or Native Americans are. And so on.

As such, it is capitalized.

So why not go with White? Why do we chose a lowercase white instead? Is it because we hate white people around here? No, not at all.

Generally speaking, white people don’t think of themselves as white unless they are confronted with having to think of themselves in relation to other races, which they typically don’t. For the most part, white people in the U.S. simply see themselves as “people” and behave as such, while non-white people almost always have to live their lives with a knowledge that society lists them as “other” and whiteness as “normal.”

If you ask white people about their heritage or ethnicity, they will generally jump to things like Italian-American, Irish-American, etc. And often they won’t even add the “-American” part.

White people don’t generally see their whiteness as a racial or ethnic thing. And often, sadly, those who do are the kind of people who like the idea of white supremacy and think people who originate from Europe are the only civilized folks and/or the people to whom we owe everything important in arts, philosophy and science.

Also, whiteness is a social construct. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what some of you are going to say: All race concepts are social constructs; we’re all just human. Well, yes and no. As a medical and healthcare journalist I can tell you that race and ethnicity does mean some subtle and specific differences biologically for both good and ill, as well as greater or lesser susceptibility or resistance to certain conditions, medications, etc. But yes, we divide people in terms of ancestry, region of origin or color in what are artificial and often harmful and oppressive ways.

But whiteness is something special (and often awful in its social power). Whiteness has less to do with ancestry than it does with social acceptance, assimilation and visual similarity. Don’t forget that it wasn’t that far back in American history when Irish people, Italians, Catholics and many others weren’t considered white. However, as immigrants gave way to multiple generations of their descendants (and as white society realized that ethnic whites they didn’t embrace might side with other definitively non-white people against the powers-that-be), they began to be considered “white” and treated just like any other white person.

Thus, whiteness is very fluid and very subjective. Even now, I think many white people would not consider people from Eastern European nations as being truly and completely white and certainly many are on the fence as to whether to extend white privileges in U.S. society to Jewish people or not.

Whiteness, you see, can be granted or taken away, even if your skin is pink-hued. Cubans who are white-skinned are often embraced as white; those who are dark-skinned are often turned away or shunned by America and are never considered white.

People who are darker-skinned are never afforded whiteness, even if they are of mixed race (heck, even if their skin is pale but their racial ancestry is known to be connected to Black or brown people). Almost never will a biracial Black/white person be viewed as half-white. They are either half-Black or just Black to U.S. society as a whole. The closer you are to white, the more likely you can cash in on white privileges (Asian-Americans being one example), but even so, they can never fully get into the white club. And as I noted already, it is possible to be excluded from whiteness even with the palest skin if your ancestry or heritage offends American “norms.”

And yes, I used the word “club.” Whiteness has more in common with being a club than it does with actual race/ethnicity.

And so, for now at least, we will continue to use “Black” and “white” here at BGIM Media, even though journalists for the most part (and I’m one of them) are expected and encouraged to lowercase both and ideally use African American rather than black anyway.

Now, as I mentioned before, one thing we’re still working on is terminology around indigenous people. Some would capitalize it as “Indigenous People” but I do resist that, in part because it is a somewhat generic term overall that can be applied to any nation or any place. Also, from what I’ve been able to glean so far, the indigenous people of the United States seem to prefer either Native American or American Indian or switch between the two. However, if Indigenous People becomes the standard among those who are indigenous people, the style here can most certainly change.

This long-winded answer will certainly not satisfy everyone on the issue of Black and white; I and BGIM understand that. But at least it gives you a sense of why.
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4 thoughts on “Caps vs. lowercase; Black and white

  1. Sometimes I upper case White to support the point that Whiteness is a concrete idea created to justify taking other people’s stuff (land, freedom, lives, choices.) Mostly, though, I follow the Black/white convention I see in writings of People of Color, because they always get to lead my way through this material.

  2. But the thing that is so insane in this dyad of “black” versus “white” is that many “white’s ” are really not that “white” —instead showing the genetic variations surrounding their heritage. But absolutely at stake here is an historical dominance that is based solely on these variations of “whiteness”. It is no wonder black “passing” goes on to “whiteness”. However it is a shock to our sensibilities when “white children” that could pass still fully embrace the “blackness “of their heritage. A social construct based on deviations of melatonin that should have been buried long ago !

  3. It is so interesting how the American press is already “tipping around the obvious” …. that Harry Windsor, 6th in line to the British Crown is engaged to be shortly married to a biracial American woman (her father is white, mom is black)…. and is so “silent ” on this obvious. While the engagement of the biracial couple had to approved by the Queen. According to the British press, the only question that was raised is that the bride -to -be had been once married and until recently that would have prevented such a union. If the United States could only mature !

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