I have long liked how Ebony magazine capitalized the word “Black” when applied to Black people. But on points of English I mostly follow the Oxford dictionary. So I wrote it as “black” instead. I was certainly in good company: Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Cornel West, etc.
But then in March 2014, I started to capitalize it.
I was mainly persuaded by what Daniel K. Richter said in “Facing East from Indian Country” (2001):
“To emphasize that the identities represented by these color terms were historically constructed rather than the product of some natural or ancient inheritance, I have capitalized the words throughout.”
Further, he does not apply colour terms to people in his history till the 1700s when they themselves started thinking in those terms.
I was also persuaded by what Peter Farb said in “Man’s Rise to Civilization” (1968), another book about Native Americans:
“… I have settled upon “White.” I hope the fact that I have spelled it with a capital letter imparts to the reader that I am really not talking about any particular Caucasoids but about an abstraction – a composite of social, political and economic attitudes by certain people, whose skin is usually whiter than most of the world’s population and who behave in a certain way toward primitive peoples wherever they were encountered around the globe.”
and, as if that were not enough:
“The White is a colonizer who early developed an advanced technology; he is an exploiter of human and natural resources; he has destroyed, often intentionally, almost every alien culture he has come in contact with; and he has imposed an iron rule on the remnant peoples of these cultures.”
He does not use “European” because plenty of Europeans were not part of what went on in the Americas.
In Farb’s book it works beautifully: Whites appear as just another people, just like the Mound Builders or the Aztecs.
I agree with how Farb and Richter look at it. To me using “blacks” and “whites” (lower case) sees race as a fact of nature, like “cats” and “dogs”, while using “Blacks” and “Whites” (upper case) sees them as a fact of history, like “Germans” and “Jews”. It sees race as a social construction.
Also, I mainly use the five-race model for the US: Black, White, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans. So if Native, Hispanic and Asian are capitalized, then why not Black and White too?
If anything, it is suspicious that White and Black are not regularly capitalized in English when applied to people. That makes it unlike every other term for an ethnic, cultural, religious, political, tribal or national group: Republicans, Methodists, Lithuanians, Basques, Navajos. The only thing like it that I can think of is “gypsy”, ugh, which just calls it further into doubt.
It is like how it seems to be more than an “accident”, oops, that Whites in the US call themselves “Americans” while calling Natives “Indians”! As if Manifest Destiny and dispossession were built right into English.
– Abagond, 2015.
- Why I use “black” instead of “Black” – wherein I took the opposite point of view, mostly by wrapping myself in the pages of the Oxford dictionary
- style guide
- Is race biologically real?
- settler colonialism
- African American
- Black Canada: A brief history – the last post where I regularly put Black in lower case (February 27th 2014).