Unearthing Racial Identity: The Capitalisation of Black and Its Influence on Modern Culture

by | Feb 7, 2023 | WOKESPLAIN™ | 0 comments

“Capitalisation of Black” as a cultural identifier is a topic that has generated significant discourse in recent years. From media outlets to political institutions, this stylistic choice represents more than a mere descriptor; it symbolises a collective identity rooted in a shared history and cultural experience. This article embarks on an exploration of the capitalisation of ‘Black’, its historical context, its current usage, and the debates that it continues to provoke in society.

Have you ever wondered why throughout the media and other cultural and political institutions the word ‘black’ is always capitalised when referencing the colour of an individual’s skin? The capitalisation of the word ‘black’ gained widespread usage in the 1960s and 1970s, during the Civil Rights Movement. It is rare now to see any text whereby it does not apply this rule. However, many have forgotten what it means and why it is applied.

The capitalisation was a way to signal solidarity, pride, and unity among African Americans as they fought for their rights and equality. The usage of ‘Black’ rather than ‘black’ served to recognise the collective political and cultural identity of black people and emphasise the significance of their struggle. The capitalisation of ‘black’ has since become a common practice in discussions of race and politics, both in the United States and internationally.

Thomas Sowell touched on the issues of group identity within the ‘black community’ and the problems that arise when a group of individuals are required to conform to a strict set of qualities that pigeonhole a diverse set of people. He explained what happened when an individual from this ‘community’ dare to excel beyond its rigid constraints.

In his book, ‘Black Rednecks and White Liberals’, Thomas Sowell addresses the notion of group identity and conformity within the ‘black community’. He argues that intellectuals in the 1960s perpetuated the idea that only those blacks who exhibited a culture associated with the ghetto or ‘black redneck culture’ were considered ‘authentic’. This caused controversy between Irving Howe and Ralph Ellison, with Howe criticising black writers like Ellison for not being ‘militant’ enough. According to Sowell, this notion that the ghetto black was the only ‘authentic’ black, not only spread among both white and black intellectuals but also had far-reaching social consequences.

Sowell states that rooting black identity in a counter-productive culture reduced incentives for individuals to move beyond it and cut them off from other successful blacks who could have been valuable sources of knowledge and experience. This led to pressure for more successful blacks to conform to the narrow ghetto view of the world, including using ghetto language, to prove their ‘identity’ with their own race. This became particularly acute for young blacks in schools and colleges, leading to a perpetuation of counterproductive attitudes towards education. The irony, according to Sowell, is that those who make accusations of ‘acting white’ are themselves perpetuating a redneck culture that echoes the violence, arrogance, and self-dramatisation of white redneck culture. Sowell warns that the post-1960s black identity intolerance promoted by white intellectuals and black leaders and activists may lead to disastrous consequences, similar to those experienced by the South during the antebellum era.

Language in media is manufactured using what is known as ‘Style Guides’, which are sets of rules and guidelines that dictate the tone, language, and format used in communication. These style guides help to ensure consistency and clarity in media outlets, especially when it comes to writing news articles, reports, and other forms of content. Style guides outline specific rules for grammar, punctuation, word choice, and even tone and voice. For example, a news outlet may have a style guide that requires the use of formal language, and a prohibition on the use of slang, contractions, and opinions in news reporting. Additionally, style guides may specify the preferred format for headlines, captions, and how to reference sources. By using a style guide, media outlets can ensure that their content is written in a consistent, professional, and credible manner.

The Associated Press (AP) Style Guide is a widely used set of guidelines for writing and editing in journalism and the media. It provides a standardised approach for writers and editors to ensure consistent and accurate representation of information. The AP Style Guide is used by journalists and media organisations around the world and is considered a reference for many writers and editors. It is updated regularly to reflect changes in language usage and other developments and is widely regarded as the standard for professional journalism. However, it is often subject to political pressure.

In June 2020, The Associated Press (AP) updated its writing style guide by capitalising the letter ‘b’ in the term ‘Black’ when referring to people in a racial, ethnic, or cultural context. John Daniszewski, the AP’s Vice President of Standards, stated that the change conveys ‘an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black.’ He also mentioned that the change aligns with other long-standing identifiers such as Latino, Asian American, and Native American. The news organisation will now also capitalise ‘Indigenous’ in reference to the original inhabitants of a place.

The recent debate over the capitalisation of ‘black’ accelerated in many U.S. newsrooms due to the events following the death of George Floyd and nationwide protests. The AP Stylebook is highly influential in the industry, with many news organisations, and government and public relations agencies using it as a guide. The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and NBC News have also embraced capitalisation, and the National Association of Black Journalists has urged other news organisations to follow.

The AP stated that it would make a decision within a month on whether to capitalise the term white, taking into consideration what that change might mean outside the U.S. The Seattle Times and Boston Globe both changed their practices to capitalise ‘black’ the year before, citing that the word has evolved to signify a race and culture and deserves the uppercase treatment as other ethnic terms do.

As expected, in July 2020, The AP announced that it would not capitalise the word ‘white’ in its news articles, following its decision last month to capitalise ‘black’ in the context of race and culture. The AP said that “white people, in general, have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin colour.” John Daniszewski, the AP’s Vice President for Standards, said in a memo to staff that capitalising the term ‘white,’ as is done by white supremacists, risks “subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”

Other news organisations at the time made similar decisions, with The New York Times explaining that “white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does.” CNN, Fox News, and The San Diego Union-Tribune have said they will capitalise ‘white’ while CBS News will do so, but not when referring to white supremacists, white nationalists, or white privilege. However, some experts believe that keeping ‘white’ lowercase perpetuates the idea that whites are the default race and that capitalising it would take power away from racists. Danissewski said that the AP would “closely watch how usage and thought evolves, and will periodically review our decision.”

It is evident that the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ have transcended their original role as mere descriptors and have taken on a much deeper meaning as ideological container words. It is crucial to delve deeper and understand the underlying messages conveyed through specific stylistic choices, as influenced by often misunderstood style guides.

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