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Capitalizing W is not a Black and White decision

The Washington Post this week adopted the Associated Press’ decision to capitalize Black as a racial identifier, with a twist. It also will capitalize White — a change the AP and other news organizations have declined to embrace.

“In American history, many White Europeans who entered the country during times of mass migration were the targets of racial and ethnic discrimination,” The Post said in its announcement Wednesday. “These diverse ethnicities were eventually assimilated into the collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation. As such, White should be represented with a capital W.”

The decision drew a quick reaction on social media and on the comments section of The WashPost PR Blog. Critics of the decision generally fell into three camps:

  • There is no need to capitalize either because the country does not need to be categorized along racial lines.
  • Capitalized white is a self-identifier for white supremacists; by using “White,” the newspaper is acknowledging that racist construct.
  • White people do not have their own shared cultural identity because they comprise people of Anglo-Saxon descent, northern and southern Europeans, Jews and Middle Easterners.

But the idea of capitalizing white has been endorsed by the National Association of Black Journalists and by the Diversity Style Guide

NABJ “believes it is important to capitalize ‘Black’ when referring to (and out of respect for) the Black diaspora,” NABJ said in a statement in June. “NABJ also recommends that whenever a color is used to appropriately describe race then it should be capitalized, including White and Brown.”

The Diversity Style Guide states: “After much research and consideration, the editor of The Diversity Style Guide elected to capitalize Black and White when used in a racial context, but most would say it’s not incorrect to lowercase those words.”

In an opinion piece in The Post last week, historian Nell Irvin Painter endorsed capitalizing the W, arguing that white people should not be able to pretend they are racially neutral.

“In terms of racial identity, white Americans have had the choice of being something vague, something unraced and separate from race,” she wrote. “A capitalized ‘White’ challenges that freedom, by unmasking ‘Whiteness’ as an American racial identity as historically important as ‘Blackness’ — which it certainly is.

“No longer should white people be allowed the comfort of this racial invisibility; they should have to see themselves as raced. Being racialized makes white people squirm, so let’s racialize them with that capital W.”

The National Press Club Journalism Institute uses an uppercase B for Black when the word is being used in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, and we continue to consider related language issues. Please let us know your thoughts.

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Ann Brandon
Ann Brandon
3 years ago

I was curious as a non professional. I do not agree with the explanation or the practice but admit as a 60 plus white woman, I may not appreciate all things considered in process. Just hope it won’t lead to further division and entrenchment.