AP marks ‘Black’ as cultural designator

AP marks ‘Black’ as cultural designator

Cody Weisner

On June 19 the Associated Press Stylebook announced they would capitalize Black as a cultural designator, a decision made in response to the police killing of George Floyd one month prior and after years of criticism for lowercasing the “b” among a sea of other capitalized groups like Asian- or Native American.

They also promised to get back to readers on whether “white” would get the same treatment. Long story short, AP decided a month later to keep “white” lowercase and the internet spontaneously combusted.

Criticism found bipartisan support, both from the expected white dude crying about reverse discrimination and the unexpected social justice advocate disagreeing for much less obvious reasons.

Ostensibly, AP’s update seems like the obvious choice for people and organizations in the social justice sphere, and yet leading proponents for capitalizing “white” include APA style, The Diversity Style Guide, the Conscious Style Guide and the National Association of Black Journalists.

That seems odd, right? Why do these organizations fighting for language diversity, but not the AP,
want to capitalize “white”? Did the AP make the right choice? Having five years of editing experience, my semi-professional opinion is that there are enough confounding linguistic and ethnographic variables that go into the
question of capitalizing “white” that either ruling will create undesired side effects.

The question becomes this:
which leads to the most inclusive outcome with the least damaging side effects? Let’s unpack this.

The question of culture:
Since the AP now capitalizes “Black” in a “cultural” sense, the question to ask if we’re capitalizing “white” or not is this: does “white culture” even exist?

This turns out to be a contentious debate, but basically, there are three schools of thought, two of which the AP introduces in a blog post announcing their decision. The first is that white people, unlike Black people, “generally do not share the same history and culture.”

AP gestures toward the second interpretation in their statement that capitalizing “white,” and thus acknowledging white culture, “conveys legitimacy” to white supremacist movements.

Some have pointed out that “white culture” is a recent development – prior to 1920, no one was calling ethnic Irish or German people “white” – yet this arbitrarily woven tapestry of unrelated European ancestries makes it easier for white supremacists to invent a dangerous “us versus them” mentality.

The third interpretation, which the AP didn’t discuss, is that white culture not only exists, but is also
how we explain systemic racism. White culture is “Karen” shouting at “Steve,” the friendly multilingual Pakistani customer service rep, to either “learn English” or transfer her to someone who does.

It’s overlooking the most qualified job candidate who’s Black because they “don’t fit in with the workplace culture.” This interpretation is what makes the choice whether to capitalize so painful.

The Conscious Style Guide weighed in on Facebook by sharing a Washington Post opinion piece arguing that we must capitalize “white” to accurately represent – and hold accountable – a long history of racism “whose privileges should be embedded in its definition.”

If the AP decides that white is a culture and should be capitalized, they “convey legitimacy” to bigots, and if they decide that white isn’t a culture and lowercase, they’re downplaying or outright ignoring the cultural role of whiteness in perpetuating racism.

Dog whistles for supremacy? The AP’s second argument concerns the problem of some white supremacists intentionally capitalizing the “W” and lowercase the “b” as an assertion of superiority. And they’re potentially right – it’s possible white supremacists might exploit an AP-endorsed capitalized “White” to sneak dog whistles into standard writing.

However, most writing lowercase “Black” before now, and that made it possible for bigots to exploit that difference. Fortunately, now that Black is capitalized in most styles, they won’t be able to do this anymore.

The AP capitalizing in nonracist contexts would likely have buried that racist stylization out of usage. Unfortunately, that opens the door for dog-whistling, but it closes the door for macroagressions.

Moreover, not capitalizing “white” may have created another issue, one that the AP references, but doesn’t elaborate on, that if we don’t capitalize, “we are implying that white is the default.”

Specifically, this refers to what the linguists call “marked language,” and it occurs with two counterpart words when one word is considered common, or “unmarked,” and the other is considered unusual or “marked.” Typically, this applies to affixes like “actor/actress” or adjective antonyms like “pure/corrupt.”

Unlike gendered language, capitalizing “Black” and lowercasing “white” is a new trend, so it’s possible that a marked “Black” won’t result in negative stereotyping. Or maybe it will. It’s hard to tell right now. Uncertainty remains What makes this capitalization conundrum so interesting – and frustrating – is that any productive decision we make in service to inclusive language comes with a drawback.

Since there is no perfect solution, what’s the best damage control? The AP was in an impossible situation. Capitalizing “Black” was a wise choice, but one that couldn’t have happened without opening Pandora’s Box. The AP made a hard decision, presenting reasonable justifications and making sacrifices.

This will remain a controversial decision for some time as thinkers pose competing but similarly plausible theories. If more of us framed the debate this way, we’d come at this issue with more respect and sensitivity.

Nothing about this issue is simple, but hopefully we can work together and find the best solution.