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Sunday, January 31, 2021

We should capitalize 'White'

In the summer of 2020, the New York Times announced that it would change its style rules to capitalize 'Black' when referring to race, explaining:
“We believe this style best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover,” said Dean Baquet, The Times’s executive editor
They also decided not to capitalize 'white' (or 'brown'). They acknowledged the difference, explaining that they were making the decision consciously:
“To be parallel does make sense usage-wise when talking about grammar and usage, but we can never just go on these sorts of standards,” Ms. Royal said. “Language doesn’t work that way. You have to consider the other factors.”

I certainly do understand the importance of emphasizing the humanity and importance of Black people (and Brown people, for that matter) in the language style of the paper of record. White people don't need our value reaffirmed in the same way.
That said, this choice makes no sense to me, stylistically. I capitalized "Black" and "White" in my history and sociology papers in college, sometimes with a footnote explaining that these were ethnicities, and it made sense to capitalize them as with other ethnicities.
Looking back, I don't think that reasoning holds up. "Black" and "white" are not really ethnic groups, so much as they are racial categorizations; within Africa, it would be pretty ridiculous to say that an Amharic speaker from Ethiopia and an isiXhosa speaker from South Africa are the same ethnicity; it is only through the filter of European/American slavery that all of these ethnicities would be collapsed into one category. Similarly, it would be ridiculous to tell a Bosnian Muslim being attacked by a Serbian etho-nationalist that they are of the same ethnicity; the categorization of "white" exists in service of racism, and barely serves any purpose outside of racism.
That said, within the context of the United States, there really is a shared history and identity among Black people; not to the same degree among all people, but to a meaningful degree among many or most.
In this sense, "Black" is not merely a racial category, but one that combines many ethnicities into one that is emerging in a new context as consisting of shared cultural qualities. And of course, that is how any ethnicity we now recognize came to be: "Irish" is an identity that owes much to the common experiences outside Ireland of people who initially thought of themselves as Cork, or Derry, or Protestant, not "Irish".
The question, then, seems to be whether White people in the United States have a shared history and identity. The Times answers this in two ways:
The Times also looked at whether to capitalize white... white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does, and also has long been capitalized by hate groups.
I think these reasons are revealing, and contradictory. "White" clearly does represent a shared culture and history: Isn't that the whole point of white supremacy -- to stitch together a shared history and identity, one so strong that it could be written into the law thousands of times over? Does the Times think this project failed?
The second reason is, I think, the real one: capitalizing "White" just seems uneasily like something that White supremacists would want. It's also something that might seem distressing to some readers.
Frankly, I just don't think that's a good enough reason to make the style so deeply inconsistent. I have always felt that reasoning should come before feelings; I acknowledge that this is partly due to my privilege, as someone who seldom sees my groups' feelings ignored. I believe putting reason first is clarifying, in ways that pay off in the long term and lead towards greater justice.

Another argument for capitalizing "white" is that there is already a tendency in American culture to treat whiteness as a default, as the norm, and to treat people of color's identities as notable deviations from the norm. Treating whiteness as an identity analagous to other identities centers its characteristics, rather than letting them slip by in the background and escape scrutiny and itemization.

I know there is no rhetoric without bias, but I also think that by practicing rhetoric under the principle of putting rules and consistency first, we can reduce our bias overall. It won't actually empower or embolden White supremacism. And it will put our rhetoric on firmer ground as we try to understand and change the world.

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