Courtesy and Capitalization

People hold up a Black Lives Matter banner as they march during a demonstration against racial inequality in Washington, D.C., June 14, 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
Having good manners is about making other people feel comfortable, welcome, and respected.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n explaining its adopting the trendy new racial convention — capital-B “Black” and lowercase-w “white” — the New York Times explains that “white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does.”

That is not true, of course.

If it were true, then to what would the word “white” in “white supremacy” refer? If there were no such thing as a “white” cultural group, then would be no such thing as “white supremacy,” either. But, of course, there is such a thing as a shared white culture — that’s why jokes about white people are funny, which they wouldn’t be if the word “white” simply described skin tone. But the Times must have some plausible rationale rather than telling the truth, which is that it is capitalizing Black because the people whose opinions matter to the editors of the Times wish it. They aren’t wrong to wish it, and the Times isn’t necessarily wrong to accommodate the wish.

Black often functions as a proper noun and a proper adjective in English. That seems to me a good enough argument for capitalizing it when it is used in that way.

At the same time, there are many Americans (and people around the world) the Times would describe as Black who do not share the culture and history of African Americans. For example, there are white South Africans and black South Africans, and neither group has much in common culturally or historically with any population in the United States. There are African immigrant communities in the United States who do not understand themselves as part of a contiguous cultural whole with the African Americans whose roots go back to the colonial era. The inclusiveness of African complicates longstanding conventions, too: Elon Musk is an African-American entrepreneur, but he is not what people usually mean by African American.

(I think it was on CNN that some broadcaster, having been instructed not to use the then out-of-favor black, is said to have described Nelson Mandela as “African American,” though the story may be apocryphal.)

Uppercase Black alongside lowercase white looks jarring and affected, but uppercase White looks creepy, a kind of armband in print.

As the Times notes, there has been a debate about black vs. Black for a long time. There were similar debates about other designations, and there were campaigns to capitalize Negro, Colored, and Freedmen when those were the preferred terms.

In English, we do not usually capitalize common adjectives — black, white, brown, pink, green, purple, tall, exhausted — and the argument for capital-B Black is that it is not a mere common adjective but something that has grown into a proper adjective, like French or Navajo. Africa is home to something like 3,000 different ethnic groups, but Africans taken to the Americas as slaves were stripped of their connection to African ethnic or national groups, and within a generation or two the knowledge and memory of such connections was extirpated. African emerged as a stand-in for more specific identifiers.

But African is in some ways unsatisfactory: Like Asian, the adjective African takes in an entire continent and abrades differences among peoples who are distinct from one another. African also fails to capture the self-conception of people who identify primarily with some other place, such as the Caribbean. And so some prefer black or Black.

When dealing with an adjective, especially a color adjective on the border between common and proper, English can be a little bit all over the place. For example, the Redcoats are a specific enough group of people that the term has long been capitalized in written English as a proper noun, but the bluestockings never quite made it. We have long capitalized Red in reference to Communists. (It is the style of this magazine to capitalize Communist in reference to Communist parties and those associated with them, but in Berkeley there are communists who are not Communists and in Beijing there are Communists who are not communists.) We know who the New Zealand All Blacks are, even though that is not the team’s formal name. Global Greens, the international of the world’s Green parties, insists that there are green parties and there are Green parties, and that these are not exactly the same. We often capitalize Blackshirts in English, though the Italians do not capitalize squadristi. Anti-Chinese bigots once wrote of the Yellow Peril. They probably still do.

The instinct of most editors (and most people of good will, I think) is to let people describe themselves however they like. If the people who once were described as Freedmen prefer to be known as African Americans, or blacks, or Blacks (and, even today, black as an adjective is much more acceptable than black as a noun to many ears, with references to “the blacks” striking some listeners as suspect or at least out-of-touch) then that is a fairly easy thing to accommodate, in principle.

One obvious problem is: Who decides? If you want to know how the people we currently describe as African American or black or Black wish to be described, whom do you ask? Who has standing to speak on that question? Dean Baquet? John McWhorter? MLA president Simon Gikandi? That is not a facetious question. There are many people who put themselves forward as spokesmen for African Americans who are not embraced as such by the people on whose behalf they purport to speak.

And certain usage conventions inevitably are bound up with ideology and political affiliations — if you adopt a certain convention out of respect, are you importing the ideology, too? (Ask Ms. Steinem about that.) This comes up in a pretty direct way in the case of the people we currently call transgender: If someone wishes to be referred to in a certain way, my natural inclination is to accommodate the person as a matter of courtesy, but I do not accept the underlying ideology and its assertions, so even a sincerely well-intended gesture of respect can still end up feeling like a little bit of a sham.

Having good manners is not a matter of knowing which fork to use for which dish. Having good manners is about making other people feel comfortable, welcome, and respected. That is part of good citizenship, too.

The matter of black vs. Black does seem to me to be a very good example of cultural small-ball, but people care about what they care about, and we should not be dismissive of that.

A point of comparison: The New York Times convention of referring to the Navy’s “Seals” has produced great irritation among those who prefer SEALS. Clark Hoyt wrote in 2009: “I would also make it SEAL. I think the rule on acronyms is too rigid; it leaves The Times virtually alone in calling UNESCO Unesco, UNICEF Unicef and, my personal pet peeve because I am a fan, NASCAR Nascar. Maybe people who read only The Times are used to these, but most people in the Internet age get news from many sources, and The Times stands out as weird and maybe clueless.”

Yes, yes it does, and the house style is the least of it.

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