Last month we took a look at a decision impacting the Associated Press style guide which dictated that the word “black” would be capitalized when referring to people, as in “Black voters.” This change did not apply to black when used as a descriptor of coloration. (“A black cat crossed my path.”) Since we were already capitalizing Hispanic, Asian and Native American, I saw nothing wrong with the idea and, in fact, had begun adopting it myself last winter.
At the end of that discussion, I touched on what was obviously going to become a question in response to this move by the AP. What about white when talking about the various flavors of Caucasians around the world? I’ll confess to a bit of laziness on my part when I arrived at that question. While it would certainly make sense in terms of consistency in wordsmithing and I would have no objection to it, I also didn’t feel particularly stressed out by it and didn’t see it as a linguistic hill I felt like dying on. (Okay, okay… a linguistic hill on which I felt like dying. Happy now?)
In any event, as predicted, the AP received feedback on that very issue and apparently felt compelled to update their guidance on this subject. So will everyone following their style guide now be capitalizing White people going forward? That would be a hard nope, linguaphiles. The introduction of Black people to formal text does not, at least according to the Associated Press, necessitate a corresponding change when discussing white people. Unfortunately, their explanation for this decision makes about as much sense as teats on a boar hog. (Free Beacon)
John Daniszewski, AP’s editor at large for standards, said in a memo to the news outlet’s staff that white skin color plays into “systemic inequalities and injustices,” and opposed capitalizing “white” on the grounds that it could risk legitimizing white supremacy…
Daniszewski said in a blog post last month that the term “Black” is capitalized to reflect the shared culture and identity of those who identify as black. In Monday’s announcement, he said the same considerations do not apply when referring to “white” in a racial context.
“White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color,” Daniszewski said.
It’s unclear how John Daniszewski wound up landing the job of editor at large for standards with that sort of thinking. If we’re going to be sticklers for proper writing, we follow the rules that have long been well established. Failing that, we should at least strive for consistency. This decision fails both tests miserably, no matter how fast and loose you choose to play such decisions.
I will grumble a bit here at Mr. Daniszewski for forcing me to go dig out my copy of the Gregg Reference Manual by William Sabin and look up something I should have committed to memory in the 1970s but obviously failed to do. Gregg is basically the gold standard for such questions and you will find it on the desks of most anyone who has to craft prose for a living. In section 348, covering capitalization when addressing races, peoples and languages, we find the following:
“Capitalize the names of races, peoples, tribes and languages. Caucasians, Americans, Native Americans, the Japanese, Hispanics, Mandarin Chinese. BUT:” (editor’s note: Gregg applies all caps and boldface to the word “but” in this entry) “the blacks, the whites.” (Italicized emphasis mine.)
So we began veering away from the rules of the road as soon as we started writing Black people, though as I originally wrote, it’s an understandable adaptation to make. But our fundamental reference guides clearly place both black and white in the same category. If you’re going to change one, you’re going to need to change both. Strictly as a side note, I’m going to attempt to correct my own laziness and begin capitalizing White people from here on out as well in the interest of consistency.
At any rate, if you’re going to split the decision between the two adjectives as Mr. Daniszewski has done, you’ll need to have a pretty good reason. But all he offers us is a claim that capitalizing White “could risk legitimizing white supremacy.” Seriously? That’s what your degree in English Literature imparted to you? If that’s the case, why does the Associated Press capitalize Klu Klux Klan? Talk about legitimizing white supremacy! Hoo boy.
This is a garbage decision and the AP isn’t even staying in line with the rest of its own industry. Thus far, the major papers and websites for media outlets have fallen into two camps. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times have already begun capitalizing “black” and not “white,” But CNN, Fox News, and the San Diego Union-Tribune capitalize both words when referring to race. Neither decision is in keeping with the standard rules of the road for writers, but it would be nice if we could all break the rules in a consistent fashion.