The recent move, a couple years ago now, to capitalize the B in “Black” has to be counted as one of the more sudden and successful stylistic reforms of written language. Seemingly overnight, a great plurality and soon a majority of edited publications adopted the change. The Associated Press (whose AP Style wields great influence in such matters), the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times all opted in, many publishing articles to explain the decision. The New York Times cited the authority of W.E.B. Du Bois, while Kwame Anthony Appiah smartly explained the rationale in The Atlantic.
Viewed from this distance, the move to capitalize B in “Black” was an interesting example of a standing but not then popular proposal whose moment came when, after the broadcasted murder of George Floyd, a great many of us were looking for ways to affirm the dignity and value of Black Americans. Told that “Black Lives Matter,” we agreed, qualifying only sometimes to add that “all lives matter.” A cynic might say that capitalizing “Black” was an especially modest gesture of support that required so-called allies to merely press shift on their keyboards—hardly a bold stand against the systemic racism being denounced from many of the same quarters. On the other hand, the move acknowledged the primacy of black, an important word that is much more than a colloquial version of “African American.” Also, the capitalization of “Black” agreed with the sense of many Black people that black (with or without a capital letter) had long been the right word for who they are.
Black with a capital B had a history, but not an especially broad one. Looking at the publications Black Enterprise and The Root, I was surprised that neither was an early adopter of Black with a capital B. Yet I was aware of parallel efforts, decades old at this point, around the obsolete word “negro.” In researching the editorial history of Merriam-Webster dictionaries, I had found in the files of William Allan Neilson, the editor of Webster’s Second Unabridged, a letter from Leon Scott of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People demanding to know why “negro” had not been capitalized in the 1934 dictionary.
It was easy to see about ten years ago that all the most fraught issues of word usage would soon involve aspects of identity—ethnic, racial, gender, and so on. It was not so easy to predict all the minutiae that would be swept up in this search for the smoking guns of prejudice. Critics have taken up the cudgel, for instance, against hyphenation in the identifiers Asian-American, African-American, and some others. To find language critics as suspicious of the hyphen, one needs to go back to early 20th-century nativists who railed against “hyphenated Americans.” In 1907, The Ohio Magazine complained bitterly of the “hyphenated and grotesque word ‘Afro-American’” and other terms they considered offensive, especially Irish-American and German-American.
“We are not Afro, or German or Irish or Anglo-Americans,” said the Ohioans, “we are Americans, pure and simple.”
Examples of an earlier, civil coexistence with hyphens can also be found. In the New York Herald of the 1870s one finds examples of sensible usage, hyphen-less “Irish Americans” alongside compound adjectives preceding a noun with a hyphen: “Irish-American element.” In a better world, the hyphen would have become the symbol of nothing more controversial than immigrant boostering and fussy copyediting. But thanks to nativist alarms and the anti-German-American hysteria of World War I, this blip of punctuation came to seem gravely important, per Woodrow Wilson, who wrote, “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”
Instead of dismissing such hysteria, we too interrogate these little ink stains, demanding to know what they are telling people about us. It’s a curious phenomenon and yet sometimes an occasion for eloquence. The retired newspaper copyeditor Henry Fuhrmann wrote an interesting article on the hyphen in “Asian-American” a couple years ago, citing the memoirist Maxine Hong Kingston, who had wondered if the hyphen wasn’t to blame for some of the Chinese-American stereotyping she noticed in the response to her memoir Warrior Woman:
I have been thinking that we ought to leave out the hyphen in ‘Chinese-American,’ because the hyphen gives the word on either side equal weight, as if linking two nouns.… Without the hyphen, ‘Chinese’ is an adjective and ‘American’ a noun; a Chinese American is a type of American.
There are many minor differences among copyediting styles, but a number of publications have for years now been leaving “Chinese American” hyphen-less when used as a noun. The idea, however, that a hyphen signals a kind of fifty-fifty equality between two sides seems to be in the mind of the user.
A hyphen is a link, not an equal sign. It may imply “fifty-fifty” in some fraction of cases, but its possible meanings are legion. The hyphen itself has been considered something of a sphinx among punctuation symbols. In The King’s English, the Fowler brothers write for five turgid pages about the varying degrees of connectedness signified by a hyphen and, it must be said, making almost no sense at all. Much better is the entry on hyphens in Ernest Gowers’ updating of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which begins, “No attempt will be made here to describe modern English usage in the matter of hyphens; its infinite variety defies description.” And yet we know the hyphen usually means something like “both,” which can inspire its own rallying cry, though in a very different direction than that taken by today’s language police.
In an address titled “The Meaning of the Hyphen in American History,” the editor George Seibel, writing in 1916 in the days when people were actually persecuted for their hyphens, interpreted the hyphen as a symbol of American nationhood and belonging, saying, “The German-Americans believe in the hyphen, but they know the hyphen is a mark of union, not of separation.”
In the case of hyphens, everyday usage makes plain and generic what the hatemonger and the language police both would frame with scare quotes. For every speech that some American Firster gave denouncing the hyphenati, there have been countless Italian-American civic associations and Scandinavian-American banks and African-American churches that publicly affirmed the hyphen. Should they wish to remove the hyphens from their names, there is precedent for that too—and without any loss of meaning, because what is vaguely said with a hyphen can be vaguely said without a hyphen.
Fuhrmann recalls the case of novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen writing in the New York Times and wanting to leave “Vietnamese-American” unhyphenated. It seems to me a small concession for an editor to make precisely because the ultimate significance of the hyphen is debatable and possibly just hyphen-sized. Also, why shouldn’t there be a little more customization in journalism, especially opinion-writing? In light features, personal essays, and profile-writing, departures from the AP stylebook are often necessary to convey the look and feel of how we live and think. And telling the truth about ourselves is more important than bowing and scraping before style manuals.
So what of “white?” If “Black” is capitalized when referring to Black people, doesn’t consistency recommend “white” be as well? It does, of course, and copyeditors would be spared a lot of effort if things worked out so evenly. The bigger picture is way too messy and interesting for that. Of the color terms applied to various peoples, black is the only one that has been broadly applied and self-adopted as a primary name for ethnic and racial identity. White much less so. Brown less so again. Yellow not so. Red not so. The last two are, with few exceptions, considered mostly offensive in contemporary usage. (“Brown” is enjoying something of a vogue these days in a partial turnaround from, say, 1988, when Vice President George H. W. Bush caught a lot of grief for referring to his Mexican-American grandchildren as “the little brown ones.”)
Unlike a lot of other words, names for human beings require the cooperation of the named. (Obviously, no one asked the clownfish what it wanted to be called.) And this principle, enshrined in recent decades, is now at the heart of our understanding of what legitimates a group name: What do its members call themselves? Do they say homosexual or gay or queer? Hispanic, Latino, Latinx? If they do not, it doesn’t matter if there are reasons they might do so or should do so. Expecting them to do so is daft. It’s like expecting an individual to answer to a name he or she does not use. (Indeed, the conviction that others should cooperate as individuals change their names draws strength from this principle.)
Self-naming as a practice of group-naming surely goes back centuries, but its modern form may only be about a half century old, dating back to the late Sixties and early Seventies. In 1990, Geoffrey Nunberg, then chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, put it this way: “Over the past twenty years, it has become an accepted principle of usage that every political or social group has the right to name itself and its own, unless the changes have collateral linguistic effects.”
Without evidence that Black people referred to themselves as “black,” the whole capital-B shift would have been an exercise in wishful thinking, a kind of dumbed-down literary criticism of the copyediting elite. And this, to me, is the reason it is so strange that some publications, after a flurry of self-correcting on “Black,” continue to capitalize the W in “white.” To find examples of capital-W White prior to two years ago, one needs to look high and low. Odd examples do turn up: Reading a 1973 essay by Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson in The Public Interest (no bastion of radical copyediting), I noticed the text capitalized the nouns “Whites” and “Blacks” as salient categories. Otherwise capital-W White is quite rare. Only two of the sixteen sources quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary capitalize the racial term “white” (since the 17th century) and one of them is an academic journal. The other is the Black Panther Party. Yet now it is the standard style of the proofreading pooh-bahs at the Washington Post and elsewhere (even this fine publication) as they tell white people how to write the name of their racial group.
Sure, in some ways, capitalizing the W in “white” is not that big a deal—just another pressing of the shift key—but it is evidence that the principle of self-identification is being set aside for white folks and it suggests that, even in these minor details, the media is prosecuting an argument instead of looking to actual usage for guidance.
David Skinner is an Irish-American and English-American editor and writer. He is author of The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (2012) and many essays on literary culture and history.
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