Last month the Seattle Times instituted a style change at the paper to capitalize the adjective Black when it refers to people, culture, or race. The move was aimed at increasing respect for black culture and consistency with many black publications that also capitalize the adjective.
Unfortunately the paper’s reasoning is internally inconsistent, and likely to create at least as many problems as it solves.
In any publishing world, style guide changes are a big deal. Style guides establish a publication’s internal consistency, as they tell its writers and editors how to spell certain words that have multiple accepted spellings (Gray or grey? Theater or theatre? Till or til or ’til?), how to use punctuation (Oxford comma or no? Fight me), what gets capitalized (for the love of everything holy, please don’t capitalize President when it doesn’t precede a president’s name), and so much more. They dictate how a publication is read.
So we can trust that Seattle didn’t approach its decision lightly.
The paper’s new style entry reads:
Black (adj.): Belonging to people who are part of the African diaspora. Capitalize Black because it is a reflection of shared cultures and experiences (foods, languages, music, religious traditions, etc.). Do not use as a singular or plural noun. When ethnicity is relevant to the story, ask the source which ethnic identifier they use. Black is not necessarily synonymous with African American; some argue the term Black is more inclusive of the collective experiences of the U.S. population, which encompasses recent immigrants.
In a statement, the paper added, “It is increasingly clear this is the preferred term among many Black publications and presses,” and that “increasingly grammarians argue that capitalizing it puts it on par with other identifiers of race, such as Native American and African American.”
But this logic falls apart when you read the style guide’s entry on the always lowercase white, which rightly cautions that capitalizing White is the province of white nationalists and white supremacists, and should therefore be avoided. We definitely don’t want to give those groups credence. But if you have a sentence that refers to “both Black and white people,” the inconsistency makes readers’ heads spin.
Most style manuals rightly gravitate toward lowercase letters, which are far less distracting than Sentences That Capitalize More. Just because a word is “important” doesn’t mean it gets a capital letter (see again: president).
The Seattle Times says it undertook the change to consider “the historical use of various words to describe the people and descendants of the African diaspora.” But adopting the capitalized Black as a catch-all homogenizes a very diverse group. While the Times is right to note that there are commonalities to the American black experience, capitalizing black implies a universality that’s glib at best, and arguably dangerous.
Finally, as author and professor Eve L. Ewing has argued (as have others), capitalizing Black while lowercasing white only reinforces the idea that white is “normal” or neutral. Reasonable people could justify capitalizing both Black and White, but reasonable copy editors (who aren’t always reasonable people) can’t. Lowercase just reads better.
Updating style guides to match the times is important, and too often style guides lag frustratingly behind our language (like when it took the New York Times until bloody 2016 to lowercase internet). But changes without respect for consistency smack of linguistic trendiness. And that’s not a good style for anyone.