Skip to main content

Capital B


A few weeks ago, I was writing about race. This is not something I do a lot, and not something I feel particularly qualified for. But I had a story I thought worth telling, and it came with semantic issues that could not be ignored.

Specifically, I was wrestling, not for the first time, with how to refer to Black people. I couldn’t sidestep the issue — I couldn’t write my way around it — because their racial identity was central to the story.

So I consulted with my son, who is more attuned to the zeitgeist than I, and he told me that “Black with a capital B” was the way to go. He pointed me to an article that laid out the case, which I found interesting and, ultimately, convincing.

So I took his word for it, though partly for selfish reasons. Because, as it happens, capitalizing the word ‘Black’ plays right into my hands. With a single keystroke, I am suddenly able to solve writing problems I’ve been dealing with for years.

Consider, first, that Black is a one-syllable word. This might not matter to you, but to a writer it’s a big deal. By contrast, ‘African American’ is seven syllables, which is absolutely guaranteed to wreck the flow of any sentence it inhabits. And since I find those seven syllables as culturally misleading as they are linguistically clumsy, I am thrilled to trade all seven for one.

Furthermore, that capital B returns to me some control over the word ‘black’ —both as a color and a metaphor — which I’ve felt slipping away of late. I have written, even recently, of white hats and black hats — as well as of black markets — and in the country’s current state of ferment I have to be sensitive to possible insensitivity. I would hate to lose these tropes — they do have their uses — and I’m hoping the capital B can provide some cover to continue using them.

So overall, I was happy with the solution. With the mere capitalization of one highly evocative yet acceptable word, I could march into the racial discussion without needing to tiptoe around the language.

The only problem was what to do about white people?

The article urged the capitalization of the word ‘white’ when used in the context of race. Which sounded only fair. So I did that too.

But in thinking about it since, I’ve realized that I never use the word ‘white’ to describe a person, except in the context of race. Which means that the whiteness of my writing is just assumed.  That white is the default mode for my writing and, indeed, for my worldview. Which is not something I’ve thought about before. Is that wrong? Or just natural? Is there anything I can or should do about?

This is what they call “unconscious bias” in the well-meaning but problematic “diversity departments” I sometimes write for. We all have it to some extent. The mere act of noticing that someone is in fact Black betrays a certain bias. White people generally don’t register that other white people are white.

So where do we draw the line between unconscious bias and racism? There are those who say there is no line. That racism is racism, and that there are no degrees of it. While I understand this impulse, it seems harsh to me. It minimizes what I think is genuine concern and good will among white people.

Nonetheless, I’m quite sure that my unconscious bias can, if I’m not vigilant, color anything I write. (Note my intentional use of the word ‘color’ — slightly eyebrow-raising in this context — just to demonstrate how politically fraught certain common words can become.)

But it turns out that in light of recent events, this whole subject has been on the minds of news organizations, as well. Just yesterday, as I was finishing this piece, the New York Times announced, in an editorial, its decision to use the capital B. The paper will not, however, capitalize ‘white,’ which, they say, “doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does.” And besides, white nationalists use it for their own creepy purposes. So, as you can see here today, I have rethought the capital W. For now.

I strive, not always successfully, to be correct in my use of the language, with the understanding that ‘correct’ will always be a word framed in air quotes.

Language reflects culture, and our culture now changes far too rapidly to separate the language being used from the context in which it’s used. Context — where and how words are used in real life — is the ultimate arbiter of correctness.

But one thing is certain. Language is a moving target. It never stops evolving, sometimes abruptly. I assume I’ll just keep evolving along with it.


Berkley MI

07/07/20

Comments

  1. I suggest You register myriad unconscious generalizations of every person you meet, including The “race” of any White whom you meet. In other words, I suspect you do notice. It just isn’t at the top of your hierarchy of thoughts.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I was admonished by 3 of my grandchildren the other day by referring to Blacks. “Gramma”, “Don’t ever say Blacks. My reply, “Blacks call themselves Black. Why can’t I? “Black is ok, just not Blacks. You have to say Black people or Black person.” I get it.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Branding the Party of Stupid

Let’s talk about the Republican brand. An unpleasant subject, I know, but well worth watching as it turns rancid. Marketing has always been a strength of the GOP. They don’t do policy at all, and they’ve stopped even paying lip-service to reality. But they’ve always had a singular knack for mass manipulation. From Lee Atwater to Karl Rove to Roger Ailes, the party has long been a showcase for brilliant but bent marketing talent, people who understood their target audience and knew what messages would resonate. Those messages have always been deeply fraudulent, and for good reason. They know they can’t tell their audience the real story. The one about who they are and what they stand for. Because the real story is tax cuts and deregulation, nothing else. That’s what they want their brand to be about, but it’s a lousy product. Nobody with a net worth of less than $10 million has any interest in it. So rather than promote it, they’ve had to put up smokescreens to divert attention

The Long Lost Center is Staring Us Right in the Face

Lately there has been much written — and more than a little hand-wringing — about the fate of the fabled American “Center,” that vast majority of sensible people who just wish we could all get along. In particular, there was an op-ed in the Times last week by Thomas B. Edsall — a seasoned, generally respected journalist — that goes to great lengths to lament the neglect of this supposed Center. Edsall places the blame for said neglect on “polarization,” on an electorate that’s been “pushed by political extremes.” He cites an impressive number of recent studies to show us how big but politically powerless this Center appears to be. One of these studies makes the point that: Bipartisan majorities consider the following to be “essential rights important to being an American today”: ‘“clean air and water” (93 percent); “a quality education” (92 percent); “affordable health care” (89 percent); and the “right to a job” (85 percent). These high levels of demand for

Both Sides Now

Back in the nineties, Holocaust denial enjoyed one of its periodic but thankfully brief revivals. It was an old idea given new life, thanks to some shrewd but cynical PR and a few credulous members of the media. Spread virally, or what passed for virally at the time, the “story” — that the Holocaust never happened, that six million Jews were never exterminated — actually percolated up to the mainstream media as a “controversy” for a while. TV news and talk shows, both national and local, worked hard to fan the flames, actually giving serious airtime to the charlatans perpetuating this sludge. But the producers of these shows, sensitive sorts all, couldn’t believe how hard it was to recruit actual Holocaust victims to sit across from the charlatans. They were offering good money, after all. Why would these old folks not want to go on camera? Why would they not want to relive those unimaginable horrors that scarred them for life, listening to some toxic putz who’s trying to conv