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

Elise Stefanik Wants to be Your President

It isn’t often that The New York Times and The Washington Post do lengthy features on the same politician in the same week. So when Elise Stefanik was given several thousand words in two major papers, my curiosity was duly piqued. The two pieces ( here and here ) are similar profiles of Stefanik, age 38, and her remarkable transformation from Harvard-educated “moderate” Republican, to ultra-MAGA ideologue. The subhead of the Times article states the theme of both: To rise through the Trump-era G.O.P., a young congresswoman gave up her friends, her mentors and her ideals. So how does a double feature like this happen, especially when there’s no immediate news driving it? Stefanik was not in the spotlight, though it was clear she would soon be taking a leading role in the new GOP House majority. So it could just be the coincidence of two reporters intuitively seizing on the same story. It happens. But it could also be that Stefanik herself, working with a clever publicist, set o

The Trump-Putin Bromance is Getting Another Look

The arrest last week of Charles McGonigal, former head of counterintelligence for the FBI, may or may not prove to be a watershed moment in our understanding of the Trump-Putin conspiracy. It’s still early, and the depths of the story have yet to be plumbed. So I’m not going to weigh in on that (you can read about it here ), except to note that people who’ve been watching the Trump-Russia show for over a decade are now going back to their notes and timelines, looking at old events in light of new information. And the more we all look, the more the miasma of Russian subterfuge stinks up every narrative. If a murderous oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, could actually recruit the FBI agent who’d investigated him — which the McGonigal affair will apparently show — who knows what else was going on? There is, I think, the need for some sort of “unified field theory” of the Trump-Putin relationship. There is much that we’re missing on at least three separate tracks of that bizarre bromance: Tru

Another Rousing Comeback for Antisemitism

I was in my late twenties in the late seventies, a single man sitting in a piano bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and I was in friendly conversation with an older Irish couple, there to celebrate their history. He wore a green tie, she a green blouse. Alcohol was involved. The conversation was free flowing, as random encounters with amiable strangers can be. When the talk turned to history, which can happen on St. Patrick’s Day, I put forth the notion — stolen, I think, from a Leon Uris novel I’d recently read — that the Irish and the Jews had much in common, that their shared history of oppression bonded them, that their experience of suffering and privation was deeply imbued in both their cultures. Not an especially profound insight, but the husband — to the surprise not just of me, but of his wife as well — was having none of it. In his sloshed but strident state, he insisted that the suffering of Jews couldn’t possibly be compared to what the I