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.