It’s a tiny detail in writing with huge implications in social reality. Wait. What? It’s tiny and huge at the same time? Really? Well, yes, really. Unless you pay a lot of attention to the inner workings of news media, publishers, and language usage guides, you might not have noticed the extensive recent discussions about the capitalization (or not) of the words black and white when they refer to social identities of people. Kwame Anthony Appiah, author and professor of philosophy and law, details the issues involved in this June 2020 essay in The Atlantic. (And by the way, who makes the ultimate decisions about what is correct? As Appiah notes, “language is a set of conventions, to be determined by the consensus of language users.” In other words, we do.)
Read it here.
EXPLORE, REFLECT, SPEAK UP
1. Appiah states that “Social identities aren’t reducible to a label, but labels play a role in generating and sustaining them.” What does he mean by that? Explain the statement and point to examples from the text that support his assertion.
2. Appiah is unequivocal in his support for the capitalization of B in Black, but he presents a range of views and takes no clear stance on capitalizing the W in White. How well did he present the range of views and reasoning about W? Should he have presented opposing arguments for B? Why or why not? Explain your conclusions.
3. LET’S TALK. As Appiah points out, “for some people, White is the sticking point”; in other words, they accept the capitalization of Black, but using a capital W for White is problematic. Prior to reading Appiah’s article, what was your opinion on the capitalization of the two social categories? Now that you’ve read it, are you inclined to modify your opinion in any way? Why or why not? Discuss your responses with a few classmates and remember: this is a volatile topic and many people have passionately held opinions. Listen attentively and respond respectfully. You don’t all need to agree; let understanding be the goal.
4. LET’S WRITE. Does your social identity—how you think of yourself, introduce yourself, or what you include in a social media bio, for example—include a color? More than one color? No color? What does that color (or lack of one) mean to you? Has your attitude or opinion about your color changed recently in light of current events and recent conversations? Has Appiah’s essay (and related items in the news and social media) influenced your thinking in any way? Reflect on those questions, and write an essay explaining your thoughts and feelings on the topic as it pertains to you, personally. Feel free to use examples from your personal experience to illustrate and support your ideas.
One thought on “The Case for Capitalizing the B in Black”
You say “Appiah is unequivocal in his support for the capitalization of B in Black, but he presents a range of views and takes no clear stance on capitalizing the W in White.” This is simply not true. If he has any over-arching point it is not that “black” or “white” should take an initial capital, but that they should both be treated the same way. If he is in favour of capitalizing “black”, why does he not do so in his own book, The Lies that Bind?