Why I Don't Capitalize "Black"
Unless it's in a headline (feat. John McWhorter)
To capitalize “black” or not to capitalize “black”? Here at the newsletter, we have obviously made the decision not to do so. But it took a lot of deliberation and searching to come to that decision. Why should that be the case? Why did the team and I feel compelled to have more than one discussion about it, and why are there endless discussions about it seemingly everywhere you look?
The capitalization issue is about more than just style. An entire set of arguments and countervailing ideological positions have attached themselves to a single letter. Whether I like it or not, the choice between “black” and “Black” will be read as a signal announcing the writer’s alignment with one of two hazily defined but still distinguishable political positions regarding the coherence of racial identity. The letter B is a surrogate, then, in a much a more consequential debate about the future of race as we know it, or about whether race as we know it has a future at all.
For example, capitalizing the B in “black” leads to the question of why we see the W in “white” capitalized much less frequently. As I say below, capitalizing “white” treats whites as a coherent, unified people, an idea that has its roots, to my mind, in white identity politics of the most virulent kind. But if all the disparate groups that constitute “whites” don’t comprise a single people, why should all the disparate groups that constitute “blacks” do so? To be honest, I don’t think they do. I would probably have a hard time seeing the sociological similarities between, say, a wealthy member of Lagos’s business class and a man on Chicago’s South Side working three part-time jobs just to pay his rent. Learning that both are black would tell me precisely nothing.
In the following excerpt from my most recent conversation with John McWhorter, we begin with a relatively simple style question—call it “To B or not to B?”—and end up in much more complex territory. Where do you come down in all of this? Let me know in the comments!
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GLENN LOURY: Okay, then what about capitalizing “black”? I saw you had a piece on that in the last couple of weeks.
JOHN MCWHORTER: How do you feel about that? I don't capitalize it when I write, but the Times capitalizes it for me,.
We made a decision with my newsletter editor, Mark Sussman, at the Substack that we were going to stay with lowercase-B, unless of course it's the first word of a sentence. And that's caused a little bit of consternation, because some people who want to contribute to the newsletter are confused about why you're not following the New York Times style guideline about capitalizing black.
I feel this way. I feel that I don't know how I tell somebody to not capitalize white if I'm capitalizing black. And I don't want to capitalize white. Well, why don't I want to capitalize white? Because white peoplehood is a reactionary and neo-fascistic notion. That whites are a people is very borderline racist in my mind. Are blacks a people? Not really. Prepared to say it. Take me out if you want to. I don't see how blacks can be a people and whites not be a people.
I'm talking about immigrants from West Africa. I'm talking about people who have come into the society from the Caribbean. I mean, are blacks a people? If blacks are a people, don't you have to allow that whites can be a people? We're Americans here. I don't like “African American,” frankly, but I'm not going to fight, because we're way, way, way down the line on that. But when Jesse Jackson first started promoting this idea about African American, I was very cool on that.
I never liked it.
I mean, I can't tell you an ancestor of mine who was born in Africa. I can't name one. I know my great-great-great-great-great-great-greats were enslaved persons who were captive and brought to the country or the Western hemisphere from Africa. But African American? But again, I'm not going to fight it. I mean, we're too far down the line on that.
You know, with the whole capitalization thing, I honestly just have a hard time caring about it. Capitalizing white would have a certain pleasing aesthetic aspect, if you capitalize black. But white nationalists apparently like to capitalize white. And so that has deflected some people from advising capitalizing white too.
And as of that, my whole response to that whole issue is just I really don't care. There is activism, there is concern with society, and then there are these issues of gesture and symbol. And once again, if black is going to be capitalized, there you go with one more reason to be offended when someone doesn't do it. To be angry at somebody in their tweets because they're not capitalizing black and not using the capital-B. And I just don't get the appeal of seeking ways to be offended.
In general, and I know I'm monotonous about this on this podcast, but I just feel that I wish some people would open up to the wonder of the world in a broader sense. There's so much to be interested in. Why be so focused on reasons to be offended about things having to do with being black when you are a black person? So yeah, I'm more concerned with the content of what I'm writing than whether or not I'm going to use some capital letter. It just seems like a distraction to me. The content is important.
And I think that there's an analogy there with, what do black people need? Do black people need to see the name of our group written with a capital letter. Is that what black people need? Aren't there other things that should have more priority than that? So I just have a hard time caring, and I hate to seem so dismissive, but the problem is that it's something that I feel dismissive about. So yeah, I just can't get myself to care.
It's not just linguistics. This is political, isn't it? I mean, the capital-B is exactly, as I said, making an assertion about the existence of some kind of collectivity, some kind of aggregate, “the black community.” And I think there's a certain fictive, wishful, almost, aspect to that.
I mean, the extreme opposite of this would be a kind of colorblind ideology in which you try to deny the relevance of racial categorization altogether. Isn't this Kmele Foster's position? I have great respect for him, that he doesn't think of himself as a black person. He thinks that that's an outworn and antiquated and, to some degree, morally suspect move in terms of categorizing people. And he prefers to transcend that historical inheritance. So the capital-B is a kind of staking out the other side of that debate and digging down into and reifying the socially constructed and, to some degree, fictive identitarian categorization, which is “blackness.”
We hear about, “Well, there's such diversity among black people. Black people are not a monolith.” And then there has to be this capital letter. And a part of me thinks, well, if there's going to be that particular unity, is the idea supposed to be that to be black is to walk around in fear of being mistreated by police officers? 'Cause that seems to be a feeling that many people have, that our defining trait is that we have a problem with the cops. Because I'm not interested in capitalizing something because of fear of what somebody else might do to me. That strikes me as not prideful at all.
And so what is this unity? And more to the point, was there any question before ten minutes ago about the black community and there being a body of people who consider themselves black and are seen as black and are doing black things? Was that unclear? Why do we need to capitalize a word in order to indicate that? It just seems sometimes like there are people who lack a sense of what there is to do or don't have enough to do. Just imagine talking to Dr. King, imagine talking to Adam Clayton Powell, imagine talking to Roy Wilkins about whether or not we're going to write “black” with a capital letter or not, or whether or not you're going to write “Negro” with a capital letter or not. They would laugh in your face.
They'd say, “You niggas must be doing pretty well if this is what you have to worry about.”
That's exactly what they would have said.
[Laughs] I'm put in mind, of course, and we should mention, Thomas Chatterton Williams and his book Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race and his anguished consideration, he being the product of a mixed-race marriage, his mother white, his father black, married to a French woman who I think you have to categorize as white, looking upon his children who were one quarter “black,” staring into the twenty-first century and wondering in what sense and to what extent and for what reason has his child gotta be black, and interrogating that whole presupposition.
I think that's where the fertile ground is going to lie, at the margins and in the intersections of racial identity. My lovely wife LaJuan is black. Her daughter is married to a white guy. Her adopted daughter married to a Central European guy. He's a wonderful guy. They've got kids. I'm looking at these children, with their curly hair and they're light coffee-with-a-lot-of-cream-colored skin. They're going to grow up speaking different languages and stuff. Another friend has a German husband and a black mother, and the kids are speaking German from the cradle.
And I'm saying, what are we doing by importing this way of thinking about ourselves, carrying it around? We won't let go. I don't know if we're serving our grandchildren and great grandchildren—I don't mean only personally, our descendants, but I mean those who come after us in the society—at all well. Are we not shackling them with something that had a lot to do with our grandparents' lives but may have much, much less to do with theirs?
There's something coming. There's a debate that is coming about right now, and it's going to be messy, because it's hard to allow that time passes. It's easy to get stuck in thinking in one way. And I think certain people are highly invested in a certain victim-focused sense of black identity.
But the thing is, with these mongrel kids these days, these mutt, biracial, multiracial kids, the idea among a certain kind of person, who is often about my age, maybe a decade younger, the idea is that they have to identify as black because of what they're going to go through. There's no point in talking about how they're neither one thing nor the other, their blackness is going to mean that they're going to suffer discrimination. And there are many well-intentioned people who think they need to work on having a black identity. They need to be sent to some sort of black summer camp. They have to understand what they're going to go through. And the question today is what. What are they gonna go through?
Now, if we were talking about 1985, sure. I went through it. Although I wouldn't say that it was so horrible, so life-defining. But yeah, little things happened. But today, what are they going to go through? And is what they're going to “go through” enough that you should expect them to form a whole identity on the basis of it?
And frankly, I really do think that America has come far enough that those kids do not need to think of themselves as black because of what they're going to go through. And you can tell by the response to Thomas Chatterton Williams in social media, an awful lot of people just will not hear this. There are black people who won't hear it. There are white people who think it's their responsibility to pretend that racism is so bad today. Or they look at the way the cop thing is depicted in the media, and they get the idea that to be a brown person is to walk around ever in danger of being manhandled by a cop in some way. And of course, they're getting a very distorted narrative from the media. Despite the fact that some cops can be discriminatory, the problem is not what is shown.
And so we have we have a problem there, because our conversation needs to evolve. But it would require openly admitting that racism now is not what it was 30 years ago. Many people just can't do it. And so, for example, I did a piece in the Times on this whole notion of diversity and the like. I don't read the responses. I don't read the letters to the Times, 'cause I'm too busy writing the next piece. But things blow by on social media. And I saw one person write that I'm wrong that my daughters shouldn't be thought of as diverse, that things have changed, because they know a black teenager who gets trailed in stores whenever he walks into the store. They said, “My daughter is dating a black guy and he gets trailed in stores whenever they walk into a store.”
Now, if you think that that's what it's like to be a black person now, then I can understand how you would suppose that Thomas Chatterton Williams is out of court and anybody who's kind of brown needs to think of themselves as part of a beleaguered class of people. But the truth of the matter is this, and I go here very seldom. You don't want to say this about people: That's a lie about that boy. He is not trailed every time he walks into a store. It may have happened to him one time, maybe two times. It may have happened to him never. Because the thing about the trailing is that sometimes you walk into a store, and it's the salespeople's job to come to you and try to sell you something. I am quite sure that a lot of people are interpreting that as being trailed. That boy's not trailed. Sometimes people just lie.
It's a poetic truth.
And another one, very quickly: getting a cab in New York City. The idea that a black man can't get a cab. I have lived here for 20 years, I have never had that problem. That was a problem until about 2002. But things changed. And yet, I remember about ten years ago, a black man telling me that he can't get a cab in New York City.
Yeah, you know he's lying.
He's lying. He was just simply lying. Yet he was looking down on me as somebody who was in denial about racism. Sometimes people just lie.