To promote Black Maternal Health Awareness Week we published a news item in Critical Mass about the shocking rates of mortality among Black women in maternity care. This attracted some criticism over the lack of Black capitalisation. It referred to black women instead of Black women. Just as Black Lives Matter, so, the language we use matters as well. Consider this conclusion to an article on the same subject in the Guardian.

Dr Edward Morris also urged the government to commit to a target of a 50% reduction in maternal mortality for black, Asian and minority ethnic women over the next five years.

Leaving aside the awful term ‘minority ethnic,’ if Asian women are capitalised so too should Black women. Black is clearly not being used as an adjective here. It refers to identity. And it makes sense. But a quick check on UK media coverage of this story reveals a lack of consistency. Both the Guardian and the BBC do not use Black capitalisation. The House of Commons Media Library does use Black capitalisation. The Independent did not capitalise in its 2020 coverage of the statistics but did capitalise in its 2021 coverage. So what is happening?

Social Constructs

Race and the language used to describe it are social constructs. As ideas about race change, so does the language. And the language of race has changed significantly in the last two years. 

Last year a number of news outlets, such as Associated Press and the New York Times, alongside institutions like the University of Chicago, announced changes to their style guides to include Black capitalisation.

Until recently, in the United States ‘African American’ was the usual designation for Black people of African origin. Now they are more likely to be referred to as Black with a capital B.

What has changed?

Ideas do not change by themselves. There has been a growing pressure, especially in the USA, to use “Black” when writing about race. The killing of George Floyd triggered massive Black uprisings against the institutional racism in the USA and its murderous expression in the deaths of so many Black people at the hands of the police. What changed in America was Black people fighting back on a massive scale and asserting their identity. Hence, the media had to adapt.

The UK has been slower to change. Racism is just as pernicious and established here as it is in the USA. But the impact is less dramatic. Our cops are not routinely armed. So their racism is less lethal. Our legacy of slavery is equally shameful. But most of our crimes happened overseas and we do not have the unresolved legacy of a civil war.

Even so, our society is deeply scarred by racism and the divisions run deep. Black Britons identify with the struggles of Black people in the USA. They draw inspiration from them and seek to learn from their experience.

What next?

I expect that more media outlets will opt for capitalisation when discussing issues that affect Black people. It is not a simple transition. The Atlantic and the Poynter Institute have both pointed to nuances in the discussion around this and to contradictory opinions within the Black community in America. For example, print journalists have largely adopted capitalisation. Uptake is slower in scholarly journals, including works by Black academics.

Black and White

The article in the Atlantic also asks if we should capitalise White in the same way as Black. There is no simple answer. Opponents point out that white supremacists are already asserting their identity by capitalising “White.”

If you consider the capital letter to be a conferral of dignity, you may balk at the symmetry. “We strongly believe that leaving white in lowercase represents a righting of a long-standing wrong and a demand for dignity and racial equity,” Price, of the Insight Center, wrote. Until the wrongs against Black people have been righted, she continued, “We cannot embrace equal treatment in our language.” The capital letter, in her view, amounts to cultural capital—a benefit that white people should be awarded only after white supremacy has been rolled back.

The counter argument is just as persuasive. Capitalising “White” stops White people from normalising whiteness and makes us confront our own White privilege.

To not name ‘White’ as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard … We believe that it is important to call attention to White as a race as a way to understand and give voice to how Whiteness functions in our social and political institutions and our communities. Moreover, the detachment of ‘White’ as a proper noun allows White people to sit out of conversations about race and removes accountability from White people’s and White institutions’ involvement in racism.

The struggle comes first

Two things are clear to me. The struggle by Black people against their oppression is the most important determining factor for the language we use when writing about racism. The struggle is always in flux and so is the language. Some of us will sometimes come late to the party. Our commitment does not change if the language moves on ahead of us.

Hence, we should not automatically condemn people for using the wrong words while trying to do the right thing. When in her eighties, my late aunt, a lifelong socialist, told me that she supported coloured people, I did not condemn her as a racist because she was out of date with the current terminology.

I learned that lesson the hard way. Many years ago, in a packed public meeting at the Darby Hotel in Cleethorpes, Paul Foot from Socialist Worker gave a typical barnstorming performance. At the end a man raised his hand, “Sir, could I ask …?” In the arrogance and certainty of youth I mistook civility for deference and interrupted. “He’s not a Sir. He’s a comrade!” The man stuttered and stumbled. In his embarrassment he never delivered his question. Forty five years later, my shame has not diminished.

Words matter

Words matter. But they do not define us. It is our actions that give fresh meaning to language. Kwame Anthony Appiah ended his article for the Atlantic, The Case for Capitalizing the B in Black thus:

Arguments matter; but only the arguments that win the day will determine what usages become standard, and it’s hard to say in advance which ones that will be. Informal deliberations among a larger community of users will produce a new consensus, and create new facts of language. Words are public property; so are capital letters. As those deliberations continue, though, let’s try to remember that black and white are both historically created racial identities—and avoid conventions that encourage us to forget this.

If we want the argument about Black capitalisation to win the day we should make a point of using it in our own writing until it does become standard. This is not a minor point. I agree with this recent article published by Ann Thúy Nguyễn and Maya Pendleton for the Center for the study of Social Policy.

Re-naming and reclaiming language has been an important part of the struggle for racial justice. In 1889, American sociologist W.E.B Dubois pushed back against writing “Negro” with a lowercase “n,” saying “eight million Americans deserve a capital letter.”

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