Shades of Gray

A Recent Story brought several questions from readers wanting to know why it referred to a Black guy and a white guy — with those specific capitalizations:

Unmistakable Identity

Henderson, Nev., police arrested Shane Lee Brown, 23, on an arrest warrant out of Las Vegas. Nothing unusual there, except that Brown is Black, and 5 ft-7 in tall. The man described in the warrant is white, 5-ft.-11 in tall, and 49 years old with a “bushy white beard” and blue eyes. Brown was held in jail for 6 days before being brought before District Judge Joe Hardy, who issued the warrant. The white Brown’s rap sheet shows that his first conviction dated to before the Black Brown was born, and Judge Hardy immediately ordered his release. The younger Brown has filed a federal lawsuit charging violation of his civil rights. The older Brown was found in California, and is being held in jail there pending extradition to Las Vegas. (Las Vegas Review-Journal) …That one’s Hispanic and 67 years old.

(From This is True for the week of 16 January 2022)

The part I liked best: the two people involved were both named Brown.

“Why isn’t white capitalized like Black?”

…several readers asked. Interestingly, in 28 years no one has ever asked why I capitalize Asian, or Indian, or Hispanic, and not white.

The thing is, Black is an ethnic group. White isn’t; it’s a characteristic.

Beyond that, all news sites have style guides — or at least should. In newspapers, the Associated Press Stylebook * is used more than all other such guides combined.

Because I had wanted to be a newspaper columnist (it’s why I went to journalism school in the first place), True was originally intended to be a newspaper column even though it was designed for online use right from the start. And it was in fact syndicated to print publications for some years. As someone who went to journalism school, I simply favor AP’s: it’s what I was taught, and what my newspaper clients expected.

While True has always generally followed AP style, it’s also common for individual publications to have their own style guide too — and True does, with several additions and exceptions that were first established in the 1990s to ensure the stories have consistency. When I or other editors go through the book galleys, part of that work is to catch diversions in style made in the week-to-week deadline-driven rush of writing. The This is True Style Guide is the final word; the AP Stylebook is the foundation.

Chart: Erin Brenner, Right Touch Editing.

So, with that background, why does True capitalize Black (as used to describe people, rather than, say, a black crayon)? Because that’s not just the style suggested for newspapers by the AP Stylebook, that book is “the leading reference for most forms of public-facing corporate communication over the last half-century,” Wikipedia notes.

Certainly other style guides have different ideas. Interestingly enough, The Diversity Style Guide suggests caps for both words (see chart).

Language does change over time, and the AP book is updated regularly, just like dictionaries are. I also agree with the reasoning over this one. I tend not to use “African American” since not all Black people come from Africa, or identify with it — not to mention that not all Black people live in America.

Tim Russ in costume as Tuvok (Paramount Studios publicity photo)

I remember laughing out loud at a TV newscaster who described Tuvok, the dark-skinned Vulcan on the 1995 TV series Star Trek: Voyager played by Tim Russ, as an “African American Vulcan”(!) — a character that was not African, or American …or human.

After all, Elon Musk is an African American; he’s not Black.

Also, it helps distinguish between the ethnic group and simple color. For instance, a story in 2000 quoted about a man, “He loved his black wife-beater T-shirts.” He didn’t love beating his Black wife, he loved the T-shirts of that oddly named style, and he preferred them to be black.

So that’s Why. When needed for some reason in a story, like the one above, True’s usage reflects the Associated Press update — though when I reviewed my stories in the archive, I see I started with that usage before AP did. And interestingly, there were no reader questions about it until the wording in the story above made it more obvious.

When Did It Change?

America is still pretty darned racist — the story above is but one example of that. So it’s not surprising that newspaper style was lower-case “black” (in reference to people) for many years. AP announced the change in June 2020 — and the next month clarified that white would not change.

Author’s screencap from APstylebook.com

“We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore these problems,” said AP’s Vice President for Standards, John Daniszewski. “But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”

That’s a pretty strong stand, but I suspect most newspapers will follow their guidance.

The wire service notes that “Columbia Journalism Review, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, NBC News[,] and Chicago Tribune are among the organizations that have recently said they would capitalize Black but have not done so for white.” That inserted comma, by the way, is per the This is True Style Guide, which can be downloaded below. 🙂

Fox News, by the way, announced it would capitalize both, saying that this is because that’s what is suggested by the National Association of Black Journalists.

Full Disclosure: While I’ve been capitalizing Black in my stories for at least a couple of years, I haven’t always noticed when contributing writers didn’t. I will endeavor to do better in editing, and have updated the archive to reflect the style in the very few recent-year stories that were inconsistent.

Comments? Scroll down.

This is True Style Guide

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9 Comments on “Shades of Gray

  1. So why is Why capitalized in the first sentence of the last paragraph before the “When Did It Change?” headline break?

    Irony. -rc

    Reply
  2. I searched for (and found) answers to the question of capitalisation after noticing it in New Scientist a while ago. The answers that I found were very much from an American perspective. While they seem to make some sense from that perspective, and while we undeniably have a problem with racism in the UK as well, our problems and our cultures are not quite the same as in the US. I remain unconvinced that a UK publication (which True obviously isn’t, but New Scientist is) ought to be capitalising either “black” or “white”.

    There’s one point that I take particular issue with:

    You describe “Black” as an ethnic group. Given that, globally, there is far more ethnic diversity among black people than among white people, is it not racist to lump black (or Black) people together as a single ethnic group?

    I should disclose that I am a white man who grew up in a very white town and who seldom meets anyone not white. My opinions are very much *not* informed by experience.

    Good thoughts all. Obviously this is driven by an American perspective: the AP is an American non-profit organization. It is interesting New Scientist is riding in the same boat. -rc

    Reply
  3. Also, avoiding “African-American” means you won’t accidentally end up with sentences like “the increase in collections means that this year, for the first time in a decade, the Toronto government budget is back in the African-American.”

    Known as a “Clbuttic Mistake“. -rc

    Reply
    • Classic indeed. “Clbuttic” is just the result of lazy search-and-replace censorship that also mangles English town names such as *****tone and S****horpe (I wonder if I dare list the correct versions… OK they are Penistone and Scunthorpe).

      While I have to be very careful with what’s in the newsletter due to overzealous email filtering, that’s not an issue there. After all, they’re simply well-known town names, and what could possibly be wrong with that? 🙂 -rc

      Reply
      • I had a feeling that the blog of the man who wrote the anti-spam book wouldn’t automatically bleep out the “naughty bits” of those words but I am surprised it removed my emoji!

        Yeah, by default it scrapes out a lot of “code” from UGC (aka User Generated Content), by as the owner I can put what *I* want in the comments. Even bullet lists don’t work, so I will edit that code back in when used in comments. -rc

        Reply
    • I remember hearing a story from the early days of using “African-American” of the outrage someone had over the term “black holes”. Someone else suggested, exasperatedly, using “African-American holes” if they objected to it so much. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      Reply
  4. Randy, you and I recently exchanged emails about this subject (Black with a capital ‘B’). I think it’s fair to say the majority of American newspapers, as well as the Associated Press tend to lean left and write with a liberal bias, more so the last 4 or 5 years. Given this observation, one can conclude the AP Stylebook and its newspaper deciples are pandering to a particular race, especially after proclaiming white should still be spelled with a ‘w’.

    I presume you were one of the several I referred to as asking about it (I didn’t keep track). I understand your position, but reject the implication that “if they lean left, they must be wrong.” Racism is evil, and I appreciate that someone is working to counter it without checking their voter registration status. -rc

    Reply
    • Randy, your recent response to my comments: “…I understand your position, but reject the implication that “if they lean left, they must be wrong.” Racism is evil, and I appreciate that someone is working to counter it without checking their voter registration status. -rc”

      The discussion could go on for a long time as to who is right or wrong. I’m curious how and why ‘voter registration status’ has come into this particular discussion. But since you brought it up, voter registration status affects all voters — either one is registered or not.

      I was speaking of party affiliation, which does seem quite germane to such discussions. -rc

      Reply
  5. You wrote, “Black is an ethnic group. White isn’t; it’s a characteristic.” If we are comparing people of two different races, if “White” is not a description of race, shouldn’t we have a proper term to use? It feels like either the comparison should be based on race or based on characteristics.

    However, I tried looking for a term to describe the race of lighter skinned people, typically of European descent and could not find an acceptable term. The closest I found was “Caucasian”, which Wikipedia describes as “an obsolete racial classification of human beings based on a now-disproven theory of biological race.” That leads me into the question of why there is no term to use for the race of white people? Was it possibly because other race names were created by whites and they did not label themselves?

    Good question, and your theory sounds very plausible. -rc

    Reply

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