The summer of 2020 was a turning point for many style manuals—and the capitalization of the word Black is now the norm.
Generally, style guides, which set language conventions for specific groups and/or professions, are not quick to change. Many years can pass between new editions, in fact, and there can be contentious discussions among these language arbiters on things as simple as whether to hyphenate email.
When referring to Black people as a distinct racial and ethnic group, however, almost all style guides opted for capitalization last year after the Black Lives Matter protests. We asked Professor Rachel E. Harding, who teaches in CU Denver’s Department of Ethnic Studies, to explain the capitalization issue.
“Yes, Black should be capitalized,” she said. Harding pointed to an article by The Columbia Journalism Review, which explains that “in the absence of the identifiable ethnicities slavery stole from those it subjugated, Black can be a preferred ethnic designation for some descendants.”
Reasons for Capitalizing Black
Style manuals, as well as notable magazines and newspapers, give different reasons for their decision to capitalize Black. In an article titled “Why We’re Capitalizing Black,” Marc Lacey, national editor for The New York Times, said, “It seems like such a minor change, black versus Black. But for many people the capitalization of that one letter is the difference between a color and a culture.” Associated Press (AP) makes the same point: “The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”
One practical reason for using Black instead of African American relates to geography—not everyone who identifies as Black identifies as African American, either because they do not view themselves as African and/or as American. Black people outside the United States have traditionally preferred the term Black. African American (not hyphenated) is acceptable when Black individuals or groups prefer it. “African American generally refers to Black people who have lived in the United States for at least two generations, and more specifically to those who are descendants of the Africans who were enslaved in North America,” Harding explained. “Black is the more comprehensive term.”
Language Reflects History
The Diversity Style Guide was the first style manual to capitalize Black, and Columbia Journalism Review proclaimed its adoption of the term relatively early in 2020. Both point out that slavery is directly related to the capitalization of Black. Columbia Journalism Review stated that “it is a kind of orthographic injustice to lowercase the B: to do so is to perpetuate the iniquity of an institution that uprooted people from the most ethnically diverse place on the planet, systematically obliterating any and all distinctions regarding ethnicity and culture.”
Language is always in flux. It reflects socio-cultural norms, which necessarily means that language and power intersect. Terms like negro, colored, people of color, African American, and Black “correspond to different periods in our history and arose within specific political and social contexts related to the struggle for greater democracy and, in particular, to the fight for justice and human/civil rights for Black people and other people of color in the U.S.,” Harding said.
There seems to be a causal relationship between the Black Lives Matter protests and the capitalization of Black, as illustrated by the list of authoritative style guides that adopted the term Black during 2020.