What’s in a name? Shakespeare asks this famous question in “Romeo and Juliet.” The question remains pressing today.
Probably most readers have noted that numerous news organizations now capitalize the word “Black” when it refers to people. This has occurred as the nation has turned its attention to matters of racial justice.
Most media sources now capitalize “Black.” It is historically notable that almost a century ago W.E.B. Du Bois engaged in a letter-writing campaign to encourage newspapers and publishers to use a capital letter when writing “Negro.” It was, he wrote, a mark of respect.
There seems to have been little controversy stirred up by this change, though the question remains — should white people become White people?
The American Psychological Association has capitalized both words for a generation now. CNN capitalizes both words. It can be argued that both words refer to socially constructed realities and are equivalent.
Not so fast, argue others. It’s right to capitalize “Black,” but not “white.” Doing so is seen as “false equivalency” and “a distraction.”
The Associated Press, whose stylebook is the most widely used in journalism, capitalizes “Black” but not “white” when referring to people.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, a British-Ghanaian professor of law and philosophy, thinks both should be capitalized. He dismantles several arguments against doing so in a recent article in The Atlantic.
John McWhorter, a Black linguistics scholar and public intellectual whose politics often swerve considerably to the right of his peer group, says that capitalizing “Black” is natural, but although he recognizes that doing the same with “white” would be more tidy, nevertheless believes that we should hold off on that.
One of the reasons he and others give is that white supremacist groups already are capitalizing “White.” Using it plays into their ideology.
I really like McWhorter, and I listen to him respectfully, but I just don’t think the capitalization conventions of bigots should drive our discourse. Forget them.
And the more we argue over this, the harder people’s positions will get. Just follow the American Psychological Association and CNN and let’s move on to issues of health, education, safety and liberty.
McWhorter also talks about another new acronym, BIPOC. This refers to Black, Indigenous People of Color. He says he does not plan to use this one, though ultimately usage will win out in the long run.
Appiah ends his article by referring to another ethnic neologism, “Latinx.” He contextualizes by discussion other proposed ethnic terms, such as the ill-fated attempt to refer to Black Americans as “Libranians,” from the Latin “liber,” meaning “free.” “Anglo-African” and “Africo-American” fared no better.
For a while, “Afro-American” was in use, but it was supplanted by “African-American.” Some older Blacks resisted the term — McWhorter admits that he dislikes it too, that his West African ancestry is just too far away for him to identify with.
Opponents note that it is a coinage of elite intellectuals and has not been widely accepted by the people it purports to designate. Others regard it as overly ideological.
Appiah says to give it time; maybe it will stick. Maybe it will go the way of “Chicano” and “La Raza,” terms that seem to have peaked and ebbed.
As for me, I’m fine with “Black,” won’t fight for “White,” but will not be an early adopter of “Latinx.”
“’Tis but thy name that is my enemy,” says Juliet. Her story is a tragedy. Let’s hope ours isn’t.