Etymology Usage

Black with a capital B

[Note: This post was updated on July 6, 2020.]

Q: I think it’s an insult to lowercase the “b” in “black” when referring to race. Why not, for instance, use the capital letter in writing about Black members of Congress? I always do, and I’m Caucasian.

A: We’ve written before on our blog about capitalization rules, and how publishers’ “house styles” come and go. “Black” presents a special problem, though, because of sensitivity about racial issues.

Dictionaries say that as a racial designation, the word is “also” or “sometimes” capitalized, so either “black” or “Black” is considered standard English.

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., 2017) says that “terms such as black and white, when referring to ethnicity, are usually lowercased unless a particular author or publisher prefers otherwise.” The examples given include both noun and adjective use: “black people; blacks; people of color; white people; whites.”

Some publishers and news organizations capitalize “black” and some don’t. [Update: The Associated Press and the New York Times now capitalize “black” but not “white.” AP says it will decide later whether to capitalize “white” as well. Previously, the Times style guide had called for lowercasing “black,” “white,” and all other “racial designations derived from skin color.” ]

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says in a usage note that “Black is sometimes capitalized in its racial sense, especially in the African-American press, though the lowercase form is still widely used by authors of all races.”

“The capitalization of Black does raise ancillary problems for the treatment of the term white,” American Heritage adds. “Orthographic evenhandedness would seem to require the use of uppercase White, but this form might be taken to imply that whites constitute a single ethnic group, an issue that is certainly debatable.”

To complicate matters further, the dictionary notes, “Uppercase White is also sometimes associated with the writings of white supremacist groups, a sufficient reason of itself for many to dismiss it.”

But using “lowercase white in the same context as uppercase Black will obviously raise questions as to how and why the writer has distinguished between the two groups,” the usage note says.

“There is no entirely happy solution to this problem,” American Heritage concludes. “In all likelihood, uncertainty as to the mode of styling of white has dissuaded many publications from adopting the capitalized form Black.”

[Update: That usage note does not appear in later editions of American Heritage. The dictionary’s 5th and online editions merely define the adjective (“black, also Black”) this way: “a. Of or belonging to a racial group having brown to black skin, especially one of African origin: the black population of South Africa. b. Of or belonging to an American ethnic group descended from African peoples having dark skin; African American.” The noun is similarly defined.]

We’ve chosen to use the lowercase “black” on our blog, though we see this as a style matter rather than one of correctness or incorrectness. Our feeling is that “black” and “white” as terms of ethnicity should be treated alike, and frankly we hesitate to capitalize “white.”

You might also be interested in a blog entry we wrote about the evolution of the word “black,” and another posting about “black American” versus “African American.”

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