As a journalist of colour, I find few things as disheartening as an editor replacing “Black people” with “black people.” This first happened to my work with an essay about the racism I experienced while dating as a Black woman in London, Ontario. I was overjoyed when the piece appeared— until I saw that all of my capital-B “Blacks” had become sad, irrelevant “blacks,” except for the two that were in quotation marks.
I was devastated that a news outlet claiming to have fresh, bold ideas—including sections specifically for people of colour to contribute—chose rigid grammar rules over expression. With every “B” on the page, I was asking for Black people to be heard; instead, I felt silenced. Since then, I’ve lost almost every battle for the capital “B.”
Capitalizing proper titles for Black people has been on activist and journalist agendas for decades. For me, in the era of Black Lives Matter, capital-B Black is an act of defiance against a society that often paints minorities as secondary. That inferiority nags at me when I’m called a racial slur; when I’m forced onto the road because a group of white kids see me and won’t share the sidewalk; when a security guard follows me around a store. Trying to explain to your (often) white editor that Black is so closely tied to your own lived experience can be complicated and emotional. I’ve heard “I just don’t get it” too many times. But when the profession meant to expose systemic issues doesn’t “get it,” that becomes yet another barrier.
One of the earliest capitalizing champions was W.E.B. Du Bois, an American author and activist who started a letter-writing campaign in the 1920s. He demanded that publishers and newspaper editors capitalize the “N” in Negro, the official term for Black people at the time, to show respect. In 1929, Encyclopedia Britannica lowercased “negro” in Du Bois’s article prior to its publication. He wrote to the editor’s assistant, saying, “The use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans…[is] a personal insult.” Soon after, the encyclopedia restored the capitalization for the final version, and by 1930, The New York Times added it to its style guide.
No mainstream news outlets in Canada capitalize Black, and neither do most news sites such as BuzzFeed or Vice. The Canadian Press Stylebook says to “capitalize the proper names of nationalities, peoples, races, tribes,” such as Aboriginal Peoples, Arab, Caucasian, Negro and Pygmy, but “write aboriginal…black, brown, [and] white.” James McCarten, editor of the CP Stylebook and Caps and Spelling, says that editors, bureau chiefs and staff members have discussed capitalizing Aboriginal, but Black falls under another broader style policy. “Black is not a race. Nor is white,” he says. “Both are generic terms and therefore are lower case. We are not currently considering a change in that regard.”
Anthony Collins, co-chair of the Toronto Star’s style committee, says the paper follows Canadian Press style and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, which does not capitalize Black. While Collins says the Star has made strides with language around sexual orientation, disability and race in general, the conversation about Black hasn’t happened. “Language has power, and capitalizing words can be seen as a mark of respect,” he says. “But our chief goal as editors is to serve the reader, and in doing so, we are guided by established English usage.”
Some Canadian publications such as This Magazine have decided to start capitalizing. This year, the Review began capitalizing Black, Aboriginal and Indigenous after the masthead agreed it was a necessary step toward more accurate and respectful reporting on under-represented communities. Rabble.ca capitalizes Black “to acknowledge there is a shared Black experience that is larger than just sharing a similar skin tone,” says blog editor Michael Stewart. “It has cultural, social and political implications.” He adds that the Black and Indigenous writers he’s spoken to prefer the words to be capitalized. “We respect a community’s right to choose the way it describes itself.”
But that doesn’t mean all Black journalists are pro-capital “B.” CBC anchor Asha Tomlinson is torn: while she sees the distinction it can give, she thinks journalists should seek out where their sources are actually from. “Black and white have no origins,” she says. However, she notes that while the Black population in the United States is predominantly African-American, Canada’s is so diverse that journalists need an umbrella term when reporting on Black communities.
Style guides evolve, as does language. If we can change “E-mail” to “email” and take the “ed” out of “transgendered,” we can capitalize one letter to reflect the way a community identifies. Gangbangers, drug dealers, violent brutes—Black people have been victims of damaging stereotypes for years. After decades of non-Black folks telling us who they think we are, it’s time we get to decide how we want to identify.
As journalists, we have tremendous power in shaping how people see each other and, with that, a responsibility to get it right. We don’t get to call ourselves “progressive” if we’re unwilling to modify a community’s name just because it’s not in the dictionary. We should all know that black is a colour, but Black is for people.
About the author
Eternity Martis is the Spring 2016 multimedia editor at the RRJ. She currently writes for the Huffington Post and Vice Canada. Her work has also been featured on Canadaland, xoJane, and Salon.