Last week the Associated Press changed its style for the words “Black” and “Indigenous” when describing race and cultural status.
Previously, the words were not capitalized in the AP Stylebook, which this newspaper uses as a guideline. But with all the change our culture has seen in the past several weeks, the AP changed its rule.
Here I’ll focus on the update of “Black.”
“We are making an important change to AP style that stems from a long and fruitful conversation among news leaders, editors and diverse members of our staff and external groups and organizations,” the AP wrote in an email. “AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”
Certainly the AP changes its style on minor things all the time. But this change, to me and in the greater context of what’s been happening in the U.S. the past few weeks, had a much larger significance.
In mid-June we ran a column by a local college student about her experience growing up Black in Colorado Springs and her reaction to recent events including the murder of a Black man, George Floyd at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis, and the local protests and activism that followed (and are still fresh in our minds).
Because of the AP’s guidelines at the time the column was published — on June 17 — I initially lower-cased the word “Black” in her submission when I edited it and let her know about the changes.
I got this response from the writer, Amelia Kemp, a College of Wooster student and resident of northern Colorado Springs, who is interning at the Black Forest Community Church this summer.
“This all looks great BUT it’s really important to me that Black is capitalized ... it probably got changed as a grammatical thing but it’s a big part of the movement to capitalize the word when talking about Black people!”
I saw her point, and I agreed. I immediately decided to overrule AP Style and re-capitalize the word throughout her column, “Black LivesMatter: We may get tired, but we cannot stop,” which published in all four Pikes Peak Newspapers.
So, two days after that, on Juneteenth (aka June 19), when the AP changed its official style for the word, I certainly concurred with the change.
It makes sense and it shows respect for “a group of people whose ancestors were born in Africa, were brought to the United States against their will, spilled their blood, sweat and tears to build this nation into a world power and along the way managed to create glorious works of art, passionate music, scientific discoveries, a marvelous cuisine, and untold literary masterpieces,” Lori L. Tharps, who teaches journalism at Temple University, wrote in 2015 article on the topic in The Atlantic. “When a copyeditor deletes the capital ‘B,’ they are in effect deleting the history and contributions of my people.”
For now, the term white remains lowercase in the stylebook, but the AP has said it’s reviewing that guideline and will announce its decision in the next few weeks.
“The biggest complicating factor for news organizations is whether descriptions of white or brown people should also be capitalized. A description of a person as ‘white’ generally doesn’t carry cultural connotations. There’s also some concern that a capitalized ‘white’ has associations in some minds with white nationalist or supremacist movements,” wrote Paula Froke, the AP’s stylebook editor.
Added Doris Truong, director of training and diversity at the Poynter Institute journalism thinktank, “It does seem like now is the time. It’s a change, as the (National Association of Black Journalists) points out, that doesn’t cost you anything and ... is very meaningful to the people who are affected.”
Publications and groups across the country have weighed in on the timely change. Some had already been capitalizing “Black” for a while.
The Columbia Journalism Review stated on its website June 16, “We capitalize Black, and not white, when referring to groups in racial, ethnic, or cultural terms. For many people, Black reflects a shared sense of identity and community. White carries a different set of meanings; capitalizing the word in this context risks following the lead of white supremacists.”
I agree with the argument that capitalizing “white” might conjure other meanings for the word. I am white, but I identify more as a person of Portuguese and Lithuanian descent.
As should “Black,” in my opinion.
Slate magazine wrote, “The AP announcement wasn’t as dramatic as tearing down a Confederate monument, but it was an influential turning point in an ongoing orthographic transformation. The Seattle Times and the Boston Globe changed their stylebooks last year. Time, BuzzFeed News, Business Insider, HuffPost, and many others have made the switch as well. The AP, though, sets the standard for a broad cross section of the mainstream journalism industry — including Slate, whose style guide mostly defaults to the AP.”
The American Psychological Association Style Guide, the more academically used stylebook, already capitalizes both Black and white: “Racial and ethnic groups are designated by proper nouns and are capitalized. Therefore, use ‘Black’ and ‘White’ instead of ‘black’ and ‘white’ (do not use colors to refer to other human groups; doing so is considered pejorative). Likewise, capitalize terms such as ‘Native American,’ ‘Hispanic,’ and so on,” states that reference.
The past few weeks of protests have resulted in some meaningful change in our country, but, as Kemp stated in her column last month, “We cannot stop.”
It’s time we all edited our own internal guidelines as well.
Editor of Pikes Peak Newspapers, Michelle Karas has called the Pikes Peak region home for five years. Contact Michelle with column or story ideas, feedback and letters to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.