Recognizing Race in Language: Why We Capitalize “Black” and “White”

CSSP’s commitment to becoming an anti-racist organization requires our organization to be on a constant, ongoing racial equity journey—a continuous culture of learning, reflecting, and, when appropriate, an evolution in the way that we understand, think, and write about people and communities most marginalized by White supremacy and racist policies and institutions.

Recognizing the importance of language, after research, reflection, and conversations with staff and thought partners, CSSP has decided to standardize the capitalization of the “B” in Black in our writing, when referring to people of African descent. At CSSP we understand that Black refers to not just a color but signifies a history and the racial identity of Black Americans. As writer and professor Lori L. Tharps argues, “Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.”

Yet capitalizing “Black” is not universally accepted. In fact, it is common to see “Black” in lower case, even though other racial and ethnic groups like Asian, Latinx, and Native, are routinely capitalized. Additionally, major publications like The New York Times, and other major news outlets that adhere to the AP Style Book,* do not call for capitalizing “B” in Black. The typographical rule by these predominantly White institutions set precedence to lowercase ‘b’ despite the opposing preference by many Black people. So, what does it mean when we align with grammatical rules determined by predominantly White institutions, instead of predominantly Black institutions, like ESSENCE and Ebony magazines, both of which capitalize the “B” in Black?

It is evident that anti-Blackness permeates every aspect of life in the United States, including how institutions write and talk about people. Language has been part of the way society and institutions separate Black Americans and devalue their humanity. Throughout American history, dehumanizing names, refusal to use “Ms.” or “Mr.” when addressing Black adults, and signs indicating separate, substandard facilities have been used to justify the inequitable treatment of Black Americans.

It is for this reason, that re-naming and reclaiming language has been an important part of the struggle for racial justice. In 1889, American sociologist W.E.B Dubois pushed back against writing “Negro” with a lowercase “n,” saying “eight million Americans deserve a capital letter.” “Say it loud I’m Black and I’m proud” became a popular phrase (popularized by James Brown’s original ballad) of the Civil Rights Movement. Just recently, The New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones emphasized the importance of language as a tool to reclaim Black humanity by requiring writers to refer to enslaved Black Americans as “enslaved” rather than “slaves” in the 1619 Project. The use of language has historically and contemporaneously signified how Blackness and anti-Blackness is understood and functions in the United States.

In addition to capitalizing Black, CSSP has also made the decision to capitalize White. We will do this when referring to people who are racialized as White in the United States, including those who identify with ethnicities and nationalities that can be traced back to Europe. To not name “White” as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard. In sociologist Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, she writes, “White people get to be ‘just people,’” without having their race named, whereas people of color are often described with their race.

We believe that it is important to call attention to White as a race as a way to understand and give voice to how Whiteness functions in our social and political institutions and our communities. Moreover, the detachment of “White” as a proper noun allows White people to sit out of conversations about race and removes accountability from White people’s and White institutions’ involvement in racism. We are also reckoning with the threatening implications of capitalizing “W” in “White,” often used by White supremacists, to establish White racial dominance. The violence of capitalizing White in this context makes us grapple with the history of how Whiteness has functioned and thrived in the United States; acknowledging that, yes, White people have had power and still hold power in this country. While we condemn those who capitalize “W” for the sake of evoking violence, we intentionally capitalize “White” in part to invite people, and ourselves, to think deeply about the ways Whiteness survives—and is supported both explicitly and implicitly.

For these reasons, we require the capitalization of “Black” and “White” when referring to racial identity in our work. Establishing a rule, instead of leaving capitalization to the writer as a choice, emphasizes the critical importance and political permanence of these words as real, existing racial identities. And instead of hoping for other White institutions to apply equitable treatment of capitalizing both “Black” and “White,” we’ve taken the step to establish our own style guide, and hope others will follow.

For more information on CSSP’s Equity and Justice work or to review our glossary of key equity terms and concepts, visit our Equity & Justice portal.

*Editor’s note: Since the publication of this post in March of 2020, a number of the news outlets mentioned in this piece have changed the way they capitalize the words Black and/or White, including the Associated Press.