PHILADELPHIA — I WAS sitting in my office at Temple University when I overheard an exchange between a colleague and his student. The student had come to see her professor to go over a paper, and he was patiently explaining that the abundance of grammatical mistakes detracted from her compelling content. I sympathized with my colleague as he pointed out error after error. Until he came to this one.
“Why did you capitalize black and white people?” he asked. “I thought I’d seen it written that way before,” the girl stammered. “Come on,” he said. “Why would you capitalize black or white?”
The student didn’t have an answer. But I did, and it took a great deal of self-control to not insert myself into the conversation, because this is one of my greatest frustrations as a writer and a Black woman living in the United States. When speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized. Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.
Linguists, academics and activists have been making this point for years, yet the publishing industry — our major newspapers, magazines and books — resist making this simple yet fundamental change. [ … ]
Some thoughts on the comments many readers left in response to this column…
The most striking thing about so many of the dissenting commenters is their denial of the right to self-determination by Blacks in setting the rules when it comes to how they are referred to in writing, and the insistence that the determination what to call another group of people is theirs to make.
Normally, when someone gives you their name, that is what you call them. When that person tells you how their name is spelled, say Jon versus John, you don’t ignore that and spell it John anyway. You also don’t lecture them about why Jon isn’t right or try to convince them to change their name. You just accept that Jon is what it is and go on about your business. Right? Well, apparently not.
All manner of reasons were invoked, from the history of race classification in America, to human phenotypes, to grammar, with just about everything and anything you can think of thrown in between. Everything and anything was used in order to avoid making a needed concession: the right to self-determination.
For the detractors, no mental gymnastics to deny a simple request was too strenuous.
This is yet another maddening facet of the depth and breadth of America’s problem with dealing with race, a very puzzling and disappointing finding when thinking of the road we’ve traveled. Are we still at the point where white Americans are telling Blacks who they are and what they can think and feel? We may only be talking about whether or not to capitalize a word, but how does that impact the bigger conversation?
I am pasting my original comment with replies below, and then a sampling of comments as they appeared on the Times website.
“Du Bois quickly wrote a heated retort that called “the use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings a personal insult.””
He is right now, as he was right then.
Black, when referring to fellow Americans, should be capitalized. It should be a no-brainer to anyone that this: “Jews, Hispanics, Asians and blacks” can’t possibly be right.
I don’t care which way grammarians rule, so long as all those words either get capitalized or not at all.
Putting people in boxes for their appearance has nothing to do with respect.
The difference is that “Jews,” “Hispanics,” and “Asians” are all derived from proper nouns — “Judaea,” “Hispaniola,” “Asia.” And a word that ‘s derived from a proper noun is capitalized.
Addressing people and their concerns by the names they prefer is not putting them in boxes; it’s freeing them.
A bit of history:this paper resisted using the word “gay” until 1987. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/fashion/gays-lesbians-the-term-homosex…
Interesting how people who look for ‘personal insult’ always somehow manage to find it, isn’t it?
The instant the color black was turned into a proper name, which is what it became when we began to use it to describe people, a capital “B” became proper and warranted.
Rima, the problem is that “black” never was turned into a proper noun. It is rather sometimes used as a common noun, like “man” and “woman” or “blonde” and “brunette.” Or layman, clergyman, politician, bank robber, nurse . . . note that all of these terms describe people, and none are considered proper nouns or capitalized. By way of contrast, “Asian,” “Lutheran,” and “Kantian” are derived from proper nouns and so capitalized.
Sure it was! You use it as such every time you talk or write about a Black man or woman. Besides, why is it so difficult to accede to such a simple request? This is the thing that baffles me the most about the comments on this piece.
Well professor what I see here is you equivocating between a person,s being and their color. We have people of many colors, brown, red, various shades of white, tan, and that is how we might describe them when referring to them, such as oh you know Sam the black guy in accounting. But notice we do not refer to the Asian as the yellow man, they consider such a description racist.
Recall that at one time they were called the “Yellow Peril.” Have you failed to notice the uproar over the “Washington Redskins?” It would seem as if our native Americans do not find that very attractive, just try going to one of the reservations and say, “hey you redskins” and see if you get out alive.
you and others are black people, or in the Latin language, negro, and in Germany, Schwartzes, (Schvartses) in Yiddish. It is a description of your appearance, not your particular being. Also, all black people, are not of African descent. Some Polynesians are quite dark, but call them black, and it is not appreciated.
What you are doing is separating people of different colors from the mainstream of humanity.
a business man who is black, is not a Black Man, he is a business man who is black. Also as we well know, a great many people who may look black to some degree, are not 100% black. And what about the Quadroons in the days of old New Orleans Storyville. They looked pretty much white, but were considered blacks by the southerners, primarily so they could be denied their civil rights.
“… Black Man, he is a business man who is black.”
If one must describe a person by their race, then one must capitalize the same way as they would any other race. For as long as everyone writes about you and I as Jews, as opposed to jews, then the Black man in your example deserves the same respect we get.
The idea of race as an artificial construct a basic precept of anthropology. “Race” in terms of what color one’s skin is or isn’t is itself a long history of subjective categorizations. An analogy to breeds of dogs is facile. If you and I and someone who lived 100 years ago, for example, can all agree on a few specific, exclusive and immutable racial categories that apply to all people everywhere than we would have done something that no one has done.
Human phenotypes vary so much (hair color, hair texture, eye color, and many many different shades of skin color) that any person’s or group’s judgement of who specifically looks “black” or looks “white” is entirely subjective and informed by their own biases. There is no reason apart from cultural and historical constructs that eye color could not represent a “racial” category. Or hair texture. The point is that, yes, people look different, but they look different in many ways. And the reason why skin color is the most important label of difference, is completely artificial.
Race is an artificial construction. You might refer to my ancestry to give a picture of me, but I am simply a an industrial electrical engineer, Jewish has noting to do with it.
In fact I am only Jewish by by ancestry, noting to do with who I am. I might say of some person I was working with, that 6’8″ guy, you would know who I mean, but that would have nothing to do with his demeanor, or what kind of person he is. In this case, color is being used as a personal characteristic. Suppose we talk about that “Fat Person,” does that say anything about their intelligence, life style, group affiliation?
Well that is what this professor is doing, making black a defining characteristic on place of personality, intelligence, position in life. It says he i different no matter what level of success he has attained.
JD, actually, it’s easy to determine race — an inexpensive genetic analysis will do it. Where people perhaps go wrong is in assuming that the races are genetically discrete groups, or that as you point out people can be classified by race solely on the basis of skin color. But the notion that there is no such thing is race is twirly-eyed campus political correctness, not science.
Also, why do you say we don’t have a species? Did you mean “subspecies”? In biology, “race” is considered synonymous with “subspecies.” Whether the human races should be considered subspecies is a topic of debate. There is no firm definition of subspecies but if you imagine finding another species of animal with the differentiated population groups our has I think you can see that the current debate has more to do with human sensibilities than the practicalities of taxonomy.
You wrote: “You might refer to my ancestry to give a picture of me, but I am simply a an industrial electrical engineer, Jewish has noting to do with it.”
That’s easy for you to say. No one can tell merely by looking at you.
This is about grammar and using equivalent capitalization when referring to someone who is Black, as we do when we refer to everyone else. Full stop. The professor isn’t doing anything more than W.E.B. DuBois did in his time.
The rest of the discussion, whether or not Blacks should use the term at all, far be it for me to tell anyone what they should or should not say.
David, I’m not sure I understand your assertion that race is an artificial construction. Humans are part of the animal kingdom, subject to the same laws of genetics as all others; the characteristics used to define race are genetic, akin to those defining breeds of dogs, for instance (please forgive the crass analogy; nothing is meant by it other than example). People of different races in fact not only look different from one another, they *are* different from one another. Not better or worse, just different.
The difference between being “fat” and being “White” is that one can change fatness. One cannot change one’s race.
What I don’t understand is the pride inherent in ideas of race. It makes as much sense to me as being proud of being tall, having brown hair, or large feet.
The grammar attendant with race merely recognizes the importance of such basic qualities in human beings, and how they attach to large groups of people with shared traits. Like the personal pronoun “I,” they should be capitalized. It seems to me that if we are going to capitalize breeds of dogs, the least we can do is capitalize races of people.
Mr. Underwood’s comment seems to me unjustifiably harsh, and worse, seems not to acknowledge or engage what Professor Tharps actually argued.
If you are going to describe people by the color of their skin, then presumably you would want to be accurate about it, in which case you would note that almost none of the people we call black actually have black skin. It’s brown. Only in old racist cartoons is the skin of black people actually black. The “yellow man” is not yellow, either, if you look closely enough to see an individual rather than a skin color. Racist depictions of course emphasize yellow. The “redskin” does not have red skin, even in the logo of the Washington DC football team.
Since we clearly are not really talking about skin color but race, capitalizing the term makes sense. Ask Sam, the guy in accounting with the brown skin.
Black, with a capital B, is no more or less a defining characteristic than Italian with a capital I, or Hispanic with a capital H. Or Caucasian, for that matter.
You capitalized Asian.
Not capitalizing the adjective “Black” when refering in writing to a person who is Black is in and of itself a denial of civil rights. If that is how Black people want to be refered to in absentia of any other cultural markers, then that is how we should respectfully refer to them. We no longer use the term “Indian” to describe Native Americans or the First Nations people now do we?
Race is an artificial construct when it comes to people because most Americans are not “purebreds” but mixes of peoples from different parts of the world. That’s why DNA analysis comes as a shock to so many people trying to trace their ancestors.
Lee – you’re being silly. Changing voting laws to reduce turnout by black voters — THAT’s a denial of civil rights. Stop-and-frisk policies that target young black men and add unnecessary arrests to their records, further ensuring a difficult future — THAT’s a denial of civil rights. Lowercasing a ‘b’ — not so much. You’re spending a lot of energy arguing about the wrong things, much like the folks in Fort Collin, CO, who are protesting the restaurant Illegal Pete’s claiming it’s derogatory to illegal immigrants, even though the name has nothing to do with illegal immigrants.
Rima, this isn’t about equivalent grammar. We say “black Americans” and “white Americans,” and “Jewish Americans” and “Asian Americans.” All are correct because the former adjectives are based on common nouns while the latter are based on proper ones. As in “it was an onerous task” vs. “it was a Herculean task.”
Jewish but not Black? I had really never thought of this and am glad it has been pointed out to me.
Dear Citizen: human beings do not have “species.” The scientists have long since informed us that there is no such thing as “race.” Best explanation I’ve heard was that if a naked corpse is wheeled into a morgue there is no way for a scientist to determine any “race” of that corpse as there is no such thing as identifying “racial” traits. “Race” is a social construction based on culture. And let me assure you: you actually cannot identify “race” by color and Black people are not “better athletes” because of racial differences.
Rima: It has nothing to do with ‘respect’, it has everything to do with the person’s character and that has nothing to do with the color of their skin.
The rest of the discussion, whether or not Blacks should use the term at all, far be it for me to tell anyone what they should or should not say…’
And yet that is exactly what you are doing.
Funny how that happens, isn’t it?
Lee: ‘…Not capitalizing the adjective “Black” when refering in writing to a person who is Black is in and of itself a denial of civil rights….’
And here it is…anything that anyone thinks is a ‘denial of civil rights’ is a denial of civil rights. Moral relativism at its worst.
‘…We no longer use the term “Indian” to describe Native Americans or the First Nations people now do we?…’
It might surprise the politically correct that many Native Americans prefer ‘Indian’ over the longer description.
That said, refer to yourself in any way you want, but once you have decided that the color of your skin or your ethnic origin is your primary definition, that is what you will project to the world, so best not be surprised if that is how everyone else also defines you.
Asian indicates a person from Asia, Black (black) doesn’t indicate a person from the country of Black. It’s quite confusing!
DRM, the problem being that none of what you say is true. My DNA shows quite well where my ancestors came from, including sub-Saharan Africa. And don’t tell me with a straight face that you can’t tell that President Obama is part black.
It is indeed proper and fitting for we as people to name ourselves.
I suppose if a person defines themselves primarily by the color of their skin, that is true, but once that has been accomplished, would it be ‘proper and fitting’ for everyone else to do the same?
Curated from www.nytimes.com