For most of its written history, the English word “black” was used primarily as an adjective and was rendered in lowercase.

This was the case even when the word was used to refer to the skin colour of people of African descent, virtually none of whom is actually black in colour. Like the word “white” in reference to people of European descent, it is a relatively harmless linguistic shorthand for a reality that is much more nuanced.

Until recently, this usage wasn’t controversial, as long as no one argued that the terms referred to any essences. Only a blind chauvinist would argue that any human being is actually white or black or, worse, attach moral weight to these distinctions. Shades of human skin exist on a broad continuum, both among populations and amongst individuals.

In the middle of 2020, however, the Associated Press updated its style guide, one of the most influential in the trade, to capitalise the “b” when using “black” to refer to people of African descent, both on the continent and in the diaspora.

Soon after, the New York Times and most other mainstream Western media organisations joined the band wagon. Since then they have referred to people who look like me as Black; some restrict the usage to diasporic black people, but the distinction is useless for our purposes.

The AP framed the change as an attempt capture the “essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black.” The New York Times argued that capitalisation “best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover.”

Other organisations advanced similar justifications.

Double standards?

All this sounds noble. Without a doubt, media organisations should be respectful in the pursuit of truth. Yet, somehow, every encounter with this usage over the past two years has left me rather uneasy. Am I ungrateful for being recognised and referred to more accurately? Shouldn’t I bask in the dignity that I, along with the multitudes heretofore referred to as black, have been granted in Western media?

Or perhaps I’m uneasy because the argument that this is the respectful way to refer to black people lacks purchase. For one, these organisations elected to capitalise only black, but none of the other colour words for groups of human beings. White remains lowercase, as does brown, which I have seen them use to refer to some people of Asian descent.

Why the double standards? The AP argued that “white people in general have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.” The New York Times, too, chose not to capitalise white because “white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does, and also has long been capitalized by hate groups.”

It went even further, equating the change to a similar change it made, about a century ago, to capitalise Negro when referring to the same group, following a letter-writing campaign by W.E.B. Du Bois.

To all this I say, in the famous words of a young Swedish philosopher: blah blah blah! None of the arguments for capitalising black makes sense. Neither do any of the arguments for leaving white, or brown, out of this special treatment. It’s all a jumble of words.

First, it’s certainly not true that white people “have much less shared history and culture” than black people. Even within its own terms, the AP’s argument is self-defeating: if black people have a history of being discriminated against because of skin colour, don’t white people have a history of discriminating against them?

Conversely, even if it were true that white people don’t have a shared history and culture, then, on the same grounds, it can be argued that black people lack them too. After all, there are more black people in the world, who are organised into more ethnic groups, and speak more languages, than white people.

Additionally, black people have historically not had the same level of cultural interchange as white people developed over the last 2000 years, thanks to Christianity and European empires. To claim that white people don’t have a shared history and culture while black people do is to insult both black and white people; belittling the former and erasing the latter.

The Times’s argument that white is capitalised by hate groups also runs into the shoals, for black is also capitalised by what some consider to be hate groups, like Black Lives Matter and the Nation of Islam. However stridently defended, the Times’s opinion on what is a hate group remains just that, an opinion.

Furthermore, all hate groups, if they know their grammar, also capitalise all the other words that the Times capitalises, like words that begin sentences and their own names. Not wanting to be like hate groups in the use of language is like not wanting to be wet while swimming. We all have to use the same words.

Finally, it’s ridiculous to compare capitalising black to capitalising negro. Unlike the original Latin, the word negro does not mean black in English. It was brought into English to refer to a specific racial group, at a time when everyone was convinced, wrongly, that races were essences.

Its equivalent racial term for white people is Caucasian, which is capitalised. Like Caucasian, too, the term is obsolete, because both claimed to refer to an essence that isn’t really one. Black, at least in reference to people, doesn’t have that connotation, except in twisted minds — and now in the enlightened minds of mainstream media copy editors. 

Black Lives Matter

In short, the reasons the media organisations gave are incoherent. Yet they modified their style guides anyway. Why? Is it possible that coherence wasn’t exactly high on their list of priorities when they made the changes? Is it possible that other factors were at play? Let us take a step back and consider the circumstances surrounding this collective decision.

On May 15, 2020, a white police officer pinned George Floyd, a black man, under his knee in Minneapolis. Mr Floyd ended up dying, and the officer was convicted of murdering him last year. Protests and riots broke out across America. Urged on by breathless news coverage, all and sundry, including major corporations, stepped up to voice their solidarity.

On June 20, about a month after the death of Mr Floyd, with riots still raging across the country, and activists screaming for America to atone for its original sin of slavery and racism, the AP announced its decision to capitalise black. The New York Times’s decision came on July 5. Since then, the capitalised word has stuck out like a sore thumb on their pages.

Herein, I think, lie their real motivations. They transformed a colour-based racial adjective into an ethnic racial noun to placate self-righteous activists. And when, naturally, they ran into their glaring inconsistency in not applying this treatment to the other racial adjectives, they twisted themselves into knots with senseless verbiage to defend an indefensible decision.

What the AP, the Times, and others did was political, not ethical. It had nothing to do with respecting black people; the emptiness of their arguments is sufficient proof. It’s not that they want to be good; they want to look good. Which is sad, because they ended up looking foolish, at least to most black people, who either don’t care or who see the emptiness of the move.

If this were the only wrinkle in this story, I wouldn’t have bothered writing about it. Our world is drowning in foolishness. However, I think this particular kind of foolishness is harmful. In turning people of African descent into a single ethnic group, distinct from the rest in its supposed homogeneity, these news organisations have reverted to the practises of those they condemn.

Only racial chauvinists care enough about race to essentialise it. Major media organisations have now joined them. And that is a problem.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.