A city worker cleans up the street in front of a New York City government building. Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

August 14, 2020   5 mins

In the midst of the “racial reckoning” that has defined America since the brutal murder of George Floyd, American media institutions are revising their style guides. One after another, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and even Fox News have decided to capitalise the ‘b’ in the word ‘Black’, when used to refer to African-Americans. According to the NYT’s announcement, it’s because they believe this “best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover.”

However, some outlets such as The Washington Post, CNN and Fox News have also decided, in an act of racial grammatical reciprocity, to capitalise ‘White’. The justification is that both ‘Black’ and ‘White’ denote distinct cultural identities. As the Post said of white European immigrants to the America, “these diverse ethnicities were eventually assimilated into the collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation,” going to conclude that “as such, White should be represented with a capital W.”

Those who joyously celebrated the New York Times uppercasing ‘Black’ as an act of “liberation” (for instance, Nikole Hannah Jones, the founder of the 1619 project) were not as happy about the Washington Post’s decision. Some have referred to it as the “grammar equivalent of all lives matter”. Others argue it is outright legitimising white supremacy.

But is capitalising (or not capitalising) a single letter really such a big deal? Well it may be a small symbolic action, but the fact that so much of the mainstream media is making it at the same time is not. It is taking place as part of what some have rather derisively called the “woke cultural revolution”. This also includes Robin DiAngelo’s terrible book, White Fragility, and similar tracts becoming bestsellers; white voiceover actors recusing themselves from voicing black characters; major corporations aligning themselves with radical political causes; city authorities voting to defund or even abolish police departments; and other significant developments.

We are in new territory now — and not everyone is finding the right way forward. For instance, the decision by the Washington Post and others to capitalise ‘White’ is obviously foolish, because it reifies a phantasmic unitary ‘white’ racial identity and culture, as fetishised by creepy white nationalists. In what sense do an Armenian-American from Los Angeles, an Irish-American from Boston, a New York Jew, an Appalachian, a descendant of Southern slave owners and a Palestinian immigrant share a distinct cultural identity?

There is (or was) the idea of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture, which for so long held a hegemonic position — and was held up as what European immigrants had to assimilate into (if they were allowed) to be considered upstanding Americans. Of course, this ‘respectable’ idea of ‘whiteness’ was a basis for institutionalised racial oppression and violence, so no truck should be had with it.

But isn’t there an inconsistency from those who think capitalising black is an act of social justice, while capitalising white is wrong and inappropriate? By capitalising ‘Black’ aren’t you inevitably opening the door for legitimising ‘White’ identity and other forms of racialisation? After all, ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ can’t really exist without each other.

The usual retort is that ‘Black’ recognises a shared culture and identity that has played an important role in the American context. Moreover, we capitalise terms like Jewish and Asian so why not Black? And then there’s this compelling argument: most black Americans can’t trace their heritage to a specific tribe or ethnic group in Africa because of the deracination of the Middle Passage and racial slavery; so they have had to create their own identity and culture, often times in opposition to the dominant Puritan inflected ‘official’ WASP culture (and its southern counterpart).

Finally, there’s the practical requirement for commonly understood words. Though black culture can speak for itself without needing special recognition from The New York Times, to enable conversations about these matters we still need the least imperfect terminology we can find.

That said, black identity must not be over simplified. The rise of ‘mixed race’ relationships and decades of immigration from the Caribbean and Africa in recent decades has further complicated what it means to be ‘black’ in America. In what sense can it be said that a black American from Chicago who could probably trace his ancestry in America all the way back to the seventeenth century (longer than many white Americans), a Haitian-American, or an immigrant from Ethiopia share a common identity let alone culture?

Furthermore, while cultural differences do certainly exist, they are not as distinct and solid as we might imagine. The truth is that ‘black’ and ‘white’ Americans are much more similar to one another than different. The entire shelf of modern American music would not exist without black Americans. What we call ‘black culture’ wouldn’t exist without the European influences it had to draw upon. The point is made by Albert Murray in his masterpiece The Omni-Americans, which he wrote as a “counter-statement” to the “race oriented propagandists” of his day:

“The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multi-coloured people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that the white people are not really white and that black Americans are not black. They are all interrelated in one way or another.”

“Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences”, Murray goes on, “the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.” Murray made his declaration of America as a “multicoloured nation”, not a multiracial one, in 1970. With decades of further immigration from all around the world, which has added new elements to America’s national culture, his argument is even more true now than it was in his time. Yet I suspect Murray’s words (notice how doesn’t capitalise either black or white) would now be received with suspicion in some circles. Indeed, his arguments would be criticised as denying the ‘reality of race’ and therefore ‘denying’ racism.

The real problem with uppercasing racial categories is that — like many of the symbolic actions that have followed this ‘racial awakening’, from toppling statues to woke rebranding by corporations — it creates the illusion that wide-ranging change is ‘finally’ happening. But real progress will only occur when the material conditions of black Americans has improved, and when laws and institutional practices that empower police to brutalise citizens have been overturned. In other words, the prize is not symbolic concession, but radical social transformation. The former is easy and superficial; the latter is hard and substantive.

The growing influence of identity politics and racial essentialism in the media, academia and other mainstream institutions is all in the name of equality and diversity. Nevertheless, it is a way of thinking that permanently categorises human beings, putting them into rigid racial, ethnic and cultural boxes. Race isn’t regarded as a social construct that can be explained and analysed historically, but as an omnipresent state of being which we must ‘come to terms with’. Ironically this undermines the lived experience of belonging to a diverse society with all of its messy, complicated and very human dynamics.

Under the identitarian worldview, America is portrayed as a mosaic of different volks (or ‘races’) each existing in their own unique universe with particular histories, values and volkgeist, which must be ‘respected’ and not transgressed against. It leaves little room for overarching common identities like nationality that can go beyond racial and ethnic affiliations. Is it any surprise that numerous controversies over so-called ‘cultural appropriation’ have become mainstream political issues in the past few years? Once you enter into the cycle of essentialising human beings through race and identity, it, crackpot racialist ideas inevitably become legitimised.

One of the most banal and vulgar ways to think about humanity is to classify and categorise by ‘race’, and especially by skin pigmentation. Racial thinking, no matter how ‘progressively’ arrived at, can only be reactionary. It is irrational, anti-scientific and anti-humanist. It is a fetter on the social development of human beings and their flourishing. Racialism and racism are twin brothers. Solidifying racial categories in mainstream discourse is a grave mistake. Real progress should mean challenging racial thinking at its root and ultimately transcending it.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.