Recently, and with remarkable speed and thoroughness, most major media organizations have amended their style guidelines to capitalize the word Black as a racial denominator, e.g. “The black shoes were worn by Oprah Winfrey, a Black celebrity,” or “It was a black day when Black leader Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.” This is an odd development, the ramifications of which will reach beyond the worlds of journalism and publishing. Capital punishment, indeed.
In the past, a variety of words have been employed to officially term dark-skinned persons of African origin: colored, negro or Negro, and, in the US, African-American. People of Color has lately cropped up in reference to those of non-European ancestry, along with the neologism racialized, which my WordPress program underlines in red as a spelling mistake. There is a complex muddle of reasoning behind this lexicon – initially formed to preempt ugly slurs spoken or written by white people, then to impart a shared dignity to populations often denied it, although in all cases the special language seemed to imply that others were the default or standard type no adjective was needed to identify (as also in the English words men and [wo]men or male and [fe]male).
Despite the well-meant changes to the terminology – or maybe because of them – Black people remain disproportionately poorer, less healthy, and more subject to criminalization and prosecution in contemporary society. A parallel problem has arisen with the evolving designations of Aboriginal, Indigenous, and First Nations people in Canada, who still experience high rates of poverty and addiction no matter what they are called by governments and news sites. Capitalizing non-proper words like Black or Indigenous to characterize particular racial groups may be intended to confer a status of cohesive nationhood for individual members to prize, but any new advantages earned by a single letter have been offset by a continued history of social and economic handicaps. Such protocols also veer worryingly toward what’s been called “compelled” speech, in which not adhering to a particular usage is as taboo as prohibited language: theoretically, failure to employ a capital B might one day be deemed as offensive as actively saying the n-word.
The other complication raised by the capitalization of Black is that only whites are left without the distinct spelling. You can be Asian, South Asian, Hispanic, or Black, but you can’t be White. Of course, you can keep being European, Greek, Scandinavian, Slavic, or Celtic, and you might be Jewish, Catholic, a Baptist or a Mormon, while some older folks still think of themselves as WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), but I was last year told by a copy editor (of my book Takin’ Care of Business) that Caucasian was a bit outdated. You’ll definitely have to retype “The white t-shirt was popularized by the White actor Marlon Brando,” however, or “That White lady told a white lie.” How long before someone demands that the rules be changed, though? Who wants to explain just why Black and white aren’t unfair, or at least inconsistent? Why not also Gay and Straight, Abled and Disabled, Single or Attached, or Tall and Short? If the trend to separate every possible physical or personal category into self-contained communities is extended, why shouldn’t all of us be divided into nominal subsets, as long as everyone gets an upper case letter to feel good about, and to scold outsiders into using? Does that sound like a plan for a happily coexisting pluralism? Does that represent an ideal of democratic tolerance? Will real lives tangibly improve whenever we hit the shift key? Me, I’m content to be described as Canadian. Or George. Or, best of all, just human. No capital required.