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Conscious Style Guide: The Case for Capitalizing Black and White In Context of Racial Identity

Vanessa Childers April 3, 2019

One of my favorite tasks as editor is selecting articles for the magazine and watching as the big picture of each issue materializes — a collection of perspectives and ideas that is greater than the sum of its parts. This edition of Conscious Company is devoted to racial equity — in the workplace, in society, in the global economy, and as the crux of a company’s mission. I’m encouraged by the stories featured here and am dedicated to continuing the conversation in issues to come.

In particular, I’m excited to share our first-ever list of Game-Changing Founders of Color. These entrepreneurs have not only created successful businesses despite our nation’s polarizing racial wealth gap, but they’re also committed to narrowing that gap with their business models. Other thought-provoking reads in the following pages include a look at the linear relationship between a company’s racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance, the neuroscience and psychology of inclusion and exclusion, the potential that refugees and migrants have in the global workforce, and an interview with a conscious business leader who believes investment capital has the power to end racism, sexism, and classism.

When subjecting this issue to multiple rounds of edits, an important discussion arose: should the adjectives black and white be capitalized in the context of racial identity, similar to other modifiers like Latinx and Native? This was more than a question of mechanics; this was about presenting black and white in the most respectful, authentic, and appropriate way possible. What was the conscious choice for the Conscious Company Media Style Guide?

The more I engaged in vigorous research and debate, the more I felt torn. As the Diversity Style Guide says, most style guides for journalism, like those for the Associated Press and The New York Times, call for putting both black and white in lowercase letters. Lori L. Tharps, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University, points out in her op-ed “The Case for Black With a Capital B” in The New York Times, “Ironically, The Associated Press also decrees that the proper names of ‘nationalities, peoples, races, tribes’ should be capitalized. What are Black people, then?” Fair question.

The Diversity Style Guide adds that “other , like ‘The Chicago Manual of Style,’ allow capitalization if an author or publication prefers. Essence and Ebony magazines, The Chicago Defender, and many other publications serving African-American communities capitalize Black; some, but not all, capitalize White. The National Association of Black Journalists does not capitalize Black in its publications, including the NABJ Style Guide. After much research and consideration, the editor of The Diversity Style Guide elected to capitalize Black and White when used in a racial context, but most would say it’s not incorrect to lowercase those words.” But, as Tharps writes, “claiming the uppercase as a choice, rather than the rule, feels inadequate. Black should always be written with a capital B. We are indeed a people, a race, a tribe. It’s only correct.”

For me, the decision to capitalize Black was easy; the decision to capitalize White was not. Our fabulous copy editors and I debated this subject at length. One view was that the typographical inequality between Black and white was glaring and potentially represented treating white people as exceptional. Another posed the question, “Isn’t the exception the point here; that achieving equality takes a little extra given by the privileged until things are more equal?” The latter approach is akin to the distinction between equity versus equality presented on page 16 — and it almost pushed me over the edge to uppercase Black, lowercase white.

And then I read an article, “Capitalizing for Equality,” written by Conscious Style Guide founder Karen Yin and originally published in the newsletter Copyediting, which says, “When words labeling an entire people are at the root of a language dispute, that’s reason enough to seek direction outside of our usual resources, especially if the resources are outdated. If your editorial directive is to call people what they want to be called — including names, pronouns, and labels — then look to Black media outlets like Ebony and Essence for accepted usage and avoid overriding their terminology. By capitalizing Black and White, we also make necessary distinctions between color and race — black hair and Black hair — similar to distinguishing between native and Native. Don’t wait for your style guide to catch up, because it’s waiting for you to demonstrate sufficient usage.”

Yin’s point about necessary distinctions was solid enough for us to conclude our discussion with the decision to capitalize both Black and White. And her ending argument echoes a familiar theme in conscious business: don’t wait for the institutions you rely on to catch up. We are writing our own style guide of sorts — relying not only on instinct but also on perspectives outside of our own.

If this issue of the magazine instigates critical dialogue for you as much as this question of capitalization did for me, I’ll consider it a step in the right direction.

Happy reading,

Editorial Director

Equity and Inclusion / Stakeholder Capitalism
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