For many years, I would wince when writing a sentence such as, for example: “There is a diverse population living in the Twin Cities area, including Latinos, Vietnamese, Somalians, blacks, Native Americans and whites.
That sentence is like a smile with two missing teeth. Why shouldn’t whites and blacks be capitalized too, like the others in that list? It didn’t seem right, didn’t make sense.
Just last June, the Associated Press Stylebook announced the word blacks, when referring to African-Americans, should be capitalized: Blacks. The AP Stylebook, used in newsrooms throughout the world, has long been a compendium of usage for newswriting style – for example, how to abbreviate states, when and when not to spell out numbers, and so forth.
One afternoon, the editor and I were talking on the telephone when he happened to mention the AP Stylebook now recommends capitalizing the words black/blacks when referring to people.
“Good!” I said. “It’s about time.”
Then he said, “We should probably capitalize the word white too.”
“Yes, absolutely,” I said. “Why one if not the other?”
I could just imagine the uproar if we capitalized Blacks but not whites. We’d be accused of reverse racism. It makes eminent sense, at long last, to capitalize both: Whites, Blacks.
In early September, I wrote a column about racial issues in which I capitalized every mention of Blacks and Whites. It was published in the Sept. 18 Newsleader.
Recently, the news office received an answering-machine message from an anonymous woman who said she was angry about how I capitalized Blacks but not whites in that column. It was, she suggested, a trendy political correctness or a kind of grammatical reverse discrimination.
“What?!” I said to myself, aloud, after hearing her message. I was positive I’d capitalized BOTH of those words.
Immediately, I checked the column stored on my computer. Here is a sentence from that column:
“That psychological divide should not surprise us because there has been a separation (physical, psychological) between Whites and Blacks through centuries of slavery.”
Where did that woman get the notion I hadn’t capitalized whites, too? Does she need a new pair of reading glasses?
Then I checked the printed version of the column in the newspaper. That woman was correct; the Whites had been decapitalized. What happened is that a well-intentioned newspaper proofreader, not knowing the rules had changed, had de-capped those words, making them “whites” instead of “Whites.”
And I agree totally with the woman who called. It’s absurd to capitalize one and not the other.
Language matters, including when referring to races, cultures, nationalities. At one time the word negro was common in speech and print. That word (negro) is Spanish for the color “black,” and thus Spanish explorers used it when referring to the people they encountered on the African continent.
Later, for most publications, it was decided to capitalize it: Negro. In speech, that word was often drawled out as “nigro” and all too often it morphed into racist contempt as the “n” word.
Still later, during the 1960s, “Afro-American” and “blacks” became the way to refer to Negroes. Through the years, there were many other words used to demean people: broads or babes for women, kikes for Jewish people, faggots for gays, Injuns for Native Americans. Even peacenik hippies were guilty of using some demeaning words: for example, chicks for young women.
Some who rant loudest against “political correctness” are those who miss using with impunity the “good old words” from the “good old days.” Some, sad to say, still use the “n” word boldy with an in-your-face defiance of evolving norms.
That hideous, hurtful word especially deserves to bite the dust. Language matters, names matter; mutual respect matters.