What’s in a Letter?

Why Capitalizing “Black” Is Important News for the Advertising Industry

We’re in the midst of major social upheaval. There are the very visible indicators: cities dismantling statues honoring Confederate soldiers and painting “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on prominent streets. Then there are those less noticeable signs that the times are changing.

The proof is in the letter ‘B’ in “Black.” In the past few weeks, newspapers across the country have changed their style guides to capitalize the word when describing people or things in a racial, ethnic, or cultural sense, arguing it’s a designation not unlike “Latino,” “Asian,” and “European.” That designation is practically canon now, with AP this past Juneteenth announcing it’ll update its influential style guide accordingly. 

It’s a sea change that happened practically overnight, before which activist groups and Black-led publications were among the few using and advocating for the capitalization. It also highlights the rapid changes language—in English and beyond—is undergoing, as the modern world grapples with centuries of racism and inequality. 

Language Confers Respect

Those advocating for capitalization see language as a reflection of power structures. As early as the 1890s, W.E.B. Du Bois argued that “eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.” Capitalization conferred respect, they said, and for many Black Americans, a lowercase signifier was yet another slight among many in a country that devalued them. 

In 1930, after repeated denials of Du Bois’ request, the New York Times capitulated and updated its style to capitalize the ‘N’ in “Negro.” “It is not merely a typographical change,” they said. “It is an act in recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the ‘lower case.’”

The Question of Capitalizing “White” 

If we’re capitalizing Black, should we also do so with “white?” At the moment, there’s no consensus. The Columbia Journalism Review argues it risks empowering white supremicists, The term Black carries a unique task as well, by tying together a cultural identity shared among people who were stripped of all other national and ethnic ties hundreds of years ago.

Meanwhile, others, including the National Association of Black Journalists, will also capitalize “white” as a racial identifier. Others see it less as a question of grammar and one encompassing social theory: that whiteness is endowed with material and social meaning just as Blackness is. Of course, current thinking can evolve over time. For now, the AP is reviewing its style of capitalizing the term “white.” 

Changes Big and Small

Entire words undergo transformation as well. In the 1960s, “Negro” came to be associated with subservience during a decade led by the Black Power movement and mass protest. Jesse Jackson favored “African-American” in the 1980s, chucking out a term weighed by racist history. Today, the very definition of racism is undergoing reexamination. 

In the 21st century, Black Americans have favored moving on from a term that traces them to a continent from which millions are centuries removed. For those preferring African American, it was only last year when AP updated its style to drop the hyphen. It’s a tiny grammar-nerd change with bigger social implications. Dropping the hyphen in “Vietnamese American,” for example, renders the person fully American, rather than a “Vietnamese-American” person, with a modifier that is both American and not (check out this in-depth explainer here). 

Capitalizing "Black"

Words Changing Around the World

Language is transforming across the world. Among Spanish speakers, conversations around a gender-neutral “Latino” have created spirited debates around how to make a language where gender is literally built in fairer and more inclusive. “Latinx” and “Latine” have seen growing use as a result. Other gendered languages like French are undergoing similar reexaminations.  

Small Decisions with Big Implications

For those in advertising, the implications of a changing language are immediate. Many know the power of language and delivery: great creative can often hinge on a single word or design choice. So as professionals tasked with the art of communication, we might ask ourselves where else inequality is built into aspects of our culture.

Why, for example, do voice assistants default to a conventionally feminine timbre? What does it mean when employers respond less often to senders with names that aren’t conventionally white? When Germans have banned any use of Nazi imagery, why is our country only now reckoning with symbols valorizing a secessionist country expressly formed to defend slavery? 

Language and culture change constantly. Before 2010 and the ubiquity of smartphones, few would see the pictograms we now call emojis out in the wild. Today, many can decipher the innuendo and meanings behind “🍰” and “🔥.”

We don’t get many moments like these, where culture transforms right before our eyes, in a matter of weeks. As people who work with words and the visual language accompanying them, it’s best we pay close attention. 

 

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