Why you should capitalize Black as a proper adjective

Photo: Christopher Michel

In the past, I didn’t capitalize “Black” in text, when referring to a group of people. Now I will. The question of why it’s a proper adjective (derived from a proper noun) is worth discussing.

A number of publications have made the switch from “black” to “Black” when referring to people (as opposed to just colors). NYU philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah makes the case eloquently in The Atlantic. The Columbia Journalism Review has a scholarly treatment. And the Washington Post documents the change in newsrooms and publications, including USA Today and other Gannett papers, the LA Times, NBC News, the Boston Globe, and the McClatchy newspaper chain. (The Post itself is still thinking about it.) The Associated Press hasn’t made the change — yet.

So when do you capitalize a word that refers to a group of people?

Proper adjectives and ethnic groups

We all learned about proper nouns in school. A proper noun refers to a specific person, place, thing, or group. For example, The White House is a proper noun (but if you live in “a white house,” that’s not a proper noun, hence no caps). The same applies to individuals — Barack Obama — companies — Facebook — or countries and other geographic entities — France, Normandy, Latin America, the Middle East.

A proper adjective is an adjective derived from a proper noun. Hence it is correct to write about Asian cuisine, Catholic priests, Utahn morals, or Southern hospitality. (Note that the last refers to “the South,” a specific part of the U.S., as opposed to the direction “south.”)

Because most ethnic descriptions are derived from place names, they’re typically capitalized as proper adjectives. For example, you could refer to the Asian tradition, the Hispanic consciousness (which is derived from the name for Spain), and Polish humor. The same also applies to names derived from religions: the Jewish vote.

But Black seems different. We already have “African-American,” but the problem with that is many people who feel ethnically Black don’t trace their ancestry back to Africa — they may have ancestors who are Jamaican or Haitian, for example. Most of the ethnic groups that form the American population are people who immigrated here voluntarily, from China, Eastern Europe, Ireland, Vietnam, or Mexico, for example. Most people who feel ethnically Black had ancestors who arrived in North and South America on slave ships.

It’s clear to me that while the Black community is extremely diverse (as are other groups like Hispanics and Jews, for example), it also has a cohesion that cannot be denied. When you hear a plea that “Black Lives Matter,” there’s no question that it includes descendants of slaves brought from Africa, people who immigrated from Haiti a generation ago, and somebody who came here from Ghana last year. They have a common interest, even if their heritages are diverse.

They need a word that describes their commonality. That word is Black. And it deserves to be capitalized, every bit as much as Jewish, Irish, or Mexican.

Don’t get confused by words that have both proper and common meanings

Does this mean we have to capitalize Black everywhere? Of course not. I could wear black pants, drive a black BMW, and treat diseases of black skin.

There are lots of words that have both proper and common meanings. You can put english (spin) on a cue ball, have a book bound in morocco (a type of leather), or eat off of fine china. Those words are clearly related to their proper counterparts, but are common nouns.

And that doesn’t get in the way of the proper nouns, as when you’re drinking English Breakfast tea imported from China in a Morocco cafe.

Black refers to the group of people, while black refers to the color. It’s not that hard to fathom.

What about “white?”

Black is not the same as white.

There is no white cuisine, and there is no white community. It’s too diverse. As a white Jewish person of Russian ancestry, I have very little in common with a white descendant of English settlers who lives in Alabama, or a white Mormon in Utah. Alabamans have something in common. Mormons do, too. Jews do, and so do Russians. But whites are just a bunch of people who are not part of a minority. As Mike Laws wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, “Black is an ethnic designation; white merely describes the skin color of people who can, usually without much difficulty, trace their ethnic origins back to a handful of European countries.”

If you’ll pardon the pun, there are many shades of grey in this issue. People’s perspectives are evolving. Mine has now evolved; yours should, too. Capitalizing Black when referring to people is a sign of respect. It’s the least you could do.

13 responses to “Why you should capitalize Black as a proper adjective

  1. It seems disengenuous in light of current events. The idea that you do it the wake of what is happening, instead of having given that same respect before it all began. Peace.

    1. I don’t think it’s disingenuous at all. This is a moment in time when many people who hadn’t given the issue much thought (this is my white privilege speaking here) are now considering and reconsidering their behaviors. Perhaps it’s late, but better late than never.

  2. So what did we learn here? According to this article, in order to have your ethnicity, race, religion, or whatever capitalized, you must be a minority or not be able to trace your roots very easily.
    The article says that white is the color of a caucasian’s skin. Not very accurate, just as another’s skin is not truly black.
    To not capitalize ‘white’ it to say that whites are the norm and everyone else is different. That trivializes those ‘other groups’ which is opposed to us all trying to be as one.
    Therefore, if we are to capitalize Jew, Christian, Californian, Asian, or Black, which we should, then, by reason and logic, you must capitalize White.

      1. I have to agree that White should also be capped. The Center for the Study of Social Policy and the author of White Fragility also agree. From the CSSP: “To not name “White” as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard. In sociologist Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, she writes, “White people get to be ‘just people,’” without having their race named, whereas people of color are often described with their race. We believe that it is important to call attention to White as a race as a way to understand and give voice to how Whiteness functions in our social and political institutions and our communities.”

    1. Definitely good call Troy. It is very apparent that the author of this article has an agenda. From the last article it totally contradicts itself by first stating that White is too diverse. Then at the end of this opinionated rant, it states that there are only a handful of places that Whites can come from. I do agree that both should be capped, Black and White.

  3. I am curious if we ought to hope/expect/strive to make the term black one which does not need to be capitalized. This would be in the same fashion as “english” on a cue ball, a term that appears to have started as “English.”

    When I read your “problem” of “black” contrasted with “African-American,” I wondered about the truth about Africans and slaves as part of the US population. I found this article, that attempts to explain the situation, although it misses the nuances of the complex, complicated immigration. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/04/09/a-rising-share-of-the-u-s-black-population-is-foreign-born/

    I tremble whenever folks try to use one aspect to define a diverse population. I tremble for two reasons, one is the ever-present use of the aspect to be -ist, that is for or against the aspect, and the other for the simple fact that I have never heard of anyone outside of shitty entertainment that is one-dimensional. The hint that any one aspect gives of a person is so small.

  4. If it applies to Black people, it seems logical that it should also apply to Yellow people, Red people, etc. It therefore follows that it should also include White people, so as not to provide exclusivity toward those of lighter skin shades .

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