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Why the “B” in Black is Capitalized

Capitalizing to signify respect

When the Associated Press (AP) announced in 2020 that it was updating its style guide to capitalize the “B” in “Black” and “I” in “Indigenous,” it came after several news outlets changed their standards to signify respect and understanding in the wake of the protests.

Although the difference between a capitalized letter may seem harmless, it carries weight. Our language carries power and, according to Lori Tharps, journalist and former associate professor of journalism at Temple University, “influences how we validate, or invalidate, identity.” And with “Black,” there’s a history of how we have been perceived in the press. W.E.B DuBois fought in the 1890s for the term “negro,” commonly used at the time, to be written as “Negro,” considering all other racial and ethnic identifiers were already being written in uppercase (JSTOR). As the word “negro” was phased out in the mid-1960s and was replaced with “black,” the conversation restarted to continue to add respect to the term that identifies a community of people systemically marginalized because of the color of their skin. Read more about the historical significance at the New York Times.


• Capitalize the “B” in Black when referencing a person or group of people. 

• Understand the cultural difference between “African American” and “Black” and use it correctly. If you must, use “Black” when referring to a Black person with whom you are unclear of their background.

“Black” and “Indigenous” represent distinct communities with shared cultures and experiences that differ from the dominant culture, or whiteness. According to Sapiens, capitalizing “Indigenous” helps to “articulate the common challenges they faced as communities impacted by colonialism, settler governments, displacement, and exploitation.” Similarly, capitalizing “Black” signifies “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa” (Axois). In contrast to these definitions, the lowercase “black” is a color, not a person. And the lowercase “indigenous” signifies anyone or thing native to a place. 

“When a copyeditor deletes the capital ‘B,’ they are in effect deleting the history and contributions of my people.” 

                   – Lori Tharps, journalist and author (My American Melting Pot).

On that note, it’s also important that while these are proper nouns, treat them as adjectives, not nouns (i.e., Black people, not Blacks), by following them with people, community, etc. This differs from terms like “Asians” and “Latinos,” where it is more apparent that we’re talking about a group of people. Black and Indigenous people have a history of being oppressed and marginalized, and failure to identify them as people further dehumanizes them. However, when known or applicable, always identify people by their ethnicity or preferred terms. 

So we’re capitalizing Black now. What about “white”?

The AP said they would continue to lowercase “white” in their style guide, saying, “capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs” (AP). Standards on this vary in different publications and personal opinions for a multitude of reasons. To fully understand it, we have to first acknowledge that race itself is a social construct formed and shaped over history. Race was a way to yield power and privileges over others and preserve identities from being “tainted” by others. I’m simplifying here, but I recommend this article by Ta-nehisi Coates for further exploration.

The need to add respect and understanding to the Black community is also in response to whiteness. I mentioned above that acknowledging Black and Indigenous as a community helps to “articulate the common challenges,” which are an effect of being marginalized and exploited by the dominant culture (more on that here). Some use this point to argue against white being capitalized because white people already have enough power and don’t need further acknowledgment. In these cases, some writers also note that white supremacists often capitalize white to demonstrate that they should remain in power. You can read a more detailed perspective at the Atlantic.

On the other hand, other journalists note that without identifying whiteness as its own race that, in itself, includes practices of racism and oppression, we won’t move forward with it. Not identifying white as its own race also perpetuates the idea that it’s the standard and status quo. The Center for the Study of Social Policy announced that it would follow the American Psychological Association’s style rules and capitalize white, citing the following:

“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. Moreover, the detachment of ‘White’ as a proper noun allows White people to sit out of conversations about race and removes accountability from White people’s and White institutions’ involvement in racism” (CSSP).

Another argument is purely grammatical: if Black is capitalized, white should be, too. It looks unbalanced, and they both are used as proper nouns and represent groups of people. I used the AP style guide for the sake of writing this email, as did most of the articles linked, so you can see it in action for yourself.

Why not African-American?

The term is still commonly used but doesn’t reflect the breadth of the Black population. African American refers to an American Black person of African descent. But some Black people more closely identify their roots to the Caribbean. So Caribbean American may be preferred, and this person can also identify as Black. There are also Black people globally that may not have roots here; as of 2021, about 10% of Black people in the United States are foreign born (Census).

For some Black people, there’s also a cultural difference. I am an African American woman, but I feel more connected to the broad definition of Black. My African heritage is unknown to me, and I also have Portuguese blood in my ancestry. Black, to me, feels more representative of the full complexity of my identity.

Also, the hyphen between African-American and all other race/ethnicity mashups was removed by the AP Style guide in 2019, noting that the hyphen dates to the 19th century as a way to distinguish immigrants as “other” and has been a common microaggression for more than a century.

“Black America is constituted overwhelmingly by the descendants of people who were not only brought to the country against their will but were later inducted into an ambivalent form of citizenship without their input. The Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all those born here, supposedly resolved the question of the status of ex-slaves, though those four million individuals were not consulted in its ratification. The unspoken yield of this history is the possibility that the words ‘African’ and ‘American’ should not be joined by a hyphen but separated by an ellipsis.”

                                                      – Jelani Cobb, journalist, for the New Yorker.

Note that the AP and Poynter, another prominent voice in journalistic standards, announced this news without citing any Black or Indigenous journalists. As this conversation grows, there’s another conversation on ensuring Black and Indigenous journalists are in the newsrooms to help guide this narrative.

*This piece was originally published in July 2020. It was updated by The ARD on 8/14/23.

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Nicole Cardoza

Nicole is an entrepreneur, author, investor, speaker and magician passionate about reclaiming our right to be well.

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