Dealing with Language on Race in Black and White

Should One or Both Words Be Capitalized When Referring to a Race of People?  

1/17/23 – – Increasingly, corporate leaders are being called upon to deal with the highly sensitive issue of race. Whether it be discussions regarding their company’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, response to dramatic racial incidents in the news, or celebration of such uplifting commemorations as yesterday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, CEOs are expected to hold strong beliefs and express them forcefully on a subject that not too long ago was considered out-of-bounds.

Effectively handling this requirement is not easy. Language is evolving along with the challenges and opportunities. For example, one issue that must be considered in written communications is the appropriate use and capitalization of the words “black” and “white.”

It’s difficult to talk or write about race without using those simple but provocative words. The argument can be made that it’s never a good idea to focus on the color of one’s skin. Dr. King urged us to judge people by “the content of their character.” But that debate has been lost in most corporate HR departments and C-suites, where being “color blind” is considered to be a cop-out; an embrace of the unacceptable status quo. So, like it or not, CEOs must address the things that divide us in terms of black and white.

What should you do when you include these terms in your written communications? There are four options when referring to a race of people:

  • Use the lower case with both words.
  • Capitalize both words.
  • Capitalize Black, but leave white lower case.
  • Capitalize White, but leave black lower case.   

You may think the last two options should be taken off the table. But while I don’t see any reputable news outlets recommending the fourth, the third is the style guideline in place at many of the most respected news organizations in the world. Let’s take a closer look at the rationale for each option:

Lower case both black and white  

That’s the way most writers — journalists and corporate communicators — have traditionally handled this. That’s what I did until the usage controversy heightened during the summer of 2020 in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. While many writers still follow this format, news organizations and writing style guides have made different recommendations.

Capitalize both words

If this option looks best to you, you’re in good company, including The Washington Post, The Chicago Manual of Style, the American Psychological Association, and the National Association of Black Journalists.

The NABJ states, “Whenever a color is used to appropriately describe race then it should be capitalized within the proper context, including White and Brown.”

And The Chicago Manual of Style, considered the usage bible for publishers, has concluded, “We now prefer to write Black with a capital B when it refers to racial and ethnic identity. At the same time, we acknowledge that, as a matter of editorial consistency, White and similar terms may also be capitalized when used in this sense.”

Capitalize Black, but not white

This option also has some impressive advocates, including the Associated Press and The New York Times.

The highly regarded AP Style Guide — most U.S. newspapers and public relations firms have followed AP guidelines for decades — directs reporters to: “Capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying 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. The lowercase black is a color, not a person. AP style will continue to lowercase the term white in racial, ethnic and cultural senses.” 

AP offered this explanation for its decision to leave “white” lower case: “After a review and period of consultation, we found, at this time, less support for capitalizing white. White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

In a July 5, 2020, article headlined “Why We’re Capitalizing Black,” New York Times culture reporter Nancy Coleman wrote: “White doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does, and also has long been capitalized by hate groups”

Capitalize White but not black

Understandably, I could find no support for this option.

My Recommendation

As I emphasize in “The Crisis Preparedness Quotient,” it always helps to review your core principles whenever facing a decision or action that could lead to crisis. Getting this word usage wrong could do just that. So, let your decision be guided by a commitment to clarity and respect for all your stakeholders. A CEO’s efforts to achieve sincere, ambitious DEI goals will not be advanced by offending any race of people. The messages you wish to convey will not be heard if biased word usage gets in the way.

So, I strongly recommend option number two. By capitalizing both Black and White (and Brown when appropriate), you recognize the legitimate concerns of one group of employees without creating resentment with another. You lessen the chances of a communication intended to bring people together becoming a cause for division. And if you get pushback, confidently explain your position and respectfully refer people to The Washington Post, The Chicago Manual of Style, the American Psychological Association, and the National Association of Black Journalists.

It would be nice to think that CEOs could get back to Dr. King’s focus away from skin color. With enough change, that may happen over time. But in the meantime, the usage of Black and White is a great subject for a leadership meeting, stimulating a constructive discussion of issues that are no longer out-of-bounds.

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