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July 1, 2020

Author's note: I'm not qualified to speak with authority on racial issues, but I do want to provide resources to help readers understand the significance and provenance of changes in the language. This mini-post is my attempt to provide resources for better communication in all aspects of life.

As often happens, major national events, such as the recent national and international protests over police brutality, ripple into the culture in multiple ways. A small change that literally means something much, much bigger can be seen in the recent widespread adoption of the term "Black."

As part of this national conversation about racism, most major U.S. news organizations have changed to capitalizing "Black" when referring to people and cultures of African origin. Some news outlets and other communications companies have used this style for a while now; the New York Times and the Associated Press adopted this style very recently (as in yesterday for the Times). 

The Associated Press explains its gudeline change this way:

Use of the capitalized Black recognizes that language has evolved, along with the common understanding that especially in the United States, the term reflects a shared identity and culture rather than a skin color alone.

Both the AP Stylebook and the Times recommend keeping "white" lowercase in reference to people, because, as the Times puts it, "there is less of a sense that 'white' describes a shared culture and history." Also, white supremacists and other hate groups prefer "White," which is another reason the Times recommends staying away from it. Both organizations recommend downstyling "brown" as well, in this case because it has been used to describe a variety of groups of people, from Indigenous to Latinx to Middle Eastern, making the context of "Brown" unclear. 

All major American publishing guides recommend including references to race or ethnicity only when it is both an essential aspect of the information being conveyed and clear to readers that the descriptor is essential. And if you need to mention race or ethnicity, do it for every group you discuss, not just for one or two. No group should be singled out so that you may avoid implying that another group (generally the white one) is the default. 

For many Americans, conversations around race and inequality are difficult. They are certainly always full of nuance. The better we understand and use our words, the easier and hopefully deeper these conversations will be.

For those who want to learn more about capitalizing "Black":

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About the author

Originally trained as a research scientist, Molly McBeath cut her technical teeth on water quality, electrochemistry, and nuclear waste remediation. Realizing that she was happier at the keyboard than in a lab coat, she transitioned to technical writing and editing. Now she combines her scientific training with persuasive writing techniques to tell meaningful stories with a technical twist.

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