When the editor of PAW, Marilyn Marks *86, asked me if I would be willing to write about the new convention around capitalizing “Black” and “Brown” while lowercasing “white,” I said yes because I, too, have been trying to make sense of the new style rules. Being a black woman, or Black woman, born in the 1960s, I have adapted to these terms: Afro-American, colored, person of color, black, African-American, African American, and now BIPOC or Black. Language is a moving target, and linguistic anthropologist John McWhorter has written in The New York Times that it is a privilege to be able to witness language change in real time. I agree. But being a socio-cultural anthropologist, in my writing my goal is to represent the experiences of my interlocutors as best I can — and sometimes adhering to current race-naming conventions does not work.
I chose to go against the naming convention at the time because when the patients would go to the emergency room for treatment for intense, painful episodes, most doctors and nurses did not see these patients as beloved members of diverse communities. Instead, they treated them as drug-seekers, based on the color of their skin: black. Therefore, when describing these hostile encounters, the lowercase adjective “black” made sense. I also employed “African American” in the same text because that was the respectful term of art at the time, even though my first-generation interlocutors from Africa often rejected the idea that I, a 10-plus-generation American, should call myself an “African” American. Africa is, after all, a continent that is three times the size of the United States, and there are Africans, and therefore African Americans, of all races. All excellent points — which is why the switch back to “black” or “Black” makes sense. But should we capitalize “black” or not?
The use of woke racial descriptors is insufficient to hide a multitude of other sins. Therefore, rather than answering PAW’s question directly, perhaps we need to be asking another question: How can we continue the fiction that a politically neutral language is possible?
Recently there have been a number of terrific articles by scholars articulating their thoughts on the topic. Princeton emeritus professors Kwame Anthony Appiah, in The Atlantic, and Nell Painter, in The Washington Post, have made compelling cases for capitalizing the “w” in “White” if we are going to capitalize the “b” in “Black.” Essentially, they argue that Black people in the United States do not necessarily belong to the same culture. What they share is having been at the receiving end of structural racism, which means that one’s culture (e.g. Nigerian or Jamaican) is irrelevant. Capitalizing “Black” and “White” signifies a person’s social position with respect to power. Therefore, capitalizing White makes visible the historical and cultural power of whiteness to shape human experience.
Their logical-consistency argument works in theory, but fails to address the question of practice, or what language is for. We use language to be understood, and if we write “white man” or “White man,” we know the reader gets what we mean either way. That means the subtlety of the capitalization neither matters to the reader nor does a better job representing the experiences of White people. For example, I am currently studying declining white life expectancies in rural California, and anyone who works in the field of whiteness studies knows how cruel whites can be to one another. Should we try to capture these hierarchies in our descriptors of whiteness? Perhaps we should distinguish the relative power differentials by writing “the White police officer” versus “the poor white woman.”
If we wanted to do more to fully represent the subjectivity of the people we are writing about we would have to open ourselves up to more, not fewer, style variations. The new demand to complicate pronoun usage is a case in point. Just as the racial descriptor “Black” has been adopted to highlight the inescapability of structural racism, the pronoun debate is asking for the de-essentialization of sex and gender. The rationale is that the conventional use of pronouns (e.g. she/her/hers) does not necessarily correspond to one’s biological sex, gender identification, or sexuality. Politeness now requires acknowledging a person’s subjectivity through their designated pronouns. So how do we make sense of these contradictory stylistic movements?
In the case of these new conventions, the demand to use “Black” or to complicate pronoun usage, the issue is only in part about accurately describing the subjectivity of the person being represented. Importantly, when it comes to writing about other people, I am not only trying to represent my interlocutors, I am also trying to reveal something about myself. The convention in anthropology is for writers to share some of their personal and political subjectivities with readers. For me that has meant letting readers know that “black” represents how others see me and “she/her/hers” represents my gender. Of course, anthropologists typically go beyond just describing the social categories they identify with by also telling stories of experiences that inspired their research.
We do this because our social-scientific questions, methods, and data are in part determined by our personal subject positions, from our politics to our gender to whether we were married and had children while conducting research in the field. By alerting our readers to what essentially amounts to our biases, anthropologists believe that those who read our work are in a better position to interpret and critique our findings. We also believe that it makes our research better able to stand the test of time. For example, my explanation for using “black” in Uncertain Suffering helps readers interpret my analytical gaze as the book ages and old racial descriptors become taboo.
Anthropologists reject the conceit that social science can ever be objective; therefore, perhaps we should encourage writers to use whatever style conventions they want, because simply by using “Black” and “white” rather than “African American” and “White,” they reveal something about their political and personal subjectivities. Following this approach, writers who agree with the Appiah and Painter rule should use “Black” and “White,” and those who don’t should use “black” and “white.” Similarly, those who appreciate Queer Theory should complicate their pronoun usage and use “they/them/their” whenever possible, while those who don’t should stick with the “she/he” binary and perhaps even continue to employ male pronouns when referring to a nonspecific person or persons. And why not go further? Writers could create their own rules for how they use racial descriptors and pronouns. As long as they articulate for the reader how the rules work, then the expansive use of terms could allow us to describe people’s experiences with race and gender not as one thing, but as many different things.
But, where would this leave PAW, which follows the AP Stylebook in its work? Other style guides and media outlets, too, are grappling with editorial conventions, reaching a variety of conclusions. Mainstream news, journal, and book editors would bristle at the idea that they should personalize their style guides to reveal their political subjectivities. But the truth is, while a newspaper like The New York Times has submitted to the racial discourses of the day, their class biases go unmentioned. Styles of speech are generally tied to class differentials that often align with notions of good taste and bad taste, meaning there is nothing particularly progressive about the New York Times Style magazine using “Black” rather than “African American” to describe the model wearing the $10,000 dress. The use of woke racial descriptors is insufficient to hide a multitude of other sins. Therefore, rather than answering PAW’s question directly, perhaps we need to be asking another question: How can we continue the fiction that a politically neutral language is possible?
Racism is often translated as “misrecognition.” By this I mean that culturally competent members of society playfully signify who they are through their dress, consumption, work, aesthetics, and speech. Racists, however, refuse to — or cannot — read the cultural performances of those they hate. They misrecognize the other. The debates around whether or not to capitalize the “b” in “Black,” the “w” in “White,” or the “b” in “Brown” when identifying someone’s race strikes me as a concern with cultural competence and misrecognition. The person who uses the current capitalization, “Black,” does so in order not to be seen as a racist given the zeitgeist. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of history by writing “black” instead of “Black” or (God forbid) “African American” (how 1990s!). And who wants to be blown up by a Twitter terrorist who identifies you as a closeted White supremacist because you used a “W” rather than a “w”? The stakes of misrecognition have become too high across the political spectrum, so perhaps there are more productive ways for a writer to express their novel ideas rather than insisting on “White”?
But I am stubborn. I am stuck on “black” and “white” like my mother got stuck on “Afro-American.” I consider the color of my skin, cartoonishly described as black, to be one of many possible adjectives to describe me. My race has definitely and dramatically shaped my experiences in life, but mostly by people who have no idea who I am. My race describes me but does not define me. Also, the scholars of race who inspired my journey to study race and inequality built their theories around the possibility of transcending structural racism through radical economic redistribution, the dismantling of the carceral state, and love. Even if I remain deeply discouraged, I still want to believe that redemption is possible.
My approach has been somewhat passive. When I hand in a manuscript, my editors almost always convert my racial descriptors and pronouns to the usage standards of the day. In the past, when I used “they,” it was changed to a gendered pronoun. Now, when I use “black,” it is capitalized. I accept most of the editorial changes because, just as I am trying my best to represent my interlocutors, my editors are trying their best to signify their editorial expertise and cultural competence. In other words, this question of language usages is not about me as an individual but about us as a community. No word can fully capture lived experience. Language is an approximation, so writers and editors have to let go of the need for total control since none of us owns language. This is why we have style guides.
People need to understand the historical contingency of language to appreciate why, for example, Princeton has a Department of African American Studies and not a Black Studies Department, and why Princeton no longer has a Women’s Center but a Gender + Sexuality Resource Center. Naming emerges from hard-won battles that gave us the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the United Negro College Fund. I would argue that we should not reject any of these past terms because these language battles are linked to movements that mobilized resources, built institutions, and ultimately impacted lives. We also have to remember that each successive victory leaves some people behind. For example, there are people who wish there were still a space just for women on campus but are afraid to say so out loud. Their desire for a “Women’s Center” is born of experience, not a rejection of the gender politics of the moment. But the current identity and language politics no longer validate a type of feminism viewed as anachronistic.
So, we must take care. Authorized discourses have the power to, at best, productively mobilize resources, and, at worst, mobilize the mob. The power of language to change how we think and how we act is why I both resist and surrender to changing style mandates. I resist by using multiple terms for race so that my descriptors align, as much as possible, with lived experiences. My rationale is that, if we are going to mobilize resources and build institutions to reflect our changing understandings of race and gender, let’s make sure that the language actually reflects people’s experiences in the world. At the same time, I also surrender to the hard-won politics of the moment. The White police officers who shot Amadou Diallo didn’t care that he was a Guinean immigrant. To them, Diallo was just another Black man. In this instance, the use of “White,” not “white,” and “Black,” not “black” makes perfect sense.
Without an alternative, my advice to PAW is to follow the style guide to avoid misrecognition. But if an author can articulate an alternative set of style rules, then I encourage PAW to be audacious. Perhaps it’s time to use all the racial descriptors: Negro, Afro-American, Colored People, People of Color, BIPOC, Black, black, African American, and of course Nigerian/Ghanaian/Jamaican American, and so on. They emerged at particular cultural moments and therefore express unique political possibilities and racial subjectivities. The historical specificities of each descriptor make them analytically useful in different ways when making claims about race in the United States. They are also all associated with different negative stereotypes, accretions built up over time with use. But these accretions can also be helpful when trying to describe negative racialized experiences. Even the taboo use of the plural “Blacks” is perfect when identifying Blacks for Trump. That is, importantly, how they self-identify.
So, let’s not deprive ourselves as writers by limiting ourselves to “Black” and “White,” when what we need is a rainbow.