To B, Or Not To B

Why we capitalize the B in “Black”


graphic by Lucie Flagg

According to Merriam-Webster, the word Black—in reference to race—is capitalized.

Lucie Flagg, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Every Wednesday here at The Uproar, we have a staff meeting. We discuss current events to potentially write about and review writing style. For students who have been taught MLA formatting for years, the switch to journalistic-style can be difficult, but it opens a door to a whole new world of the written word.

And it happens to be a world that is boiling with controversies.

Take grammar’s great divide, the Oxford comma, for example. The whole debate seems childish to me. It’s crazy to think that an extra flick of the pencil or a slight diagonal pinky movement on a keyboard could spark such a debate in the English language, but it does.

Is it “email” or “e-mail”? Can you start a sentence with a conjunction? Is it acceptable to use two spaces after a sentence? While most writers have a preferred personal style, meticulous writers ask these questions every day. 

It’s a nitpicky thing. Anyone who takes genuine offense at double-spacing probably needs a firm reminder that good, influential writing has little to do with spacing. But what happens (note the conjunction use) when grammatical choices become a serious matter—a matter that can hurt others? 

No, I’m not referring to the famous “Let’s eat Grandma!” versus “Let’s eat, Grandma!” nuance (although Grandma would probably be offended). I’m talking about race and its deep-rooted history in writing. 

In 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a letter to The New York Times, asking the editorial board to capitalize the “N” in “Negro.” The request was denied at first, but The Times later changed its policy. On March 7th, 1930, the newspaper published its first edition with the capitalization of the racial term.

Here at The Uproar, we capitalize the B in “Black” but not the W in “white” when referring to race. Alongside the general grammatical reasons for capitalization (proper noun, the beginning of a sentence, etc.), writers tend to capitalize to draw attention or to enhance the impact of a word, but their reasons are not always innocent. White supremacist groups, for instance, have been known to capitalize the W in “white.”

The difference between black and Black is the difference between a color and that rich history.

When we talk about a white person, most of the time we’re using the word as an adjective to describe their appearance. But when we talk about a Black person, we’re talking about a rich history and a shared culture in America. The difference between black and Black is the difference between a color and that rich history. 

We already capitalize Native American, Asian, and Latino, and we have done so for many years. To say that white people aren’t worthy of capitalization is not the goal. The goal is to respect a racial group that has long been disrespected.

MLA formatting does not call for capitalization of either “white” or “Black,” but rather for lower-case of both. The Chicago Manual of Style also recommended lower-case for both words this past June. They now leave it up to writers to decide. 

While highly respected, however, academic writing styles are not especially applicable outside of academia. If The New York Times followed MLA formatting, we’d be reading double-spaced essays with NoodleTools citations every time we want to check the news.

Journalism has its own writing style to make reading clear, efficient, and engaging. The guidelines of the Associated Press, or AP, lay out the stylistic rules followed by most respected news sources in the United States.

After the death of George Floyd, the AP announced their support of “Black” capitalization. The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, NBC News, The New York Times, and others followed suit shortly thereafter.

And yet, there remains a great deal of controversy regarding the significance of the capital B. In truth, it’s not a way to dismiss white people, but rather a way to honor a racial group that has been denied honor for far too long. The capital B represents a society slowly but steadily evolving toward justice for all.