TOanti-racism. Alliance. Responsibility. These are some of the keywords that have accompanied the Black Lives Matter protests over the past year. But a little noticed change is in the word black. itself. Since the protests, people have started capitalizing the “b” when writing about blacks.
The Associated Press updated his influential style guide, known as the “bible for journalism”, to capitalize the “b”, stating that “tiny black is a color, not a person.” A signifier number news agencies, magazines, universities, publishers and cultural institutions followed suit.
This may all seem insignificant enough, but the small typographic change has broader implications. For centuries, black people have had to conform and contort into harmful and limiting racial categorizations. If anti-racism succeeds, eventually there will be new and imaginative ways of talking about race, and blacks will have the power to shape their own identities. Therefore, it is correct to ask, after a year of renewed protests: does capitalizing the “b” in “black” help the anti-racist cause?
In my opinion, I am afraid the answer is no. Rather than empowering black people, these style changes simply show how conversations about race are circular and repetitive. Even when they are in favor of black liberation, they inadvertently reduce the black experience.
The capital “b” has now itself become a political statement, as my own professional life continues to teach me. Increasingly, I send writing using the lowercase “b”, but when my work is published, it is in uppercase. In impressions of me last book, I was forced into long and exhausting conversations about why I wanted to reinstall lowercase.
To be clear, I am not opposed to the capital “b” per se. I am opposed to the imposition of any rules on blackness, no matter how empowering they may seem (and this would include organizations that insist on reducing the “b”). It should not be up to the institutions and their guidelines to dictate what is best for black people in general: it is the individual author who must make the choice.
Usually these are conversations that I have with white people who propose that because the so-and-so style guide says that the “b” should be capitalized, then I should adhere. How can you call this progress? People who have not lived my reality watching my words about the experience of black women only makes me think that they are imposing their privileges on me or hiding their racial anxieties under a capital letter.
There are strong reasons for capitalizing the “b” in the United States, where it is argued that people whose ancestral lineage is lost in the transatlantic slave trade should be considered ethnically black (as in the way a person can be native American or Asian), rather than black as a racial category (describing physical appearance). But I am still skeptical. Yes, it is empowering to assert a sense of ethnic pride, but attaching an ethnic association to a racial label is a counterproductive strategy. Race is a flawed concept to begin with, and while capitalizing the “b” mitigates racial politics, it also validates racial politics. As an Ethiopian saying goes: “If you take one end of the stick, you also take the other.”
Versions of this conversation are intertwined throughout the history of black struggle, and the result has rarely been liberating. WEB Dubois convinced the New York Times to capitalize the word “Negro” on its 1930 style guide – although it didn’t help in the long run, or we wouldn’t be here still protesting. Martin Luther King criticized the “black power” rallying cry of the 1960s because, despite being a “gratifying slogan,” it reflected a “philosophy born of the conviction that blacks cannot win.”
James Baldwin similarly took trouble with the mantra “black is beautiful”: he understood “why he had to come” but nevertheless he thought that “as it is beautiful you don’t have to say it”. And Toni Morrison spoke frequently about her desire to forge a language that was “race-specific but race-free,” without “imaginative restrictions.”
If in Britain we are to be influenced by the United States – and, given the revolutionary achievements of black Americans, there is a strong argument that we should be – then at least we should also engage with its long history of intellectual and philosophical debates related to the race. However, while the issue of the capital “b” has been hotly debated in the US, there has been no corresponding discussion in the UK. As is often the case, the American experience is simply cut and paste.
Black Britons have a rich history of debating political blackness, which has sparked fruitful conversations about what it means to be black. Stuart Hall once wrote that, once the blackness is fixed: “We are tempted to […] watch over the limits that are, of course, political, symbolic and positional limits as if they were genetic. “Ultimately, as Johny Pitts writes in his book Afropean, the construction of black Britain should reflect at its core” a unifying search of truth and identity in the context of colonial hegemony and disinformation ”.
We cannot go beyond colonial history without reinventing the meanings of words like black and white; and we cannot do that if we piously assign a rigid meaning to these words. That, once again, encloses the blackness in a narrow place. Now we should take the black somewhere else.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism