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Black capitalization matters | COMMENTARY

A colleague reports a telephone call from a reader who plans to cancel their subscription to The Baltimore Sun because the paper has decided to capitalize the b in Black in references to people.

The Sun’s decision, announced June 23, to change its house style came after a handful of major newspapers had made the same decision, and just a little in advance of the decision by the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style to adopt it. That reader is going to have to boycott a lot of publications.

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Colored was at one time a preferred term. Negro was the respectable version of the slur, and in the latter part of the twentieth century lowercase black and African American were in common use. Words are social constructs, and as we see from the progression of colored to Negro to black to African American over a century, their use changes as social attitudes change. We come to Black because the increasingly expressed preference of Black people for it has made it acceptable and preferable.

Now if you are wondering, Mr., Ms., or Mx. White Person, why Black people can call each other by the slur and you might lose your job for using it, there is a simple explanation: manners. It is manners to refer to people by the terms they prefer, and it is manners not to use a group’s language when you are not a member of that group.

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In four decades on the desk, I’ve repeatedly seen house style altered to match social norms. Newspapers tend to be conservative about language, and it took some time for gay to be an acceptable term in print for homosexual. The Harumphers carried on at some length about “the loss of that fine old word” before falling silent.

And today, queer, once a slur until gay people appropriated it in defiance, has the (qualified) blessing of the AP Stylebook: “Queer is an umbrella term covering people who are not heterosexual or cisgender and is acceptable for people and organizations that use the term to identify themselves. Do not use it when intended as a slur.”

It similarly took the Harumphers some time to adjust to Ms. as a courtesy title to be used for a woman without indicating her marital status — though a person’s individual preference for Miss or Mrs. would be respected. Now Mx., as a courtesy title that does not indicate gender, is out there in the wild, and we’ll have to see whether it gains traction over time.

You, of course, are not bound by Sun style or the AP Stylebook. Your individual preferences are entirely your own. But the language doesn’t care about your preferences; it deals in aggregates.  

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