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Uppercase Letters, Justice, and Identity

By Emanuele Calianno 

We’re going to uppercase Black, but should we uppercase anything at all?

This summer, news publications across the country began capitalizing the word Black when referring to African Americans and other members of the African diaspora. The change was made in order to acknowledge Black people as a distinct cultural group, similar to Latinos and Asians. The Associated Press (AP), whose style guide is the standard in journalism, adopted the change in July, and Black is now universally used in the media. 

However, a similar consensus has not been reached when it comes to white people. The AP has kept white lowercase, along with several national outlets; meanwhile, other publications have decided to capitalize the term. 

This had stirred no small amount of controversy. Capitalizing white has been a custom of far-right extremists and white supremacy groups, and has thus been avoided by many publications. However, the National Association of Black Journalists, along with a number of Black scholars, have advocated for the capitalization of white, believing that to leave it lowercase implies that it is the default race. 

At The Torch, we have decided to follow AP style guidelines, a choice I find to be logical and respectful. Capitalizing the word Black  increases our awareness during a racial reckoning that is long overdue and desperately needed, and challenges the idea of “color blindness” with regard to race.

However, as an immigrant and a language enthusiast, I would like to suggest another solution entirely. Instead of capitalizing Black or white, we should lowercase any word that describes cultural identity. 

English is one of a very few languages that uses uppercase for nationality, race, religion, language, political affiliation, etc. When referring to someone, we say Black, Christian, Mandarin, Democrat, American, and so on. 

The impulse to capitalize identifiers is going beyond these categories though; recently, the blind and deaf communities have begun uppercasing their conditions, and there have been proponents in the LGBTQ community to capitalize sexual identity as well. In theory, this would make sense, as it highlights their shared way of life and sense of community.

And yet, this does not occur in almost any other language using the Latin alphabet. Spanish, French, German, Swedish, Hungarian and many others all lowercase. The only languages I know of that diverge from this standard are English and Dutch (and languages based on them, such as Jamaican Patois and Afrikaans), along with Tagalog (which shares official status with English in the Philippines).

While correlation is not necessarily causation, it is interesting to see the capitalization of cultural identifiers occurs among those that were either participant or subject to colonization and racial injustice. And as with many other major social issues, America is the poster child for this phenomenon.

For years now, I have been of the opinion that America is a country obsessed with identity, a view that began developing shortly after I immigrated from Italy in my teens. I knew it when I first saw that people flew American flags everywhere, a practice seen with absurdity abroad;  when I  interacted with Italian Americans, who are fiercely proud of their heritage but often know little about their native culture; and when I saw that the norm was to capitalize everything, as if it was a proper noun. And my awareness of this condition has grown ever since. 

America’s problem with identity stems from its past of slavery and colonialism, of course, but also from the effects of a consumerist culture that leaves one isolated and searching for a sense of belonging. As such, I do not believe that capitalizing a term necessarily confers dignity or makes one more acutely aware of a culture. Rather, I think it only serves to emphasize the artificiality of these identifiers, and draw us further into an “us and them” mentality. 

This is evident in the phenomenon of American exceptionalism, the idea that America’s history and culture are inherently different from those of any other country; and it is also the case in any group that highlights their own identity to the point of feeling disconnected from all others. 

In the context of race, this sense of disconnect has the potential to drive an even deeper wedge in the relations between groups, drawing borders where we need to build bridges more than ever. The use of uppercase may not be the cause for such borders, but it definitely acts as a linguistic symbol to this mentality, and it is one I am deciding to distance myself from.

To reject these notions is not to deny that Black people or any other ethnicity are a cultural group in their own right; neither does it overlook differences or downplay historical and present injustices. Simply, it begins to draw us away from a practice of exceptionalism rooted in imperialism, and the belief held by its practitioners of seeing themselves as inherently different. 

Whenever standard grammar is called for, capitalizing the word Black is a choice I will adopt and stand by as a sign of respect. However, in all other forms of writing I have begun to lowercase all identifiers: black, white, latino, christian, muslim, american, just as I was taught in a side of the world a little less obsessed with identity. Hopefully, those who read this will begin to do the same.


Note: an earlier version of this story did not list Jamaican Patois and Tagalog as some of the languages that use uppercase.

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