Purge/Pogrom Warning: Big W edition

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Is capitalizing the w in white racist?

The effort to redefine common terms, use them inconsistently, and attribute animus to speakers increases the risk of purges and pogroms, in my opinion. Today’s warning is triggered by the Associated Press’s announcement that the news organization will not capitalize w in white but will capitalize B in Black. My warning is not whether white should or should not be capitalized by journalists; either is plausible. The warning is that under the redefined approach to social justice, both usages are racist. There is no safe harbor.

According to David Bauder in an Associated Press News article, “The AP said white people in general have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.” This is a plausible rationale for the AP’s decision to keep the w for white in the lower case, which is joined by left-leaning New York Times and right-leaning Wall Street Journal. If shared history is the standard, then historians, cultural anthropologists, and other researchers can continue to research and compare shared histories, or lack thereof, and w’s can rise and fall in due course.

On the other hand, for consistency, it is plausible to capitalize the W for White, as reportedly called for by The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). Some news organizations, including CNN, Fox News and The San Diego Union-Tribune, said they will give white the uppercase.

In the above paragraphs, I framed the decision to capitalize in terms of either consistent usage across groups, or whether people within a group had a shared history. But reportedly, the reason capitalization is an issue now is renewed efforts to address systemic racism. Under the sociological approach to justice, incorrect usage is not only shoddy journalism, it is racist.

Damned if you do capitalize w. According to John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards, “But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”

Damned if you don’t capitalize w. In the sociological approach, the default is dominant, so according to Eve Ewing of the University of Chicago, leaving w lower case helps maintain the pretense of white inevitability and power. Furthermore, capitalizing the W can undermine white supremacists. According to Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at New York University, capitalizing white would take power away from racists, since their similar use “would no longer be a provocative defiance of the norm.” (AP cites The Atlantic).

Your editorial practices are racist if you capitalize w. Your editorial practices are racist if you don’t capitalize W. Excuse me one moment, George Orwell is calling.


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