As noted in The Oregonian/OregonLive, we’ve changed our style to uppercase the “B” in Black when talking about people with a shared cultural identity. Other newsrooms, as well as The Associated Press, which sets consistent style that many news organizations follow, also have made this change. We also now capitalize Indigenous, consistent with AP style.
The Associated Press is still considering whether to change its style when referring to white people and expects a decision soon. “Style” refers to writing conventions that create uniformity within news articles around word usage, punctuation and the like.
Some readers took offense at treating Black as similar to Asian and Native American while white is not capitalized.
“Continuing to publish ‘Black’ and ‘white,’ within the same story, is blatantly racist,” a Tigard reader wrote to me.
Danielle Kilgo, professor of journalism, diversity and equality at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities), uses “Black” and “white” in her scholarly writings.
“There is sentiment that white is a specific culture, which I push against because they are able to identify nationalities within their heritages that Black people cannot,” Kilgo told me by email. “I do think white people have specific cultures (plural); I don’t think white people identify with a culture of whiteness though.”
“I take the position that there are multiple white cultures; and nationality is more of an identity marker for this group than whiteness itself,” she said.
As I have written before, words matter. And words around race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation are especially charged with meaning. In general, The Oregonian/OregonLive identifies people the way they wish to be identified.
Government and others in positions of power, such as the media, have long determined for communities of color what they are called. And we have been slow to adapt to changes. There is a long history of Black people pushing for preferred terms and meeting with resistance. Preferences within communities change over time — think NAACP, which incorporates a term no longer used – and preferences will continue to evolve.
And racial labels and terms are complex. The Census, for instance, follows the Office of Management and Budget classification standards. Here is what those standards say about the white race: “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”
Is that your definition? How would you answer?
One theme seemed to be common among readers who reached out. They believed not capitalizing white puts whites in a “less than” position.
“To me, the ‘B’ and the ‘w’ is like a demotion of white people,” a Gresham reader told me. People fighting for equal rights have a saying: “It’s not like pie; more for others doesn’t mean less for you.”
Daniel Hirschman, assistant professor of sociology at Brown University, believes one of the difficulties of talking about race is that some people perceive it as a “benign form of difference (just one kind of ‘diversity’) rather than a reflection of centuries of domination.”
An example would be people who protest “Why does it always have to be about race?” when someone points out discrimination. White people have the privilege of going through life ignoring their race and not having it be the defining part of their identity, said Hirschman, whose research centers on the politics of race and decision-making.
“But as social scientists have shown for decades, and as recent events have reminded us, there is a massive asymmetry such that Black and white people are not equally situated and never have been,” he said. “Rather, racial inequality in the U.S. is massive and enduring.”
Language changes constantly. BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, People of Color – is increasingly used rather than “people of color,” for example. The acronym BIPOC unites people with shared interests around systemic racism, recognizing that all people of color have not suffered equally from discrimination. Black and Indigenous people have suffered disproportionately.
You’re likely to see that reference more in the future as we continue to change with society. When you see a style change in news writing, you can assume we are lagging behind changes in society.
Updating our style is not just a shift in written language. It’s a marker of the inclusivity that legacy publications sometimes struggle with. These changes mean we’re listening more to our community, as one reporter told me, and doing a better job of holding a mirror to it rather than covering it from an ivory tower.
Let’s keep talking about these important issues. As always, you can email me your thoughts.
Therese Bottomly is editor and vice president of content for The Oregonian/OregonLive. Reach her at [email protected] or 503-221-8434.
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