News and Commentary

Washington Post To Start Capitalizing ‘Black’ And ‘White’
The headquarters for The Washington Post newspaper is seen in Washington, DC, December 24, 2015. The newspaper recently moved several blocks from their 1972-era headquarters to a state-of-the-art newsroom designed for the digital era.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Washington Post announced on Wednesday that it would begin capitalizing the words “black” and “white” when used to refer to a person’s skin color.

According to the Post, the decision to capitalize the term “black” recognizes and acknowledges both “the cultural bonds and historical experiences shared by people of African heritage” and the “shared struggles of the descendants of enslaved people, families who immigrated generations ago,” as well as more recent immigrants.

Similarly, the news agency will capitalize the term “white” because, while “many White Europeans who entered the country during times of mass migration were the targets of racial and ethnic discrimination,” these ethnic groups “were eventually assimilated into the collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation.”

Anyone who doesn’t wish to be identified by the color of their skin can also be identified through other ways: “Just as the U.S. Census asks individuals to categorize themselves by race, ethnicity and nationality, in our journalism, people will have the opportunity to identify as Black, African American and biracial, or something more ethnically specific, such as Afro-Latino, Ethiopian American or other national identifiers, a reflection of the many cultures and backgrounds that constitute this vast community.”

The news agency presents a few caveats to the rule change.

As a general rule, writes the Post, “racial identification and ethnic background should not be mentioned unless they are clearly relevant, such as in stories about civil rights, problems or achievements of people of color, cultural history and similar topics.”

“Separately, political terms used to promote racist ideologies or to advocate ethnic superiority or separation should remain lowercase (i.e. white supremacist, black nationalist). And in crime stories, where cultural and historical identity aren’t key to a suspect’s actions, use the lowercase versions of black, white and brown as race descriptors,” reads the news agency’s explanation.

The Washington Post’s decision to change its style guide rules for referencing skin color comes as other news organizations have announced similar changes to the way they reference race. For example, CNN has started capitalizing both “white” and “black,” according to The Wrap, and Fox News has started capitalizing the terms “white” and “black” when “used as an adjective to describe people, a community or culture…”

However, other news organizations, such as The Associated Press and The New York Times, have declined to capitalize “white.”

“We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore these problems,” John Daniszewski, vice president for standards, told AP staff in a memo, reports the news wire. “But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”

The New York Times, reporting on its own decision earlier this month, wrote that it declined to capitalize both “brown” and “white” because the former doesn’t have a clear meaning, and the latter “doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does, and also has long been capitalized by hate groups.”

“To be parallel does make sense usage-wise when talking about grammar and usage, but we can never just go on these sorts of standards,” Destinée-Charisse Royal, a staff editor for the graphics department, told the Times. “Language doesn’t work that way. You have to consider the other factors.”

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