Why I Capitalize the B in Black (& Why You Should Too)
Within the last two years I’ve read countless articles about the experiences and very real circumstances of “black people” or “blacks” and every time I come across the word “black” in reference to my community, I cringe.
As a writer, words mean things, not just how you say them but also how you present them on paper. For centuries Black people have been portrayed on paper parallel to how we are treated in real life: the lowercase b; inferior, disempowered, a color without a culture. This is bigger than grammar to me; it’s literally rewriting the narrative.
Why do we capitalize Asian, Italian, Swedish, and German but not Black? Yes, “Asian” and “Italian” and “Swedish” and “German” refer to a place of origin rather than an individual person and with that, the argument could be made that African is capitalized. But the relationship between Black people in America and the African-American label is more layered than that. For some of us, we feel far removed from our African descent or for other reasons that the label is uncomfortable or doesn’t fit exactly right.
Growing up as a bi-racial girl in the suburbs without a whole lot of connection to the experiences of my Black family members that came before me, “African-American” only felt right in certain settings.
I recognized early on that “African-American” was perceived a certain way, and as a result I would use it in a certain way. If people asked me “what are you?” I always responded “African-American and white”. As I got older and spoke about my friends or the community, I always used “African-American”, never Black unless I was talking to my friends. Essentially, I was code switching but looking back I was also playing into respectability politics.
“Black” is quickly connoted in the minds of many with imagery in which the people of this community were poor and criminalized, stereotyped. “African-American” isn’t. This was also quite possibly me projecting my own blind spots and biases that I eventually unlearned. I didn’t start redefining myself using “Black” as part of my lens until I got ready to graduate college, and realizing that “African-American” felt inauthentic to me.
When I read an article on a study that showed white people view “African-Americans” more favorably than those that identify as Black, it reminded me of how I used the term in my identification when I was younger and also strengthened me to use the term Black instead of African-American as an adult. In a world driven by the social constructs of race, I felt identifying as AA played into respectability politics and I shouldn’t be describing myself in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable and non-Black people feel comfortable.
In my writing, in my tweets, in Facebook posts, in anything I will capitalize Black. I capitalize Black because it encompasses my culture and validates my experiences as a person, not a color assigned through social constructs and I encourage you to do the same.