I once had an editor who was unusually focused on the newspaper’s style book, the guide to how words and phrases are used and spelled.
Most newspapers follow, at least generally, the Associated Press style guide, but this editor decreed some significant differences. For example, he insisted on using honorifics – Mr., Mrs., Dr., and so forth. Most newspapers, with the notable exception of the New York Times, long ago abandoned such honorifics, but my editor was defiantly old fashioned and liked the effect.
So old fashioned was he that he was also no fan of the feminist movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. Therefore he refused to allow the term “Ms.” for women who preferred not to be defined by their marital status. That left the reporters in the field in the uncomfortable position of spending time trying to persuade women to reveal whether they should be “Miss” or “Mrs.”
Being of a conservative bent, my editor also insisted that we could not use the word “Gay” in reference to sexual orientation, except in direct quotes or in the proper name of organizations. Instead, we had to use the word “homosexual.”
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I am not sure whether my editor’s position was a calculated insult, or whether he simply wanted to signal that he refused to be defined by positions put forward by advocacy groups. Either way, it was a style point that irritated gay rights groups, which seemed to suit my editor just fine.
Whatever his intent, his unusual points of style were an early lesson to me that details matter. Small elements, elements that many readers might not notice or might even consider trivial, can in fact communicate a great deal, in terms of values, political orientation, or editorial bias.
By and large, the Napa Valley Register follows the AP style guide, with a few modifications for local conditions. For example, we capitalize “Upvalley” to indicate the vicinity of St. Helena and Calistoga. And when I took over as editor, I added “Downvalley” to the style book, even though my Napa-centric staff had never heard of such a word (yes, Upvalley people do talk that way).
The sharp-eyed among you have noticed already that we’re now in the midst of working through another style question, this one laden with far more significance than which end of the valley you’re talking about. And that’s how to approach racial and ethnic terms.
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The Associated Press has recently recommended capitalizing “Black” in the context of African Americans. It’s a small but significant point that tends to emphasize African Americans as a distinct community worthy of recognition.
The AP did not, however, issue guidance on whether to capitalize “White.” And that’s where, I confess, I am hung up.
I experimented with capitalizing White a few times, but it felt wrong. It felt like in doing so, we were defining a distinct ethnic community rather than discussing what is effectively the dominant culture. By capitalizing “White,” we seem to be validating the idea that whites constitute a distinct minority or interest group, with needs or grievances equivalent to various well-established minority groups.
Worse, it felt to me like we were validating the White Identity movement, which is for the most part a thinly veiled white supremacy movement.
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Moreover, the very definition of “whiteness” is as fraught as any other racial question. A century ago, the definition of “white” would almost certainly not have included anyone from Eastern or Southern Europe, Jews, Middle Easterners, or Spanish-descended Central and South Americans, despite the fact that, from a strictly skin tone point of view, it would be hard to distinguish them from others that were well understood to be “white.”
And although all those groups might these days be covered under “white” in the popular understanding, there are still plenty of people trying to define them as outside the “white” community. Think the tiki-torch-bearing Unite the Right rally-goers in Charlottesville, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
So with that in mind, seeing the word “White” capitalized feels jarring, strangely off balance, to me. On the other hand, if we do not capitalize White, we run into a different set of problems.
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If not “White” then why, for example, “Native American” and not “native American?” Or why “Indigenous” not “indigenous?”
Some ethnic descriptors are easy, since they are based, at least loosely, on geographic names, which should be capitalized: “African American,” “Latino,” “Hispanic,” “Asian American.”
But if the descriptor is not normally capitalized, like “white” or “native,” why capitalize it now? If I follow that line of argument, however, then African Americans should be “black” and not “Black,” but that could be read as a signal of disrespect.
Thus I wind up chasing my own tail, philosophically speaking, in trying to work it out. The arguments for and against are circular and I wind up back where I started.
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I am sure most readers would not notice either way, or might not care much, but since I have seen that small details like this matter, I want to think this through. Whatever style we adopt should at least have a well-worked-out philosophy behind it.
I would love to know what you, the readers, think. I am definitely inclined to follow the AP guidance on capitalizing “Black,” but how do think we should handle “White?” Or “white?”
Let’s talk about it.
You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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