Back in the early ’90s, when we were living in sin, my future husband and I stayed at a bnb in Nauvoo, Illinois. We were there to learn the town’s Mormon history, and we were a little shy with the hospitable but devout Mormons who assumed we were legally wed. At breakfast, further subdued by the strained intimacy of sleepily eating eggs with perfect strangers, we stayed pretty quiet.
The two older couples were friends, and they were chatting about race relations, of all things. One of the women said something about “colored people,” and her friend’s husband cleared his throat. “I believe they like to be called Ne-groes now,” he informed her.
Andrew choked on his orange juice. I studied the weave of my napkin. These well-intended folks were only, what, three decades behind?
There is power in the act of naming. Just ask Adam. We like to decide for ourselves what to call things, how to label, whom to nickname. And it has taken our entire country an awfully long time to describe people the way they prefer to be described.
Granted, seldom do all those who share a piece of identity even agree on its name. I loathe both “Caucasian,” which sounds like an ominous sort of surgery, and the bland lower-case “white,” though it is hardly something to complain about. When people started capitalizing “Black,” though, I hesitated. Did we really need yet another asymmetry? This seemed like singling out—one more assertion that “white” and “Black” were different, not directly comparable, and parity was impossible.
The label “white” is bland because it is the goldfish bowl for a (fast declining) majority. Thus far, privilege has relieved white people of offering any further provenance, unless it happens to be St. Patrick’s Day. And so “white” comes off like a universal, so well established and unquestioned, it needs no specification. Everybody else gets singled out with capitalized difference. I worried that the latest change in the litany of trying to get it right (colored, negro, Negro, black, African-American, person of color, Black) would just reinforce that imbalance. I changed my mind fast.
Why? First, because I realized my ignorance. Whiteness is marked only by paleness; it is culturally colorless, because its history varies too widely to have much in common except a misguided, long-ingrained sense of superiority (which is why only white supremacists capitalize the word). The U.S. Census defines “white” as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa”; this does not promise much cultural cohesion.
“Black,” on the other hand, always traces back to Africa. But Africa is a big continent, and Ndongo culture of modern Angola is wonderfully different from the Ibo culture in Nigeria. Are we ignoring that rich diversity by lumping everyone together?
We are, but the original sin of slavery left us little choice. The diaspora was involuntary; people wrested from their homeland and history, and today, few Blacks even know what country their people came from.
Injustice is asymmetry.
In 1930, after four long years of blazing rhetorical effort, W.E.B. Dubois finally persuaded The New York Times to capitalize Negro. “The use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings,” he wrote, was “a personal insult.”
The Times’s revised stylebook described the capitalization as “an act in recognition of racial self-respect.” And now, that stylebook has been revised again, because self-respect is not enough.
The other reason I changed my mind is that every time I read “Black,” capped, there is a little jolt of specialness, of dignity long denied. That split second is the reason writers grope for fresh language: Until you capture the reader’s attention, there is zero chance of understanding.
Stylebooks and dictionaries pride themselves on apolitical resistance. They do not change to inspire society; they wait for a solid consensus and rationale. And I think, despite all the fracturing and bigotry, we are reaching both.
Kennedy Mitchum, a 22-year-old black woman from Florissant, Missouri, had to write to Merriam-Webster repeatedly, urging them to change the definition of “racism” and explaining why it was inadequate. As printed, it stated only that “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race,” which struck Mitchum as superficial and simplistic. Racism, she wrote, was “prejudice combined with social and institutional power,” and it created a system of advantage for those who held that power.
Quite a few emails flew back and forth, but results came far faster than they had for Dubois. Merriam-Webstereditor Alex Chambers notified Mitchum that “while our focus will always be on faithfully reflecting the real-world usage of a word, not on promoting any particular viewpoint, we have concluded that omitting any mention of the systemic aspects of racism promotes a certain viewpoint in itself.”
He went on to thank her: “This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem. We sincerely thank you for repeatedly writing in and apologize for the harm and offense we have caused in failing to address the issue sooner. I will see to it that the entry for racism is given the attention it sorely needs.”
Formal symmetry is easy to attain: You draw a line down the middle and manipulate the surface until you have imposed an artificial balance of shape and weight and volume. But human beings are not a geometry problem. When a society has tilted in one direction for centuries, pulling back to the halfway mark does not fix much at all.
Before Andrew and I married, our Episcopal priest led us through a few tough conversations. In one, she quizzed us: “How much do you give when there’s some issue involving the other person’s parent?” “Fifty percent,” we both parroted. “One hundred percent,” she corrected us. “You respect that prior, sacred relationship completely, and you honor it by giving your all.”
Love is not about going halvsies.
And love, in what may be its highest form—respect for the inherent dignity of each human person—has been missing from the national ethos for a long time.