A conversation on whether or not publications should capitalize white was inevitable.
On Juneteenth, the Associated Press announced that it would be changing its style guide to capitalize Black, which marked a significant shift in a centurieslong conversation about how to respectfully address an entire diaspora of people. When the New York Times announced that it would also capitalize Black, the paper made it clear that it would not do the same for white. The announcement explained:
We will retain lowercase treatment for “white.” While there is an obvious question of parallelism, there has been no comparable movement toward widespread adoption of a new style for “white,” and there is less of a sense that “white” describes a shared culture and history. Moreover, hate groups and white supremacists have long favored the uppercase style, which in itself is reason to avoid it.
The AP also later announced it would not be capitalizing white. (Slate typically follows AP style guidelines and also now capitalizes Black.) But the Washington Post took a different stance. The editors said they would capitalize both Black and white in order to recognize these groups’ “distinct cultural identity.”
“This style change also prompts the question of how America’s largest racial community should be identified. Stories involving race show that White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States. In American history, many White Europeans who entered the country during times of mass migration were the targets of racial and ethnic discrimination,” reads the announcement. “These diverse ethnicities were eventually assimilated into the collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation. As such, White should be represented with a capital W.”
“In general, 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,” the announcement added.
The announcement sparked heated debate online between people who celebrated the move to capitalize white as overdue, others who criticized it as empowering a social construct, and those who felt all of it was politically correct nonsense. And not everybody wants to capitalize white for the same reason the Post did. A number of anti-racist scholars, policy analysts, and journalists who do choose to use White have said that their decision is not to acknowledge white experience as a “distinct cultural identity” but to explicitly identify and contend with the privilege afforded to white folks, the violence it allows them to wield, and to uproot the invisibility that makes it possible.
“In maintaining the pretense of its invisibility, Whiteness maintains the pretense of its inevitability, and its innocence,” wrote scholar Eve Ewing in a piece explaining why she chooses to capitalize it in her work. “As long as White people do not ever have to interrogate what Whiteness is, where it comes from, how it operates, or what it does, they can maintain the fiction that race is other people’s problem, that they are mere observers in a centuries-long stage play in which they have, in fact, been the producers, directors, and central actors.”
“When we ignore the specificity and significance of Whiteness—the things that it is, the things that it does—we contribute to its seeming neutrality and thereby grant it power to maintain its invisibility,” she added.
But there’s reason to be skeptical that news organizations newly embracing the capital letter are prepared to make whiteness visible. The white perspective on the world is already treated as the default in media, in textbooks, in literature, and in pop culture. Media outlets uphold white supremacy in a number of subtle ways. It’s evident most notably in the stories we see value in telling, the way we choose to tell them, and the way employees of color are treated.
White experiences are presumed universal. Dozens of Black journalists have recently come forward to share how their newsrooms doubted their ability to be objective conveyors of truth when reporting on racism, while white writers are assumed not to have any stake in these stories. If outlets are forward thinking enough to have a beat dedicated to covering race and racism, they undercut their own initiative by treating it as a separate entity instead of as an influential undercurrent in every topic worthy of publication. Just look at the difference between coverage of white domestic terrorists, which tends to carefully explore each young white gunman’s mental health struggles, social awkwardness, and upbringing, and coverage of supposedly intractable “urban” violence by gangs of hardened criminals in “inner cities.” Or consider reporters’ frequent field trips to rural diners to sit with average Americans who just happen to be white. The role their race plays in fueling their “economic anxiety” is rarely examined, if at all. These newsrooms make the choice to center whiteness every day, to the point where it’s become more of a reflex than a decision.
“We don’t need any more mechanisms to make whiteness more visible,” said Jenn M. Jackson, an assistant professor at Syracuse University, in a nuanced Twitter thread arguing that leaving white in the lowercase strips its power.
This is why simplifying the pervasive power of whiteness to a “distinct cultural identity” that is only sometimes relevant does us all a disservice. The act of capitalizing white, while hopefully a sign of greater changes to come, does not on its own accomplish the harder and messier work of dismantling these habits.
This work does not stop at the style guide. It has to be followed by institutional action to knock whiteness out of its default status in coverage and in practice. And if the most powerful media institutions in the world truly want to take on that work, it could be transformative. What kind of storytelling is possible if we do away with the assumed protagonists, both the white ones and the White ones? I don’t know the answer, but it’s about time we figured it out.