In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers, editors across the US have been debating the racial politics of the language they use. One issue has come up frequently: whether authors and editors should capitalize the word “White” when it refers to a racial group. The New York Times, most notably, has argued for lowercasing the word: “white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does, and also has long been capitalized by hate groups.” The Washington Post, on the other hand, has published a persuasive rejoinder by Nell Irvin Painter, the author of The History of White People. The most pertinent passages are quoted below:
A second reservation arose as I considered the asymmetry of racial identities of blackness and whiteness — and how they function differently in American history and culture.
These two identities don’t simply mirror each other — one works through a pronounced group identity; the other more often is lived as unraced individuality. However much you might see yourself as an individual, if you’re black, you also have to contend with other people’s views. W.E.B. Du Bois summed this up as “twoness,” as seeing yourself as yourself but also knowing that other people see you as a black person. You don’t have to be a black nationalist to see yourself as black.
In contrast, until quite recently white Americans rarely saw themselves as raced — as white. Most of them, anyway. The people who have embraced “white” as a racial identity have been white nationalists, Ku Klux Klansmen and their ilk. Thanks to President Trump, white nationalists are more visible than ever in our public spaces.
But that group does not determine how most white people see themselves. Instead, in terms of racial identity, white Americans have had the choice of being something vague, something unraced and separate from race. A capitalized “White” challenges that freedom, by unmasking “Whiteness” as an American racial identity as historically important as “Blackness” — which it certainly is.
This, to me, seems like a very convincing argument for capitalizing “White.” I should note at this juncture that I am White, so my opinion cannot and should not be the final word on this issue. The ultimate decision rests in the hands of Black scholars, authors, and editors. But, for my small part, I am leaning towards capitalizing the word “White.”