A Capital Idea: What We’re Talking About When We Talk About Race

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) is described as “the style manual of choice for writers, editors, students, educators, and professionals in psychology, sociology, business, economics, nursing, social work, and justice administration, and other disciplines in which effective communication with words and data is fundamental.” One of the widely recognized goals of the manual is to suggest word choices that best reduce bias in our language.

Recently, the APA manual started suggesting that words referring to groups by race should be capitalized, as in, “Black” and “White.” They also say we should “avoid language that reifies race” like the “use of ‘minority’ for ‘non-White.” My understanding is that “reifies” means to make something abstract into something real and concrete, which is a good thing to avoid where race is concerned.

Now, since the APA also once described homosexuality and transgender identity as forms of mental illness, I generally react to them saying jump by checking to see if I’m about to hit my head. I have nothing against the APA. They’ve changed, which is more than we can often say about influential institutions in response to criticism. But their historical positions on gender and sexuality should teach us that uncritically following “experts” isn’t always the wisest path.

However, I heard about this change when someone I respect pointed it out and suggested I start capitalizing Black and White. And, since I’m nothing if not a team player, I complied.

But, the idea nagged at me. I mean, I get what the APA is suggesting, but do these changes get us there?

To me, the goal ought to be to use language so as to help folks understand that race is not biological, cultural, fixed, natural, or neutral. Instead, racial categories were constituted as part of a political system established for the purpose of putting whites in a position to dominate and exploit those who aren’t white.

So, why capitalize adjectives for people like “White” and “Black?” When we capitalize them, we turn them into proper nouns, and that seems to me to lean in the direction of suggesting that race is natural and neutral, and not just a made up thing. And avoiding the use of “minority,” for the preferred “non-White,” seems to do something even worse.

I generally like to avoid using the term “minority” in place of other racial indicators because it reduces groups of people of color to their numerical status relative to white people. Worse, it does this in a world where, outside the U.S., we “non-Whites” are the majority, a reality the U.S. would do well to reconcile itself with, especially as the U.S. racial demography is changing.

But referring to people of color as “non-White” instead of as “minorities?” That reduces us to what we’re not in a way that positions “White” as the normative standard, and that is the ideological lynchpin of white supremacy. If you doubt that, consider how often you hear white people referred to as “non-Black” without reference to black people in the same breath.

Now, “Asian,” on the other hand, is a proper noun, referring as it does to a continent, just as is “African.” So “African American” seems to make sense to me, for instance.

So I’m throwing it out there and saying, maybe we  shouldn’t be following the APA style suggestions on race.

I know this may seem like a lot of virtual ink to spill on this subject, but words are powerful and, especially when it comes to race, have political meanings that have had, often are still having, a powerful impact on how we think about people.

For instance, the term “African American” has an interesting history. It was popularized as an alternative to terms like “black,” I’m guessing in order to break from race and refer to African descended people by something more along the lines of heritage or ethnicity. But “black” took the place of “colored,” a term loaded with meaning, as it suggests that white people have no color, turning higher levels of melanin into stigma. And “colored” took the place of “black” in its first meaning, which essentially was something like “less than human.”

The term “Hispanic” means, literally, from Spain. When applied to the people of Mexico, it basically refers to the former status of Mexico as a Spanish colony. Same when it is applied to other Latin American peoples, suggesting they and their countries are the property of Spain.

“American Indian” is a loaded term as well. I mean, so Columbus got lost on his way to India so now we refer to North American natives as American Indians? And “Asian American” is a term invented in the 1960s to take the place of the pejorative, “Oriental,” which is a creation of Europeans whose mostly colonialist motives in defining and studying the “Orient” should lead to cynicism.

“Asian American” is an identity forged in the struggle against racism, as are terms like “black” in its 1960s incarnation (as in “black is beautiful”), “Latino,” and “Native American,” though increasingly Native Americans are reclaiming the term “Indian.”

We should be aware of these histories and of the powerful meanings of the words we use when we talk about race.

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3 Responses to A Capital Idea: What We’re Talking About When We Talk About Race

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  1. Katy Kay May 8, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Another great, thoughful post, so important your point, “We should be aware of these histories and of the powerful meanings of the words we use when we talk about race.” Thanks, as ever, for your fine work.

  2. Andrea Bittle May 19, 2013 at 3:07 am #

    Excellent article about how we use language to define ourselves and “others.” To make matters more complicated, are the growing numbers of bi- and multi-racial populations. What category should we put them in?!?

  3. Annie January 9, 2014 at 3:17 am #

    I agree that language is important.

    You write, “referring to people of color as “non-White” instead of as “minorities?” That reduces us to what we’re not in a way that positions “White” as the normative standard, and that is the ideological lynchpin of white supremacy.”

    You also write that language can be used to encourage the understanding that “race is not biological, cultural, fixed, natural, or neutral. Instead, racial categories were constituted as part of a political system established for the purpose of putting whites in a position to dominate and exploit those who aren’t white.”

    I take the opposite view of what you wrote in the first quote. The latter quote is why I actually prefer the term “non-white” when referring to people who aren’t white, that is, when referring to them collectively as opposed to referring only to certain groups. (I’m Asian American.) I tend not to really use the term “people of color,” even though I understand other people’s use of it, or “minorities.”

    I actually think the term “non-white” clarifies the origins of race that you made in the first quote MORE than the other terms. I actually think the term “non-white” makes “white” seem like it’s NOT the norm, but exactly a construct as it is.

    One time I was talking with a friend who’s African American / black American, and he was telling me a story about how when he used to live in the midwest, where he was from, there would be people he would talk to on the phone who thought he was white, and then when they met him, there would be problems when they realized that he was black. But in telling the story, he said, “They didn’t know I was black.” I thought that him putting it that way made being black seem like the “other.” If I had been telling the story, I would have said, “They thought I was white,” which I personally think would make the groups seem MORE like “just groups” than as if black people were the “other.” (I should also mention that I met this friend in California, which might be the most racially diverse state in the U.S., and I think in California, white people are viewed more as “just another group” and less as the “norm” than in most other places in the U.S. When I was listening to the friend tell this story, the California mentality that different groups of people are just different groups – as opposed to white people being the norm and black people being the “other” – informed why I thought it was noteworthy that he had said, “They didn’t know I was black,” instead of, “They thought I was white.” I think Californians would be more likely to say, “They thought I was white,” BECAUSE white is less considered to be the “norm.”)

    Basically, my agreement with the first quote above is why I disagree with the second quote.

    I think that is you’re talking about race, and race is a politically constructed thing that has always centered around whiteness, then I think “non-white” is not only the most accurate term to use for non-white people, but also the one that most accurately conveys what race is from its political-historical context. Using “non-white” doesn’t mean that you believe race is real. It just means you’re talking in the context of the idea of race.

    I personally think going a step further to refer to non-white people as “people of color” or “minorities” turns the concept of race into something MORE real, and makes it seem MORE like racial groups are real entities as opposed to only constructs of history and politics.

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