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.