Addressing Racism as an Editor

Karly White Editing Tips

As a summer of major cultural upheaval partly spurred by the untimely deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and the subsequent protests over racial inequality continues, those of us in the editing world must ask: what, if any, changes must we make in our own work? While other industries address racism and diversity in their own ways, editing has its own issues to grapple with. In light of that, let’s look at one of the most recent shakeups in the world of words: the b-word

On June 22, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) announced that they now prefer to capitalize the term Black when referring to ethnicity. This is a shift from what the most recent edition of CMOS advised, and they stated that the decision comes, “partly in light of old arguments, partly in light of new, and very much in light of recent and ongoing events and the evidence of a real shift in usage across many sources.”

CMOS is not the only style guide to advise the shift. The Associated Press, whose stylebook is the standard in journalism, changed their guidelines to prefer Black with a capital B a few days prior to CMOS’s announcement, stating, “The lowercase black is a color, not a person.” Likewise, APA Style recommends capitalizing Black and White when referring to ethnic groups, as well as avoiding biased language in general, in the seventh edition of their Publication Manual. (MLA has yet to make a formal statement, being in the slower-moving fields of language and literature, but they often follow the lead of CMOS and will likely recommend the same as other style guides.)

Why does this all matter? Well, as APA states in their recommendations for avoiding biased language: 

“Terms used to refer to racial and ethnic groups continue to change over time. One reason for this is simply personal preference; preferred designations are as varied as the people they name. Another reason is that designations can become dated over time and may hold negative connotations.”

As editors, we know that language matters and usage changes over time. We must acknowledge even the simplest of complicity in racial bias. Click To Tweet

As other terms for Black people have become pejorative over time, many view black, uncapitalized, as disrespectful. The reasoning is that other ethnic groups are capitalized, including broad definitions such as Asian or Latino, as well as more specific terminology referring to country of origin, such as Chinese or Chilean.

It is a fact of history in the United States that few Black people have the privilege of knowing their ethnic roots beyond the continent of Africa, because records were not kept for people forcibly brought over as slaves. Unless a Black person directly immigrated to the United States from an African nation, a Black individual in this country cannot appropriately be called African American, as they have little connection to that area of the world, and few even know what country their ancestry may be from; the same cannot be said for most white people of European ancestry. While African American is still an accepted term among some Black people, many feel that Black is a more fitting term and more accurately describes their cultural identity. 

A capital B is a simple, yet undeniably powerful way to reclaim the dignity and respect that Black people deserve. #cmos #ap #apa Click To Tweet

As editors, we know that language matters and usage changes over time. It is important in this field to embrace new changes to language and acknowledge even the simplest of complicity in racial bias. That lowercase b doesn’t look that harmful, but it carries with it the weight of an ugly history. A capital B is a simple, yet undeniably powerful, way to reclaim the dignity and respect that Black people deserve.

It doesn’t end there, of course. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for making the simplest of editing choices. We have to check our biases in more ways than capitalization, whether it’s addressing a writer’s wrongheaded racial ideas, recognizing that certain terms are no longer inclusive, or instantly assuming that the target audience for a work is white by default; simply capitalizing a letter is not enough, just as simply being “not racist” isn’t enough. We have to work to be actively anti-racist in our language, our editing, and our lives.


About the Author

Karly is a writer and editor with a keen instinct for the way text should sound, no doubt a result of her daily consumption of everything from The New York Times to C. S. Lewis’s novels to her son’s books. She has been a part of the Scribe Source team since 2014.