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Extra! Extra! Use the Capital B When Referring to Black People!

By Lori L. Tharps

Reading the newspaper

This essay appeared originally on My American Meltingpot.

I feel like celebrating! More than five years ago, I wrote a post, that then led to an opinion piece in the New York Times, advocating for journalists and publishers to capitalize the B in Black when referring to Black people. On Friday—yes, Juneteenth Day—the Associated Press officially announced that they would be making the change in their stylebook, signaling a universal change as almost every single news organization in the United States follows the guidelines set by the AP. I feel like a major victory has been won.

Why the Capital B Matters

I’m not going to rewrite my entire essay explaining why the B should be capitalized. (Quick, just go re-read it!) I will simply say that lowercase b refers to the color black, whereas uppercase B refers to a group of people with a shared culture and history. To refer to Black people with a lowercase letter is factually incorrect, as well as dismissive to a group of people who continuously see their culture mocked, denigrated and ironically, appropriated.

Why the Change Happened Now?

For five years, I’ve wondered why after penning my essay—in the New York Times no less—newspapers and the AP Stylebook weren’t clamoring to fix their mistake. I feel like I laid out the argument pretty convincingly, and I certainly wasn’t the only one banging this drum. Many other journalists, advocates, and institutions were calling for this universal change. Not to mention the many writers who weren’t waiting for some official decree and simply capitalized the B in all of their work and fought the copyeditors who wanted to demote their capitals to the lowercase.

Maybe it was apathy? Maybe it was racism? Maybe a little of both? I’ll never know. But I do know that under the cloud of COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd, and the unrelenting Black Lives Matter demonstrations, something has shifted in America. I’m not going to say the shift is universal. I’m not going to say the shift is permanent. But I will say I am seeing a willingness by individuals and institutions to make changes in their lives that will lead to racial equality. In fact, the AP wasn’t the first to make the change to the uppercase B. They were following in the footsteps of other major media outlets, like the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine, who finally recognized at this moment, that if Black lives matter, they deserve to be recognized with the uppercase.

What’s Next for the Capital B Campaign?

I’ve already seen my first AP story where the B was capitalized. So, the change has been immediate. I’m looking forward to seeing that capital B now everywhere I go. (Hello, New York Times!) When I submit my next book manuscript, I know I’m not going to have fight or educate anyone on why all of my Bs are in the uppercase. I look forward to the time when all of the books I buy and articles I read will no longer have that erroneous and disrespectful lowercase b.

What the Fight for the Capital B has Taught Me

At the end of the day, this fight for the capital B has taught me that words really do matter. While I know that I have not been fighting this fight alone, that one article I wrote in the New York Timesall those years ago, was cited and shared more times than I can count, in order to explain why this change was warranted. I could be dead, but my words would have lived on in that article and would continue to help change the narrative about this issue. What’s more, as publishers, newspapers, government institutions, and even Fortune 500 companies hopped on board the capital B campaign train, it proved that they recognized that by making this small typographical change, they were signifying that they understood the power of words. They knew that this change wasn’t only about style; it was about race and respect.

Change Is Coming

I hope W. E. B. Du Bois is smiling down on me from heaven, because it was his letter-writing campaign to get the N in Negro capitalized in the early twentieth century that inspired me. I feel like this has been my first civil rights protest and victory, and I’m still basking in the glow. But I’m also even more fired up to do more because I know that change can happen—if you use the right words!


About the Author 

Lori L. Tharps is an associate professor of journalism at Temple University and the coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in AmericaKinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain, and Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families. Her writing has also appeared in the New York TimesWashington Post, and Glamour and Essence magazines. She lives in Philadelphia with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @LoriTharps and visit her website.