The case for Black identity
The year 2020 is one that we would love to forget. But we can’t. It and its after-effects will linger well into this new year and beyond for all the pain and suffering it has caused — and will continue to cause.
However, out of some of the gloomiest periods of the past 12 months came an awakening and groundswell whose genesis had nowt to do with Covid-19.
The killing of George Floyd in police custody on May 25 set in motion a course of events that not only changed America but many other parts of the world, as protests against racial injustice rang louder and louder and grew stronger and stronger, and images that perpetuated racism were dispensed with.
The injudicial killing of black people in the United States had risen to the level where enough was enough, with Floyd’s death under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer the tipping point.
Something had to change, so the world came together and took a knee in solidarity with the cascading Black Lives Matter movement.
In Bermuda we marched. The scenes were like nothing previously seen on this island — so many among the 7,000-plus coming together as one. Black people and white people, Bermudians and expatriates, straight and gay, seniors and toddlers, Progressive Labour Party and One Bermuda Alliance.
It was the highlight of a year of desperate lowlights, and showed that the hope that we can live together in these “paradise isles” can be turned into genuine belief. A belief that after the words will come action.
The most significant action from the media world was suddenly to see black people differently, signified by capitalising the b in black. American publications The Seattle Times and The Boston Globe were among a number who had made the move as much as six months earlier, but with the rise and rise of social media and with black people having the means to speak their truth through shareable video, the actions of an oppressive criminal justice system were well and truly exposed.
By the end of June, The Associated Press, whose style guide is considered the bible of Western journalism, began to capitalise the b in black, which set off a domino effect not only across US newsrooms but also in Europe.
“The change conveys an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa,” said John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice-president of standards. “The lower-case black is a colour, not a person.”
Doris Truong, the director of training and diversity at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think-tank, said: “It’s certainly long overdue. It’s something that people who are black have been calling for for a long time.”
It is often said that when America sneezes, Bermuda catches a cold.
And while that may be true, there was a period of pause in this parish over the style change and whether we would follow suit, as it is our view that the black American experience does not necessarily equate to the black Bermudian experience — especially in the area of policing, which so mobilised American communities last summer.
The benefit of time, wisdom and empathy, having extracted the emotion, has brought us to the point now that we can usher in the new year with significant change — the first being capitalising the b in black.
More than a symbolic gesture, it is a show of respect and understanding for how black people wish to be categorised. This is true in the Bermuda context where letter writers, authors, columnists and press releases have had their will bent by an editor’s “delete” button, replacing the capital b with the politically correct lower-case alternative.
Political correctness has changed and so must we change with it. From this day and, literally, from this point in the editorial.
The inevitable next question is a source of heated debate: what about the capital w in white?
There are compelling arguments for and against, so let’s get straight into it.
- There’s no compelling evidence of a comparable shared “white history” or “white culture”
- The umbrella term “white” refers to people with lighter skin, mainly of European descent, who already enjoy various capitalised terms to express their identities — eg, Baltic, Irish, Nordic, Slavic
- There’s no widespread championing of “White” in everyday English. Instead, the most passionate advocates also often appear to promote white separatism and white supremacy
The Associated Press and The New York Times share this view.
Black scholar Eve Ewing, from the University of Chicago, wrote in an online essay: “Whiteness is a specific social category that confers identifiable and measurable social benefits. When we ignore the specificity and significance of Whiteness — the things that it is, the things that it does — we contribute to its seeming neutrality and thereby grant it power to maintain its invisibility. That power permits White people to move through the world without ever considering the fact of their Whiteness. This is an incredible feat, through which White people get to be only normal, neutral or without any race at all, while the rest of us are saddled with this unpleasant business of being racialised.
“As long as White people do not ever have to interrogate what Whiteness is, where it comes from, how it operates, or what it does, they can maintain the fiction that race is other people’s problem, that they are mere observers in a centuries-long stage play in which they have, in fact, been the producers, directors and central actors.”
The Centre for the Study of Social Policy added: “To not name White as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard ... We believe that it is important to call attention to White as a race as a way to understand and give voice to how Whiteness functions in our social and political institutions and our communities. Moreover, the detachment of White as a proper noun allows White people to sit out of conversations about race and removes accountability from White people’s and White institutions’ involvement in racism.”
This is a view embraced by The Washington Post, and one with which we, too, find favour.
While White supremacists do not exist in Bermuda as they do America — the most cogent reason for not capitalising white in the US and giving them agency — White privilege is very real and so, too, are the inequities between the races, economically and in education.
Effectively addressing these inequities cannot happen if Whites are not part of the conversation. Capitalising the w goes some way to ensuring they do not saunter through life viewing race as other people’s problems.
The Black sociologist W.E.B du Bois would have been heartbroken to learn what was required for the crusade to have his people afforded a capitalised designation universally accepted in America nearly 100 years later — Negro as it was then — but we have got there in the end.
Recognition and respect for Blacks on the one hand, getting Whites to come face-to-face with their existence as a race on the other.
A quotation from the Black writer James Baldwin, authored 41 years ago, addresses Whiteness and Black identity in the Western world, and is a fitting way to close:
“The Black American has no antecedent. We, in this country, on this continent, in the most despairing terms, created an identity which had never been seen before in the history of the world. We created that music. Nobody else did, and the world lives from it, though it doesn’t pay us for it. In the storm which has got to overtake the Western world, we are the only bridge between their history which is the past and their history which is the present. The world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power.”