“Why do we capitalize our name?” I asked my father. “Because it is a sign of respect, that we matter, we exist,” he said. “Respect,” I whispered to myself as I tried to emulate how my father, with whom I share the same name, wrote his H in Hugo and B in Balta. I was nine years old and trying to master the lost art of cursive writing.
In 2020, in the middle of the racial reckoning and fight for social justice inspired in part by the killing of George Floyd and COVID-19, the Associated Press changed its rules to capitalize the word “Black” when used in the context of race and culture. Still, it fell short of giving Brown the same type of acknowledgment.
The move wasn’t revolutionary. But, it was an action long overdue. The matter has been debated for years. Black journalists had long championed for mainstream media to make the shift. But, before Black became a widely accepted term, Robert Abbott, founder of The Defender, initiated capitalizing Negro becoming the standard in the Black press.
The Associated Press Stylebook justified its decision not to capitalize the B in Brown to “avoid this broad and imprecise term in racial, ethnic or cultural references unless as part of a direct quotation,” because interpretations of the term are variable and unique. But arguing that Brown is a generalization ignores people struggling in a country that historically doesn’t acknowledge their existence.
Yes, Brown people come from many countries, cultures, and ethnicities and should always first be identified by what makes them unique. But in the U.S., they’re discriminated against as a group, and as such, deserve the dignity of an uppercase B.
Whether it is the systemic inequality to health care exacerbated by the pandemic, deliberate barriers to building wealth, historical discrimination in the criminal justice system, or the number of other factors known as social determinants of health, Brown people also deserve better recognition in news coverage.
For years, editors resisting capitalizing Brown or Black argue that the people the terms hope to represent are not a monolith. For example, Pakistani, Egyptian, Mexican are proper names of specific nationalities with distinct cultures. After all, there is no country named Brown. But as a child of Peruvian immigrants not entirely accepted in the country where I was born nor my parent’s homeland – “ni de aquí ni de allá,” meaning “neither from here nor there”; I find comfort in the comradeship of using the identifier, Brown.
Another disagreement is that capital B adds to the consuming racial self-consciousness polarizing the country. However, while adopting racial invisibility might make white people comfortable, it does not dismantle a history of institutional discrimination and disparities that put people of color in peril. Only by confronting racial divisions head-on can the U.S. move forward towards racial equality.
Furthermore, other critics have said that if one adopts capitalizing Black and Brown, the same must also apply to white due to historically created racial identities. Whatever rule applies to one, they argue, should apply to all. This is privilege speaking, if not worse, disguised as debate for fairness as if white, Black, and Brown have ever been on equal footing.
In acknowledging that we have a responsibility to dismantle the same structural racism that normalizes white supremacy in society, also corrupts journalism, The Chicago Reporter and Illinois Latino News join other news outlets in capitalizing B in Brown.
Do not dismiss adopting the style as “just a cosmetic change” or pandering. A slight change drawing the necessary attention to the significant wrongs endured by communities yearning to be seen, heard, and understood can be powerful.
In finding solutions to what can often seem like an insurmountable mountain of systemic discrimination in the U.S., small gestures of respect can significantly advance racial justice.
Cover Photo Credit: WBEZ
Hugo Balta is the Associate Editor at The Chicago Reporter and the Owner and Publisher of Illinois Latino News. He is also the twice President of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ).