Race with a capital B and a capital W

The Shift key is now getting more work on journalists’ keyboards, thanks to this summer’s sweeping adoption by news organizations of the custom of capitalizing Black and, often, White, when describing a person’s race.

Yeah, it looked weird to me too at first.

When you’ve always typed a word one way, changing it absent new evidence can feel forced. I remember my college paper’s editorial board discussing whether to capitalize the “b” in “black” and then voting against it, and I’m sure I was among the no votes.

I’m also sure about who wasn’t among any of the votes: actual Black people.

How to describe fellow human beings of an enormous variety of cultures and religions with one easily-observable characteristic that others without that complexion often fixate on so they can put all these people into one racial basket? 

“African-American” isn’t bad, but it implies an other-ness to Americans whose ancestors may have been in the United States for centuries longer than the ancestors of White people whom almost nobody labels “European-American.” (You can call me that if you want, but only because of my Irish passport.) And for many Black Americans, the genealogical trail stops on this side of the Atlantic, courtesy of the Middle Passage not yielding the documentation that came with the vessels on which my grandparents and great-grandparents came to Ellis Island from the 1910s onward.

As a catch-all term, African-American also fits poorly for more recent immigrants with family trees rooted on this side of the Atlantic. See, for example, presumptive Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D.-Calif.), whose half-Jamaican, half-Indian ancestry led a relative to ask on Facebook how she could be African-American. A much less polite debate has boiled over on the Wikipedia entry for Harris.

Lower-case-b “black” fails in a similar manner if you write it next to an equally broad demographic description like “Asian” or “Latin.” It doesn’t seem weird to capitalize other ethnicities, but not the one we seem to talk about most often? 

So Black it is, however belatedly. What about us paler folks? Do we write “white” in lowercase as one might lowercase “brown” when describing most people without European heritage?

I now say no. One reason, as the Washington Post observed in a note announcing its style change, is that “White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” But hold the mayo jokes, please: What that item left for a later Post podcast to observe is that whiteness has often amounted to the powerful absence of race.

As in, race is something for other people. If you don’t note somebody’s race when describing them, they must be White, and White people in the conversation may breathe a little easier knowing that they’re not about to slide into some uncomfortable conversation about race. Being White is the default setting that you don’t have to adjust or even acknowledge. That is a real thing that we should stop pretending doesn’t exist.

And as that Post podcast’s nuanced discussion reminded me, this issue of how we label these differences that exist far more in our minds than in actual human biology is fascinating. I wish my old Post colleague Bill Walsh were still around to join this conversation; I’m sure the most erudite copy editor I’ve known would have something smart to say.

State of my French: less rusty than feared

PARIS–I’ve now spent more time in a French-speaking environment than at any point since the June day in 1991 when I boarded a flight to Newark from here at the end of my family’s two-year expatriate stay.

Paris in the eveningTwenty-five years is a long time to go out of practice in a language, and I lived up to my low expectations of my degraded proficiency when I said “210” as “205” Monday evening. But each day since then, I’ve gotten a little more comfortable at not just hearing or reading French but the more difficult part of speaking it.

I’m not about to have verb-conjugation tables pop back into my head all filled out, but as I find myself engaging in brief exchanges without getting flustered, I’ve realized that the francophone parts of my brain haven’t turned to mush. Instead, I can almost picture the old synapses lighting up for the first time in a quarter of a century.

Vous pouvez imaginer mon soulagement!

(Yes, I did wimp out by checking that in Google Translate.)

I am going to need more practice to get close to my former fluency. I could add French to the Spanish lessons I’ve been taking in the Duolingo app (thanks for the recommendation of that in a comment on an earlier post here), but what I really could use is another good tech event or two to attend here. Suggestions?


Checking my linguistic privilege

BERLIN–The past four days have reminded me how often being an American means never having to learn another language.

Departure sign in GermanI’m not proud of that fact, but when almost everybody you meet speaks English and does so well, you can get by with a knowledge of German that goes little further than “danke” and “bitte.”

That’s especially true at the IFA electronics trade show that has me here for the fourth year in a row (once again, with most of my travel costs covered by the show’s organizers). Veterans of the show tell me that IFA press conferences used to be conducted in German, but now everything runs in English. And not only are almost all of the labels on the exhibits here bilingual, most of those are English-first.

But earlier today, I was on a tour conducted entirely in German. I realized I was not quite as dumb in the language as I thought, in the sense of recognizing nouns and developing a sense of the other words around them from their context. If nothing else, that means my pattern-recognition skills haven’t completely atrophied.

It also reminded me of what it felt like when I began to learn French. It was frustrating to feel so lost at interpreting words made by other human beings–and yet I was fluent in the language by the end of college, with a certificate of proficiency to prove it. Sadly, a near-complete lack of practice since then has undone much of that learning. Maybe I should have taken Spanish instead, which I’d have plenty of opportunities to use around D.C.

I can’t undo those things, but I can at least try to knock some of the rust off my French or develop some marginal competency in Spanish. Any suggestions for a language-learning app to put on my phone or tablet?

(Meanwhile, my daughter has magically  progressed in five short years from baby babble to learning to read. This transformation is fascinating, and I’m not sure I could inventory what I’ve done to make that happen.)