Black or black? And yes, it matters.
Six years before I was born, James Baldwin gave a speech at UC Berkely about what it means to be a Black writer.
“What a writer is obliged to some point to realize is that he is involved in a language which he has to change. For example, for a black writer, especially in this country, to be born into the English language is to realize the assumptions of the language, the assumptions by which the language operates, are his enemy.”
The English language, at its default setting, is inherently racist. It is also inherently transphobic, homophobic, ableist, sexist, and misogynistic. Much like our actions, our words liberate or oppress. When writers are careless with our words, we affirm the racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, sexism, and misogyny that are baked into our language.
English is, as Audre Lorde would put it, “the master’s tools.” As a writer, precise and intentional use of language is one of my tools, my chisel with which I chip away calves from the iceberg of white supremacy. I don’t have it all figured out, but I do have a few ‘style tips’ for writers looking to become more intentional about their craft.
Black, black, and white
Every once in a while, a commenter will call me out on capitalizing Black but not white. This is is a conscious choice on my part, and according to the Associated Press, it’s the right one. Here’s my rationale.
Black with a lowercase ‘b’ and white with a lowercase ‘w’ both refer to people from different cultures, ethnicities, and nations of origin who share a common skin color. Whether you come from Scandinavia or the United States, white is white. Whether you come from Ghana or India, black is black.
Don’t believe me? Consider the 1922 Supreme Court case United States v. Thind. Bhagat Singh Thind was a former Acting Sergeant that served in World War One. Thind identified as an Aryan Caucasian, which he felt entitled him to be classified as a “free white person.” At that time, only Africans and free whites could apply for citizenship. Thind was denied citizenship on the basis that even though he fell within the ‘scientific definition’ of whiteness, he wasn’t white by ‘common understanding.’ Because Thind looked like an Indian person, they ruled that legally, he was an Indian person, and therefore could not be white. It would take Thind almost twenty years to gain citizenship based on his status as a veteran.
United States v. Thind shows how whiteness as a social construct is a matter of color, not culture.
Black with a capital ‘B’ refers specifically to Black Americans as a culture. Because Black Americans are descendants of enslaved people from throughout the continent of Africa, many of us do not know which countries our ancestors came from. Even if we did, it’s unlikely that someone Black could claim a single country — it’s not like enslaved people were sent to plantations based on their national origin.
Enslaved black people from different countries, cultures, religions, and continents gave birth to a distinct culture, Blackness. That culture gave us country, jazz, rock and roll, reggae, funk, Motown, R&B, Neo-soul, hip-hop, and rap. Just like Indigenous Americans, Black Americans share a common culture, one forced upon us by colonial genocide. Just like indigenous, white is an adjective describing status, not identity.
Female is an adjective, not a noun
It’s been a while since I took a grammar class, but I do remember that a noun is a person, place or thing (shoutout to School House Rock) and an adjective is a descriptor that modifies the noun. For example, ‘black’ and ‘white’ are adjectives, while Black is a proper noun.
The same concept applies to the word female. According to Webster’s dictionary, female is “of, relating to, or being the sex that typically has the capacity to bear young or produce eggs.” A female could refer to any type of animal or plant with certain reproductive equipment. A womxn is a person who identifies as a woman. Get the difference?
Using female as an adjective is still okay. For example, you might say “only female mosquitos bite,” or “all fetuses are female until they are about six weeks old.” In both cases, the word female is being used to modify and describe the nouns (mosquito and fetus, respectively), not as the noun itself.
Stop conflating sex and gender
Plan International has an awesome video (see below) explaining the difference between sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC for short). As a cisgender womxn, this took me a minute to fully understand. Here's the cliff notes version.
Sexual orientation is who you are attracted to. In America, we use the words ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ to describe sexual orientation. Not only does this erase the identity of bisexuals, pansexuals, demisexuals and others on the ACE spectrum, it’s imprecise language that adds a layer of unnecessary confusion to something many of us struggle to understand in the first place. If a transgender man starts dating a cisgender man, is he gay or straight?
I met an amazing guy last year who introduced me to the terms androphile, gynephile and ambiphile. These are behavioral science terms that describe the gender expression of the person someone is attracted to, instead of the sexual orientation of the person who is attracted.
Gender identity describes the way we perceive ourselves. Like race, gender isn’t a biological reality (although it has an irrefutable impact on those who are marginalized within our patriarchal society). We know this because what it means to be masculine or feminine varies widely across cultures and time periods. Gender identity is how we feel in our heads. Just as many Afrolatinx people don’t identify as black, many people have gender identities that are contrary to their birth-assigned sex characteristics.
Gender expression refers to the way others perceive us based on our appearance. For example, music superstar Prince’s gender identity was a man, but his gender expression was feminine. Here’s another example: A non-binary person has a gender identity that exists outside of the gender binary, but people perceive ENBYs based on their gender expression, which leads to binary identified people misgendering ENBYs.
Finally, sex characteristics are the equipment we are born with. It’s assumed that people with XX chromosomes are female and people with XY chromosomes are male, even though babies are not chromosome tested at birth and it has been proven that there are chromosomal combinations outside of this binary. Intersex persons are people born with sex characteristics of both sexes.
Changing your word usage won’t cure racism, mysogny, ableism, transphobia, or homophobia. What it will do is make you pay attention the language you use, whether writing or speaking. Privilege creates blind spots, intentionality helps us see what’s in them. As we become more intentional with our words, our writing and conversation shift, and we begin to see how American culture and the English language itself are ‘enemies’ of marginalized individuals.
We can win the war against systemic oppression of all types, but no one can fight an enemy they can’t see (except maybe Matt Murdock). If we are unwilling to speak, write, and act with intention, we might as well lie down and accept defeat.