Black and White: A Matter of Capitalization

Red shift key on an old-fashioned typewriter

In light of recent announcements elsewhere in publishing, many of our readers have been asking us whether we continue to recommend lowercase for terms such as black and white to refer to a person’s race or ethnicity, “unless a particular author or publisher prefers otherwise”—as we have advised in section 8.38 of the most recent edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.

So we are taking this opportunity to clarify that, as of today—partly in light of old arguments, partly in light of new, and very much in light of recent and ongoing events and the evidence of a real shift in usage across many sources—we have joined the ranks of those who “prefer otherwise.”

Specifically, we now prefer to write Black with a capital B when it refers to racial and ethnic identity. At the same time, we acknowledge that, as a matter of editorial consistency, White and similar terms may also be capitalized when used in this sense. We continue to recognize that individual preferences will vary, and we acknowledge that usage may depend on context. A correction has been made to CMOS Online and will also appear in subsequent printings of the seventeenth edition.

As a matter of editorial policy, we avoid making substantive changes to our rules and recommendations between editions, which have historically appeared every seven to ten years. Each edition, then, reflects the prevailing editorial practices at the time of publication. This policy is important to the many writers and editors who apply Chicago style to projects that are developed over the course of months and years, particularly in book publishing.

We do, however, make corrections and clarifications as needed to resolve typographical and other minor errors discovered after publication. These changes are reflected immediately online. And, as always, we use this forum and our Q&A to provide our readers with updates on our latest thinking.

The change we are making today goes beyond the mere correction of a typographical error, but we felt it was too important to hold for the next edition.

Specifically, it is no longer accurate to observe, as we did in 2017 when the seventeenth edition was published, that “black and white . . . are usually lowercased.” Though usage is far from settled, many writers, editors, and publishers now capitalize one or both terms.

We offer this update to our recommendations not as a requirement but as a guideline in the service of editorial logic and consistency. As always, we remain true to the caveat in our very first edition: “Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.”

In practice, the editors in our Books Division have long taken this principle to mean that if an author has a conscious and consistently applied preference regarding capitalization, punctuation, or the like that differs from what the Manual recommends, we will respect that preference. That is the spirit in which our advice is offered, and in which we hope others receive and interpret it.

At the same time, we do not want to diminish the significance of our decision, which owes a lot to recent events and to persuasive voices—especially those of Black and Brown authors and their allies in publishing and elsewhere—not only in academia but in news outlets and on social media. The commitment of the Press to honor these voices is at the heart of this change.

Going forward, we hope to more fully incorporate today’s recommendations in future editions of the Manual, though not before conducting a rigorous examination of changing usage, in consultation with our colleagues and readers outside the Press. In the interim, it is with a spirit of equity and with an eye toward future generations—and with a debt of gratitude owed to those who have led us here—that we embrace the changes we have announced today. We hope you will embrace them too.

University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff

Photo: © 2010 Bart Sadowski / Adobe Stock.

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2 thoughts on “Black and White: A Matter of Capitalization

  1. Good to have Chicago’s opinion on Black vs black, etc. I see Indigenous with a cap I quite a lot; would like to hear your opinion on that one.

    • Thank you for your comment. We agree that “Indigenous” may be spelled with a capital “I” when referring to people, though not without taking into account individual preferences and specific context (as discussed in our post).

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