Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Capital B

I'm often asked why I capitalize "Black" and "White" when referring to the racial groups. So I thought folks might like this passage by Catherine MacKinnon on why she does the same:
[I do not regard] Black as merely a color of skin pigmentation, but as a heritage, an experience, a cultural and personal identity, the meaning of which becomes specifically stigmatic and/or glorious and/or ordinary under specific social conditions. It is as much socially created as, and at least in the American context no less specifically meaningful or definitive than, any linguistic, tribal, or religious ethnicity, all of which are conventionally recognized by capitalization.

Catharine A. MacKinnon, Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory, 7 SIGNS 515, 516 n.* (1982).

Of course, whether MacKinnon lives up to her stated ideals is far more controversial. See Angela Harris, Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory, 42 STAN. L. REV. 581, 590-601 (1990).


PG said...

any linguistic, tribal, or religious ethnicity, all of which are conventionally recognized by capitalization.

So why not "African-American" (and I suppose "European-American")? Also, how did it end up that Asian-Americans seem to be the only non-native American racial group that doesn't have a non-hyphenated identifier (cf. black, white, Latino)?

David Schraub said...

What, you're unhappy with "Yellow"? :-p

Asian, also, stands alone unhyphenated -- it is not uncommon to refer to American born persons of Asian descent as being "Asian" rather than "Asian-American".

PG said...

What, you're unhappy with "Yellow"? :-p

Sigh... as usual even the epithets for Asians render South Asians invisible ;-)

(In the UK, they distinguish us -- we're the "Asians," while East and Southeast Asians are "Orientals.")

David Schraub said...

How about "Paki"? :-p

We watched "Gran Torino" the other day -- it was like a museum of anti-asian epithets. Rather incredible, in its way (also a very good movie).

PG said...

Do you know if Paki is used to refer to all South Asians, or only to Pakistanis? From what I've been told, white Brits used to refer to all dark people as "blackies," so I suppose "Paki" is an upgrade in slur specificity.

I am looking forward to seeing Gran Torino, but probably won't until it's on video.

David Schraub said...

Wikipedia says all. My recollection of "Bend it Like Beckham" points likewise. Though I don't know if it's out of ignorance when it's applied to Indians, or just because they figure Indians will be infuriated to be called Pakistani.

Matthew C said...

But you still don't capitalize lesbian or transgender or poor or middle-class or woman. Why say those are less important categories of identity? The whole deal with nationalities, languages, and religions is that they derive from proper nouns, which are capitalized. On one hand there's a clear (well, as clear as English rules ever are) grammatical brightline, on the other it's just whichever categories of analysis you deem important.

If it's just an arbitrary habit you picked up on years ago and don't like the idea of dropping, why not just say so?

locksmith mesa said...

I'm also wonder why..

David Schraub said...

You don't buy my answer that it's to strike back against the idea (much stronger than for "woman" or "lesbian") that "black" is merely an adjective and not a major, organizing conceptual category?