Why we decided to capitalize Black, Aboriginal and Indigenous

By Chantal Braganza - Published on October 7, 2016
a person handwriting with a pen in a notebook
A style guide, much like language itself, is and should be a living entity, one that changes as our thinking does. (Liderina/iStock)

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A couple of times this year, a few writers who’ve contributed to TVO.org have asked for a seemingly small change to their work: capitalize words such as Black and Aboriginal. They are legitimate identities in their own right, the reasoning went, and deserve the same treatment that many other identity-based descriptors such as Asian or Hispanic already receive.

Until recently, our response went something along the lines of what many newsrooms in this country say when considering questions of grammar, spelling and usage. As a general rule, we follow Canadian Press style, which makes a point of keeping these words lowercase unless they are part of a title or name.

Last week we decided to change that. When referring to people, we’ll be capitalizing the descriptors Aboriginal, Indigenous and Black in recognition of these terms as identities and not adjectives.

A style guide, much like language itself, is and should be a living entity, one that changes as our thinking does. But this is a fluid, informal process, one that starts with the way people speak and communicate, and it’s often the job of formal institutions — from dictionaries to style guides to school-taught grammar — to catch up. While changing a few letters from lowercase to capital may seem like a small difference, for hundreds of thousands of Canadians it’s far more than that, and it’s a difference worth taking a bit of time to talk about.

From a grammatical standpoint, doing so places these words into proper-adjective territory, the way other race-based descriptors not specific to a nationality are. From an ethical one, capitalizing these words recognizes them as legitimate identities as opposed to descriptors. As Toronto journalist Eternity Martis wrote earlier this year, “black is a colour, but Black is for people.”

In North America and elsewhere, academics, activists and writers have pressed the editorial institutions that formalize much of our daily communication to acknowledge the distinct realities of living as a Black or Indigenous person. One commonly-cited example goes back to the 1920s, when American sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois successfully campaigned to have newspaper and magazine publishers capitalize the N in Negro — a word that until then had been treated as lowercase, and has for a long time since ceased to be considered a respectful way to address anyone who identifies as Black.

Locally, TVO.org is far from an early adopter of this capitalization. A few Toronto-based magazines such as NOW, THIS and the Ryerson Review of Journalism use it; Maclean’s magazine recently started capitalizing Black; and this past spring CBC changed its editorial policy to capitalize Indigenous, Aboriginal and Native in its copy.

But as more than a few Canadian and American writers have pointed out before, this approach is still not the norm. The Canadian Press Stylebook, which informs most newsroom policies on our side of the border, specifies that Black be lowercase when referring to race, and Aboriginal be lowercase when referring to individuals. “Note that black and white do not name races and are lowercase,” it states by way of reasoning. The Associated Press mandates a comparable style in the United States.

Publishing industry aside, other arenas of public life in Canada have already taken notice of this. Federal and provincial government communications, for example, currently capitalize Aboriginal in all uses. The same was the case for Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1991, and last year’s report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In the case of Black, some people wonder whether African-American and African-Canadian should be used instead. The latter terms, however, are rarely used colloquially — they simply aren't how we speak — and though African-American is an established term in the States, Barrett Holmes Pitner suggests this doesn’t always address the roots of where identity is most deeply felt. “By placing ‘African’ before ‘American’ we are implying that we have cultural roots predating the formation of the United States, much like white Americans and other American immigrant groups,” he writes. “We are telling everyone — including ourselves — that we have a foreign culture that is a better identifier than our American existence.” 

Another concern with capitalization of words such as ‘Indigenous’ is the possibility they will become blanket terms, generic stand-ins that obscure the specific identities of groups within that broader identity. There are definitely situations where a preference for specificity has value. When reporting on a local governance issue for a First Nation reserve in northwestern Ontario (Pikangikum or Deer Lake, say) it makes sense to refer to the community’s particular heritage as opposed to a larger umbrella term. When speaking to an Aboriginal person for any kind of reporting, it’s also respectful — and simply more accurate — to ask about their particular nationhood or culture, if it’s a relevant detail to the story.

However, recognizing Black, Aboriginal and Indigenous as proper adjectives — and real identities — at least begins to recognize that with each descriptor comes an identifiable community, a particular shared experience and specific history weighted with centuries of injustice. These are histories that exist in Canada, need to be acknowledged, and whose effects are still deeply felt.

This attention to identity and history matters. Capitalizing these words implies the same level of respect in talking about what it means to be Black or Indigenous in Canada as when we write about being a second-generation Filipino, a practising Sikh, part of Ontario’s Deaf community or French-Canadian. All of these are vibrant communities in this country — that includes Black, Aboriginal and Indigenous.

Who else does this list include? That’s a question we’ll be asking ourselves — and updating our style guide for — on a regular basis.   

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