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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Race and Ethnicity in Grammar

"A grammar post? Brain...officially...bored."

Okay, I get it. When we think of interesting subjects, grammar is usually among the most remote. However, I have some questions and concerns over how we refer to racial and ethnic groups in written English and what that says about our inherent biases.

I'm a Spanish teacher. In Spanish, racial and ethnic groups aren't capitalized. Granted, lots of things aren't capitalized: languages, months, days of the week, words in a title besides the first one... Still, that fact both reveals and shapes how people consider issues of race and ethnicity. Most Latin-Americans are racially mixed. In fact, it's often difficult to impossible to nail down your racial roots, although it's safe to make a few broad generalizations in most cases. For example, if you are from Mexico and have naturally dark-brown skin and very Caucasian features, you are most likely part Spaniard and part Indigenous. I notice that I'm confused even now--do I capitalize the word Indigenous in this case? In Spanish, I don't. My theory is that nobody cares what race you are enough to capitalize it. Heck, we don't say "white people" in Spanish, we say "people light-in-tone" (personas rubias)-- the color comes after the fact that they're people.

So why does the APA style guide say we need to capitalize colors when they refer to race? It doesn't make any sense to me. Besides, as humorously noted in the film Cry Freedom, "black" people are more brown than black, and "white" people are more pink than white. Why reinforce these artificial extremes by making them proper nouns, names rather than adjectives?

You will notice that I go back and forth between capitalizing these terms and omitting that capitalization. My natural inclination is not to do so. I will capitalize nationalities; it seems close in intent to capitalizing the names of the countries from which people come. Luckily, I am not alone in my opinion of capitalizing racial labels. College campuses are gradually coming around, although they still capitalize in the case of African-Americans, but advise not to do so when referring to races in general. I personally don't comprehend that distinction. How are races imaginary colors in one case, but legitimate names of ethnicity in another? Also, such usage assumes that all American black people feel part of a common ethnic culture. This is false and, frankly, demeaning, just as demeaning as suggesting that there is one uniform white ethnic culture in this country. It is so obviously untrue as to be laughable.

I will try never to capitalize races in this blog again. Capitalizing them seems unnatural, so it shouldn't be that hard. If I do, it will be evidence that political correctness is still lodged in some deep, undeveloped crevice in my psyche. I apologize for that if it happens. I blame my Liberal college professors. (Liberal is capitalized here to demonstrate that they are not liberals in the classical sense.)

By the way, I also resent capitalizing, and referring to in general, hyphenated Americans. I'll do it so people will comprehend what I'm writing, but I long for the day when it will no longer be necessary.


  1. I just realized that I used the word "blacks" as a noun. It's going to take some time to undevelop these bad habits.

  2. I fixed that and updated the post, so you won't see that mistake anymore.


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