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Outlook style update: Why we’re capitalizing White

On behalf of the Outlook editorial team, Teri McDowell Ott explains a recent style change.

Photo by Fabio Santaniello Bruun on Unsplash

Dear reader,

In this first issue of 2022, you may notice some style changes: a new font that we hope is easier to read and more headshots of our writers. Beyond the aesthetics of our magazine, we’ve also made a change based on our ethics of faith and sense of mission: we are now capitalizing White when it refers to racial, ethnic and cultural identity.

With a few exceptions, the Presbyterian Outlook follows the Associated Press Stylebook. On Juneteenth of 2020, the Associated Press announced that it would be changing its style to capitalize Black but would continue lowercase treatment of White. According to the Associated Press, “White” doesn’t reflect a shared racial history and culture the way “Black” does. Also, they argue, capitalizing the term White, as is done by White supremacists, risks legitimizing supremacist beliefs. Other arguments for keeping White lowercase include the risk of essentializing a person’s racial identity or indicating that a person’s race is their singular defining thing. The Associated Press announcement added to a growing debate in the publishing world with reasonable arguments on both sides.

On the other side of the argument, The Chicago Manual of Style and other publications have embraced the emerging consensus to capitalize all references to racial identity. Capitalizing all races, some argue, seems more equitable. Also, lowercase references to White play into the assumption that Whiteness is the default, an invisible, neutral standard distinct from Black and Brown. Whiteness, like Blackness, is a particular social reality and those who choose to capitalize White argue that White people need to be more aware of our shared culture and have more conversations about what it means to be White.

Capitalizing White often elicits a strong reaction, particularly from White people. To see it capitalized on the page is uncomfortable because it reminds us of hateful White supremacists. Here at the Outlook, a predominantly White organization, we believe there is value in examining that discomfort and discussing it.

Our editorial staff has taken great care in making this decision. We have read and discussed the arguments on both sides. Ultimately, we’re making this style change because we believe it suits our mission. On the cover of every Outlook magazine our mission is stated simply and clearly: “Leading faithful conversations in the church and beyond.”

We’ve decided to capitalize White because we agree with the arguments for doing so, but also because we want to join this discussion. Certainly, it would be easier and more comfortable to not make this change, to avoid this issue and the debate it encourages. But this kind of neutrality doesn’t feel faithful to us. We want to make a decision, explain our reasons, and engage others in this conversation. We want to listen to the debate and seek to better understand. We may need to change our decision in the future after we learn more. But we’ll come to that place better informed and better able to articulate our own thoughts and opinions.

Simply put, we are making this change because we believe the church should be aware of and informed by this debate. We believe White people should be talking about Whiteness. And we believe this is a conversation worth having.