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Associated Press to capitalize ‘Black,’ Merriam-Webster redefines ‘racism’

By June 24, 2020 January 25th, 2021 No Comments

he Associated Press is changing its style to capitalize Black when referring to it in a racial, ethnic or cultural way — a move newsrooms across the United States have made in recent weeks.

And Merriam-Webster is revising its definition of racism after a Missouri woman’s emails claimed it fell short of including the systemic oppression of certain groups of people.

AP Vice President for Standards John Daniszewski wrote last Friday AP would also capitalize Indigenous in reference to original inhabitants of a place. The changes follow suit of standards AP has set with other racial and ethnic identifiers, such as Latino, Asian American and Native American.

“Our discussions on style and language consider many points, including the need to be inclusive and respectful in our storytelling and the evolution of language,” Daniszewski wrote. “We believe this change serves those ends.”

AP determines the writing style news organizations across the United States follow, though other newsrooms have decided to capitalize Black in recent weeks. Media outlets such as The Los Angeles TimesBuzzFeed NewsThe Seattle Times and MSNBC previously announced individually their style would change to capitalize Black. The Seattle Times made the change in 2019.

Daniszewski said the change came after two years of in-depth research and discussion. This latest style change joins the AP Stylebook’s section on race-related coverage guidance, which encourages thoughtful consideration, precise language and an openness to discussion with underrepresented identities about how to frame coverage accurately and appropriately.

AP also noted, “As a global news organization, we are continuing to discuss within the U.S. and internationally whether to capitalize the term white. Considerations are many and include any implications that doing so might have outside the United States.”

Doris Truong, director of training and diversity at Poynter, pointed to how Black newsrooms have set this style precedent for ages, but legacy newsrooms have been slow to change.

“Why do we need this change? The words Asian, Hispanic, Latinx and Native American are already proper nouns. African American does not represent the lineage of all Black people,” Truong said.

“For all the newsrooms waiting on AP to set the example, there’s no excuse,” Truong continued. “Capitalize Black.”

Kennedy Mitchum, who lives in the St. Louis suburb Florissant, said people would argue with her about the definition of racism and she realized the problem was in the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, according KMOV-TV.

“It’s not just disliking someone because of their race,” Mitchum wrote in a Facebook post. “This current fight we are in is evidence of that, lives are at stake because of the systems of oppression that go hand-in-hand with racism.”

The revisions and updates come against the backdrop of protests nationwide against police brutality and racial injustice after the death of George Floyd, a Black man wo died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned his neck to the ground.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary first defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Mitchum, who recently graduated with a degree in law, politics and society, said that definition was too simple.

“So, a couple weeks ago, I said this is the last argument I’m going to have about this. I know what racism is, I’ve experienced it time and time and time again in a lot of different ways, so enough is enough. So, I emailed them about how I felt about it. Saying this needs to change,” she said.

Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, said in an emailed statement to AP that the dictionary’s second definition is “divided to express, first, explicit institutional bias against people because of their race, and, second, a broader implicit bias that can also result in an asymmetrical power structure.”

“This second definition covers the sense that Ms. Mitchum was seeking and we will make its wording even more clear in our next release,” he said. “This is the kind of contentious revision that is part of the work of keeping a dictionary up to date, based on rigorous criteria and research we employ in order to describe the language as it is actually used.”

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