If a reporter wants to know whether “statewide” or “health care” is one word or two, they look it up in the spiral-bound stylebook published by the Associated Press.

It’s the industry standard for news writing, and AP members, like this newspaper, stick to AP style so our usage is consistent, whether it’s an international story we pulled off the wire or a local one we produced ourselves.

Some readers have noticed a small but significant change in our style recently. We now capitalize the word “Black” when referring to people in an ethnic, racial or cultural context. That’s because the AP announced June 19 that it was changing its style, after a long debate and advocacy by organizations including the National Association of Black Journalists. (The AP will now also capitalize “Indigenous.”)

Black with a capital “B” indicates you are talking about more than skin color. It describes a group of people with “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa,” wrote John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president of standards, in a blog post.

At least for now, the same is not true for “white.” Even when it’s used to describe people who trace their origins back to Europe, “white” still gets the lowercase “w.”

I think this is a mistake. It makes it seem like race is something that affects only people who aren’t white.

We capitalize “Black” because it describes a specific group of people who share certain experiences. But spelling “white” with a lowercase “w” says that there are no common social conditions associated with European ancestry besides light skin and a certain kind of hair. Being lowercase white means not having to think about yourself as part of a racial group with a place in a centuries-old caste system. 

It means that you don’t even have to think about race at all if you don’t want to. Are we really supposed to believe that being Black means something important while being white means nothing?

The argument against capitalizing “white” is that it doesn’t account for the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity that would fall under the label. In Maine, for instance, French-speaking Catholics who immigrated in the 20th century had a much different experience than did Protestants whose ancestors came here from England before the Revolution.

But people who identify as Black also come from diverse backgrounds, and that doesn’t protect them from discrimination. As we are seeing in Maine, new immigrants from Africa are experiencing the same racial inequities in education, criminal justice and health care that African Americans whose ancestors came here as slaves encounter.  

What they have in common is the way that they are treated.

What does it mean to be treated as “white”? Most of us white people never have think about it that way.

I never notice not getting followed in stores or not getting pulled over by police for no reason. Growing up in a mostly white community, going to an all-white elementary school, it never occurred to me that all the faces in the history books and all the authority figures in my life were white, too. That’s just the way it was.

Last week I listened to a meeting on diversity and inclusion for municipal officials, put on by the Greater Portland Council of Governments. Bill Webster, a former school superintendent for Lewiston, spoke of the way his thinking changed as his district rapidly integrated.

“I used to believe that I should be color-blind,” Webster said. “Now I believe that I must be conscious of race, because if I’m not I’m going to minimize everything that happened over 400 years to people of color.”

Those of us who are white should not sit out the discussion about race in America, and we won’t be able to participate without acknowledging that we also have a racial identity.

The AP needs to update its stylebook one more time. The word “white” needs a capital “W.”

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