Letter from the Editor: The Spectrum staff questions how we describe race

The deaths of young black men have gripped the headlines of newspapers across the country within the last year.

The deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, the grim statistics that black young men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white men, the communal rage against police officers, the riots.

The media is writing about race issues. The Spectrum is writing about race issues.

Ethical newspapers – The Spectrum included – don’t write the race of an individual unless it’s pertinent to the story. If race is a contributing factor to tensions, those details need to be explained.

But what way is the right way to encapsulate race?

Do we use white or Caucasian? More pertinently, do we use African American, black or Black?

You may have seen a column in Monday’s edition of The Spectrum on page three called “African Americans are more than just a color.” Staff writer Jashonda Williams criticized The Spectrum and the Associated Press’ choice to use the word “black.”

Williams prefers “African American.” She writes, “Every other race gets the satisfaction of being called the politically correct term but African Americans are subjected to being identified as just a color. We are more than that.”

The story ran while I was out of the office. Annually, The Spectrum has a trial week, in which the following year’s staff takes over to try out its new roles. This means I didn’t see Williams’ piece until it was in print. I suggested she write the column near the start of the spring semester when she first brought her feelings about black vs. African American to me.

I’m glad she did.

It’s sparked a conversation in our newsroom about how we want to address race in the future. The staff is keen to keep talking until we come up with a policy that doesn’t alienate anyone.

When handling race, The Spectrum has traditionally followed the guidelines of the AP and used “black” rather than “African American” and “white” rather than “Caucasian.”

The AP style guide provides a rubric that helps ensure cohesiveness in journalism style. It explains the correct way to write everything from abbreviations for states to numbers to dates to words like email. It's more than 400 pages long.

Williams’ column brought attention to a grave mistake within the pages of The Spectrum’s course book, for which I apologize. The course book states that “Caucasian” should be used over “white.” That’s incorrect and not what we have ever used in print.

Had a reporter asked me which we use, I would have said “white.” I’ve never published a story with the term “Caucasian,” because I have been taught otherwise. But that doesn’t excuse the mistake in the 83-page book we use to teach our staff writers the basics of journalism.

Williams is far from alone in preferring “African American” over black – others in our newsroom agree. Some preferred the term “Black,” emphasizing the B should be capitalized.

Right now, I have no answers about what is the “best” identification to use. I can say that our use of the term was never meant to offend or be political. Rather, we were aiming for consistency and professionalism. I am deeply sorry to those we offended.

I now see that the latest versions of the AP style book states that while black is suggested, African American is acceptable. I will recommend to my editor in chief-elect that that be added into our course book in addition to fixing the aforementioned mistake.

For clarity, I also want to say The Spectrum never alters quotes, even with brackets, to make them AP style friendly. If a person says “Caucasian” or “African American” in a quoted sentence, we don’t change his or her words.

I want to assure students that how The Spectrum handles race goes beyond a few lines written in its course book. If a student identifies as African American and that detail is pertinent to the story, there’s no reason that students needs to be referred to as “black.”

But with that term needs to come care because not everyone identifies with his or her African roots in the same way. 

It’s complicated. There isn’t a simple solution.

I can’t recall a time when a student has requested to be identified a certain way over another because, as I said, identifying race in a story is necessary in so few occasions.

But as racial tensions continue to boil in our country, The Spectrum wants to address these issues honestly and open a campus dialogue. That means we need to make a decision on what we want to do – and maybe that differs from what the AP suggests.

My staff has, in overwhelming numbers, said if we use the term “Black” we should capitalize the “B.”

Out of respect to them, I have chosen to do that in today’s story on an African American studies class that honored Black lives lost due to police brutality by creating an art exhibition on Monday in the Student Union.

I have two weeks left as editor in chief. Ultimately, what the staff does after me is up to them. We’ve talked about having a poll to ask students what term they prefer. We’ve talked about voting as a staff to make it “Black.” But does that mean we capitalize White, too?

Williams has started this conversation, but I can’t be the one to finish it.

It’s up to the next year’s Spectrum staff, and I know they want to hear your opinions.

This is a student newspaper and your voice matters.

Sara DiNatale is the editor in chief and can be reached at sara.dinatale@ubspectrum.com