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Appiah on race, language, & capitalization 🔗

A compelling essay by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah that argues for why it’s so problematic to capitalize “Black” but not “white”:

One reason that the MIT philosopher Sally Haslanger prefers to capitalize the names of races is, she explains, “to highlight the artificiality of race,” by contrast to the seeming naturalness of color. A larger argument lurks here: Racial identities were not discovered but created, she’s reminding us, and we must all take responsibility for them. Don’t let them disguise themselves as common nouns and adjectives. Call them out by their names.

Toward the end of his essay, Appiah notes that language doesn’t change by fiat, but organically, based on what arguments about linguistic conventions win in the sphere of daily life and practice: how people actually speak and write.

I spend significant time teaching language, so I appreciate this aspect of his argument. Too often, people wave their hands or act as if issues of language are merely random and pointless; others believe that a usage-board’s decision can or should effect change is common usage. Neither of these responses reflects the true complexity of linguistic change, or the importance of argument in contributing to this change.