Without fanfare, the New York Times announced this past week it decided to capitalise the "B" in the word Black when signifying "people and cultures of African origin".
Other journalistic influencers of writing style, the Associated Press and the Columbia Journalism Review already made the 'B' upgrade last month and shared the rationale of the Times to keep "white" lower case. "Black reflects a shared sense of identity and community. White carries a different set of meanings; capitalising the word in this context risks following the lead of white extremists," wrote the CJR.
The recent death of George Floyd and the global protests it sparked have prompted dramatic changes like NASCAR banning Confederate flags and Mississippi finally becoming the last in the US to eliminate the rebel emblem from its own state flag, so the simple CapsLock shift of a lowercase letter to upper case might not seem like a big deal.
But it is precisely within our lexicon inventory that we tell the narrative of ourselves and others.
1) Use inclusive language
Promoting new ways of writing and speaking reflect new ways of thinking and engaging with others in the world and in the workplace where diversity and inclusion programmes continue to expand. It's important to not only suggest, but also codify inclusive language as employees reap tangible and intangible benefits from improving co-worker respect.
Inclusive language aims to avoid words and phrases that exclude groups. Sayume Romero, a master's student in speech language pathology at Columbia University said: "Using gender-neutral and anti-ableist language is about allowing yourself to broaden your perspective."
2) Be open to adopting new changes
In the 90s I was working overnight in a Washington television newsroom as a writer. One night, our executive producer announced that "African American" was now to be used as a second reference when referring to a black person. It was the first time I'd heard the usage.
Fine with me, I thought. "Is it with a hyphen or no?" I asked. "Doesn't matter," came the reply. "We're TV."
Maybe the hyphen doesn't matter so much, but embracing changes in communications does. Changes in language can represent advancements in culture. It's not about being politically correct, but moving forward. Our complex history stays a part of us as we take steps toward a more inclusive future.
Right now, the word "Black" is being used to describe a collective culture, tribe, community and a people while the many shades of those people encompass a range of colours much broader than the single word suggests. Perhaps there will come a time when more colourful and accurate descriptors will become commonplace for all of us. Tones like ebony, mocha, copper, hickory, chocolate, buff, bisque, cream, tawny, mahogany, umber, beige or tan. Spray or natural.
We created our current descriptors, why can't we come up with new categories that function even better?
3) Reflect on what you tie identity to
We're not only tied to visual assessments. We make assumptions based on what religion, gender, sexual orientation or even simply the country someone is associated with.
I Zoomed a cultural diversity webinar recently and after the presenter rolled out a list of communications styles connected with various countries, a few of the participants objected. "I'm Indian," said a young man, "but I'm not at all like the India list." "I'm much more the German style than the Japanese," said a Japanese woman.
And yet we likely make sweeping generalisations about a person's character or values based solely on their home country, don't we?
Language, like attitudes, must continually evolve with understanding and acceptance of diverse people. With effort, we can move from group identity to individual identity. Six years ago this month, I visited Nigeria for the first time on a speaking tour. Like everywhere I travelled (back when I used to), someone asked me what I thought of their country. I answer the same way to everyone, "I learn about a country one person at a time".
Remembering my friend and mentor RDJ
During that first trip and for a dozen subsequent visits throughout Nigeria, I shared the speaking circuit stage with a Toastmaster champion and dedicated developer of professionals, Richmond Dayo Johnson.
RDJ, as we all called him, was Nigerian born and London educated. I marvelled at his seemingly effortless ability to story-tell and recite famous quote after quote - each perfectly suited to inspire our audiences. Over the years, he became a mentor and a friend.
Last Sunday, we were virtually reunited as we joined other global speakers for a live webinar on presenting and hosting video conferences. Again, I was struck by his powerful and moving speech: "What you do for yourself," he said, "you take to the grave. What you do for others, lives on."
The only thing larger than his physical stature was that clear, eloquent voice and his considerate heart. Sadly, it was that same heart that suddenly and incredibly failed him the very next day, just this past Monday.
RDJ, I miss you and recommit to doing for others. One person at a time.