Dear Rita Skeeter: AP Stylebook changes are belated, but a step toward inclusion

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

The Associated Press Stylebook is something of a Bible to many journalists. It’s full of grammar quirks that you’ll likely only find when reading news articles, such as not using the Oxford comma or always using numerals for numbers 10 and above. For decades, AP Style has shaped the way language is used in media. And this past week, the Associated Press made some critical changes to its style guide.

Particularly, AP released new guidelines on covering race in America.

First, the Stylebook eliminated “hyphenated Americans.” This means that when referring to someone who’s Asian American, African American, Latinx American, etc., there’s no hyphen between the two identifiers.

This might seem like a cursory change, but there’s a history behind the hyphenated American. The term was first introduced in a political cartoon published in 1899. “The Hyphenated American” depicts a series of voters at a ballot box, each with their body split down the middle, with different outfits and facial features. Uncle Sam sits atop the ballot box, saying, “Why should I let these freaks cast whole ballots when they are only half Americans?”

This sentiment was carried forward by American politicians — in 1915, Theodore Roosevelt said, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism,” and in 1919, Woodrow Wilson said, “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”

The grammatical use of hyphens reveals the questionable nature of hyphenating American nationality is questionable. Hyphens are used to compound two words when they act as a single idea. Hyphenating racial identities suggests that individuals with multiple ethnic identities cannot be just American, but they are only American when modified by their other identities.

Frankly, I was surprised to learn that AP only now removed this clearly racist guideline. I’ve used the AP Stylebook for years as a journalist, but never realized that I was breaking a rule every time I referred to myself as Asian American or Indian American — perhaps because the Daily Trojan style guide clearly states, in capitalized bold letters, to never hyphenate Americans.  

Language has power — something as simple as placing a little dash between two words can carry a whole lot of meaning and historical weight.

The other major change the AP Stylebook made was regarding the word “racist.”

In the past few years, the United States has seen an uptick in racist hate crimes and sentiments (or at least, reports about them in the media), whether it’s from a white nationalist rally or from the mouth of President Donald Trump.

But instead of calling them racist, news organizations have developed a whole host of euphemistic terms: racially charged, racially motivated, racially tinged, etc.

One example that sparked debate in January was when Iowa Rep. Steve King defended white supremacy, saying there was nothing wrong with being labeled a white nationalist.

Few news organizations called King’s remarks racist, and NBC News even went so far as to send an email to its staff explicitly telling them not to deem his words racist.

“Be careful to avoid characterizing [King’s] remarks as racist,” an NBC News editor wrote in an email to the staff. “It is OK to attribute to others as in ‘what many are calling racist’ or something like that.”

Journalists might defend avoiding using “racist,” arguing that using it breaks the cardinal rule of objectivity in journalism. But this is a very white view of the word and its use — because white people hardly ever experience racism in America, the idea itself is abstract to them. For people of color in the United States, racism is very real; it’s a systemic power imbalance that constantly reminds people of color that society is built to work against them — to minimize something that is clearly racist by calling it racially tinged or charged is an outrage.

Now, the AP Stylebook agrees. In its updated entry on race, AP says “racist can be used in broad references or in quotations to describe the hatred of a race, or assertion of the superiority of one race over others,” and explicitly discourages the use of euphemisms like “racially motivated.”

Words have power, and for a long time, the AP Stylebook has arbitrated the use of language in journalism — its newest entries on race are a step in the right direction.