What’s In A Word?

In a recent interview with the Tavis Smiley show, actor Benedict Cumberbatch said this about the lack of racial diversity in British films compared to America:

“I think as far as coloured actors go, it gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in America] than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change.”

Do you spot the issue? It was very easy for me: the word ‘coloured.’ I can’t remember a moment when I was explicitly told, ‘You must not use the word ‘coloured’ as it is offensive.’ This was specifically in reference to black people, although the word has been used to label people of many ethnicities. It just felt like an instinct: somewhere in my mind, I’ve absorbed the information that the word is inappropriate. Up until now, I assumed that most from my generation felt the same.

And, that’s why I was surprised when Cumberbatch’s interview was brought up at publications committee. There were people who shared my thoughts, but also others who were taught that ‘coloured’ was the preferred term. Does the use of the word depend on geography, then? There certainly is a generational difference: my Mum grew up in the ‘60s and used ‘coloured’ as she thought the more respectful term. So, should we excuse certain words depending on the age of those saying them? What about the context? If- as Cumberbatch was- you are promoting equality, does that lessen the impact of anything problematic you might say?

Please don’t expect these questions to be undoubtedly answered. I wish there was one, unifying answer, then I wouldn’t bother writing this at all. Indeed, there has been a decidedly divided reaction towards Cumberbatch’s word choice. Simply scrolling online, I see those who criticise his vocabulary, but agree with his message on racial equality, those who are outraged by the recurrence of ‘coloured’, and the typical twitter-fed cries of ‘Political correctness gone mad!’

I think it’s important to look at exactly why there is this outcry over the use of “coloured.” I’ve found articles that bemoan the difference in reaction between “coloured” and the, increasingly popular American phrase “person/people of colour.” Why is one so-called ‘variation’ accepted and the other not?

It’s to do with the history behind the word. “Coloured” is associated with the days of racial segregation, with areas of public transport etc marked as “coloured-only.” It was a derogatory term used by white people to refer to all those who were not. So far, so straightforward.

Except, things weren’t always so clear-cut. Joseph Harker from the Guardian highlights the changing definitions of words: “’Black’ you would only ever hear when followed by the word “bastard” – or as “blackie”, in the regular playground taunting. So to be called coloured was a pleasant relief – it was the progressive, liberal term of its age.

The word black only started to become detoxified when the ripples of the 1960s American Black Power movement were felt, with its ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’ slogan.”

This all shows how our language is always changing; what is accepted in one era may well be offensive in another. Yes, it’s complicated. But, it isn’t something to complain about or dismiss as “political correctness.” We need to be mindful, respectful, and kind to each other.

As a white person, I’m aware that it’s very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security around equality. We can walk away from this sort of debate, and it won’t affect us. We can think that everything’s been fixed (we’re moved on from the ‘60s, after all), we can think that those kicking up a fuss about one word are just “too sensitive.” We’re all equal now aren’t we?

But, that’s not true. I can turn on the TV and the racial diversity of a programme’s cast can still be non-existent. David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King- equally as important as Cumberbatch’s Turing or Redmayne’s Hawking- hasn’t been given due recognition with an Oscar nomination. In fact, all 2015 acting nominees are white. We’ve seen the #BlackLivesMatter trending on Twitter, because this is shockingly, sadly, still something that people need reminded of.

As for Cumberbatch, he promptly apologised for saying “coloured”. And while, in an ideal world, he wouldn’t have said it in the first place, his apology is important. He recognised that his word choice made a negative impact, as all our own words can.

In the future, I hope we’ll finally have true equality, and all this will not need to be said. For now, though, we need to talk, we need to listen, we need to learn.

[Jenna Burns – @Jenna_221b]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: