Benedict Cumberbatch race row: Calling black people 'coloured' removes part of their humanity

Some will say this is another example of the 'PC brigade gone mad', but the history of the word 'coloured' proves just how wrong they are

Yemisi Adegoke@briticoyemo
Thursday 29 January 2015 13:06

As the fallout surrounding Benedict Cumberbatch's use of the word "coloured" continues, Selma star David Oyelowo has stepped out in support of the actor. He called the controversy "ridiculous" and said it "is indicative of the age we live in where people are looking for sound bites as opposed to substance".

Cumberbatch's points on diversity in the industry may have been right and his intention to highlight the struggle of black actors may have been noble. It's a shame that his use of the word will overshadow some of the very important issues he raised about diversity. That said, his use of the word "coloured" was wrong, and it’s not at all "ridiculous" to call him out on it and address it.

You can't separate his belief that the film industry needs to change from his use of the word. The language we choose to use is important and reveals a lot about our perspective. Why choose the word "coloured" when you could use the word black?

It's not as though he's from a bygone era where it was an acceptable term (he's 38), nor is it that he's never mixed with people of colour before (he referred to "his friends,’" in the interview) and it’s not as though he lives in an area that lacks people of colour (he lives in London). Going by this alone, he should know better.

The word "coloured" was used in the 1960s and 70s, as it was considered a polite way to address people of colour compared to alternatives. For some it serves as an uncomfortable reminder of a time when racism was commonplace.

In the US context, the word has even stronger negative connotations. It takes us back to a time of segregation where "coloureds" were allocated separate schools, drinking fountains and entrances under the premise of being "separate but equal." While the races were separate they certainly weren't equal. Facilities were of much lower quality for African Americans who were regarded as and treated like second-class citizens.

The word "coloured" is offensive because it removes an element of humanity from people. Ribena is coloured, walls are coloured, people may be of colour but they are not coloured. It also harks back to the racist notion that being white is the default state and everyone else is "other," an aberration from the norm.

People will try and turn this into an example of the "PC brigade gone mad", but it's simply not. The word has long been seen as offensive, which is why it isn't used anymore. There are plenty of words we don't use because they're outdated or cause offense to a particular group. What's so different here?

Cumberbatch rightly gave a swift apology and said he was "devastated" to have caused offense. It's clear he didn't deliberately mean to, but his error once again highlights the importance of the language we use when talking about race.

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