Coloured & Of Colour

In 2015, Benedict Cumberbatch fell into the unenviable trap of referring to

“coloured” (by which he meant black) actors.31 The unfortunate part of the story

is that the controversy around his language detracted from the important point he

was making about the lack of opportunities available to his black colleagues. It is

notable that he had the self-awareness to apologise promptly. Of course the term

coloured gives offence precisely because it was co-opted in Apartheid, for example,

to exclude mainly black but also other non-white groups from full engagement in

society. Contemporary stories like that of a landlord who has a policy of having

“no coloured tenants because of the smell of curry”32 underscore just why the term

touches a raw nerve for people who have been its object.

 

It is therefore surprising that Trevor Phillips should be keen to embrace the term

“Of Colour” or “People of Colour” as somehow being more respectful. While some

cultural leaders find it convenient to use the phrases “of colour” and “people of

colour” as ways of acknowledging the shared experience of people who are part of

non-white (as opposed to white) minorities, others are less comfortable about this

language. The problem is that by referring to non-white people as being of colour

one is only reinstating the neutrality of white people. As Richard Dyer writes in

his remarkable study of whiteness, “As long as race is something only applied to

non-white peoples, as long as white people are racially not seen or named, they/we

function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people.”33 It is for

this reason that for many people, being called “of colour” or “a person of colour”

is not much better than being called “coloured”, even though the latter term is

generally more vitriolic than the former more anodyne usages.

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