Mind your language

What Benedict Cumberbatch didn’t understand about ‘coloured’

The history of a powerful but changing taboo

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

Benedict Cumberbatch apologised at length: ‘devastated’, ‘shaming’, ‘offended’, ‘inappropriate’. What had he done? Been caught in a compromising situation or stolen from a shop? No he had used the word coloured with reference to black people.

It is the strongest current form of taboo, worse than defecating in public, though I admit that this would have quite an effect on an American chat show. It was in America that poor Mr Cumberbatch, the flawless actor, delivered the criminal word. It was so unfair. He had been arguing that black people get a raw deal in acting. He wouldn’t dream of using nigger — so taboo in America, and in many British contexts, that it is called the N-word (like the F-word and C-word, now often used in their full forms).

To make it even more unfair, there is a worthy American body called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Historically, as the Oxford English Dictionary helpfully remarks, ‘coloured was adopted in the United States by emancipated slaves as a term of racial pride after the end of the American Civil War.’ It replaced negro, which was too close for comfort to nigger. (A complication here is among Spanish speakers, such as some football players, for whom black is naturally rendered as negro.) The scenery changed in the 1960s when black people began to call themselves black, thitherto a word with pejorative connotations. This was the well-travelled road of taking up a derogatory term (such as Tory) as a badge of pride.

All this time, British people, who, despite the Empire, were less familiar with black people, politely called them negroes, then coloured, then black. The arbitrary, shifting taboos particular to America are not so apparent here, where rows have been about offensive terms such as Paki and golliwog. Do Americans not, after all, still refer to blacks (or black people as we say more politely) as people of colour, as we hear from Bonnie Greer, than whom no one could be more correct? So can coloured people be so different? It can, as Mr Cumberbatch has found.

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  • sfin

    Why did one of the shrillest condemnations of his use of the word “coloured” come from one of the most prominent organisations – NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People).

    The fact that this shrieking has completely drowned out Mr Cumberbatch’s message decrying the lack of opportunities for black (or coloured, or whatever the word is this week) actors is beyond lunacy and shows up the PC language nazis for the intolerant bigots they are.

    • justejudexultionis

      You hit the nail on the head.

    • Lisa

      Where was this “shrieking” you describe? People keep complaining about it but can never point to examples. It’s like people are just waiting around to be offended by outrage that never happened.

      • grutchyngfysch

        Twitter, I imagine, but please don’t ask me to source examples, because I try wherever possible to stay well away.

        • Lisa

          Yeah, I wouldn’t want to delve into it either, so I don’t blame you. I imagine it’s a couple people on Twitter and everyone is acting like there is an uproar because they love to complain about “PC language Nazis” and other things that don’t actually exist. The only people I’ve seen acting unreasonable about the situation are people like sfin above who really want to be offended by efforts to promote equality. Cumberbatch went a little overboard on the apology, but kudos to him for just apologising and moving on.

          • sfin

            I agree with you that Cumberbatch went overboard with the apology – but only because he shouldn’t have apologised at all. He was making a perfectly legitimate complaint (seeing as how he is a leading part of the business) that parts for ethnic minority actors are few and far between.

            There is an internet search engine called ‘Google’ – you may have heard of it. If you have, try using it and see the comments that Mr Cumberbatch received in the wake of his good deed.

            I applaud all efforts to promote equality. I despise identity politics – which actively run counter to equality – requiring special status for particular groups. Above all I despise those that police our language to the extent that a trained, Shakespearean actor has to grovel for using an “inappropriate” word.

          • Lisa

            I already did a Google search before I posted the question. There’s no “shrieking” out there, and your inability to produce any just confirms my initial impression that you are just looking for reasons to be outraged. I guess you can’t imagine why someone would apologise unless he was forced to, but it appears Cumberbatch was mature enough to acknowledge his mistake and do what he could to make it right. Good on him for doing the right thing.

          • mohdanga

            How about Billy Crystal and his comment from a couple of weeks ago? Didn’t take long for the gay police to jump down his throat either.
            As for your assertion that there is no shrieking, you must be hooked up to a different Google than the rest of us. It was all over the news here in North America.
            And what mistake was made by using the word ‘coloured’? What’s the magic word this month? ‘Black’? ‘African-American’? ‘Person of Colour’? Seems the perpetually outraged can’t come up with a word they agree on. There’s the Black Entertainment Network, The Toronto Black Film Festival, Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, the National Black Police Association. I thought ‘black’ was so outdated.

          • Lisa

            How is Billy Crystal’s comment at all relevant to what I asked about Cumberbatch? Apparently the Google I’m hooked into didn’t classify news reports about a celebrity’s public apology “shrieking” or any other type of ridiculous hyperbole. You’re trying to make something out of nothing. Just accept that he apologised, people were happy with the apology, and let it go. There’s no need to make things up.

          • mohdanga

            Because Billy Crystal’s beatdown was the same as Cumberbatch’s, the perpetually aggrieved raising a furor if someone does toe the party line on gays and race. Cumberbatch’s story was one of the lead stories on all the major US networks when it happened. There was no need for an apology because he didn’t do anything wrong.

          • Lisa

            So, not relevant at all, just a completely different thing that you’re trying to use to justify the fantasy that there was a furor in the Cumberbatch case.

          • mohdanga

            “The only people I’ve seen acting unreasonable about the situation are people like sfin above who really want to be offended by efforts to promote equality.” Yawn. Blacks make up 2% of the UK population and about 12% of the US population. How are they under-represented?? Practically every commercial here in Canada shows some black representation….way out of proportion to their actual population.

          • Lisa

            They are underrepresented because statistical analysis of media has determined that they are underrepresented. This had nothing to do with Canada.

          • mohdanga

            The media portrayals in Canada and the US are much the same, that’s why I stated it. Blacks make up 2% of the population in Canada but are way overrepresented in commercials and TV shows.
            Why is the logic that because blacks make up 12% of the population they should therefore have 12% of the acting roles? They make up about 60% of the NFL and Major League Baseball and about 95% of the NBA. Not hearing much outrage about this….or is this because blacks have more affinity for these sports than acting? If proportional representation is the goal then surely whites would make up about 70% of these athletes, no? Or does this not fit the ‘discrimination’ narrative?

          • Lisa

            Sorry, but your anecdotal evidence and guess about the relationship between Canadian and American media are not convincing.

          • mohdanga

            And yet I live here and watch American and Canadian TV everyday and see the portrayals. But you’re the expert.

          • Lisa

            Again, anecdotal.

          • mohdanga

            How is it anecdotal to state the representation of blacks in professional sports? Just look at the rosters, Ms. Mensa.

          • Lisa

            Lol, the representation in sports isn’t relevant to the conversation.

  • Terence Hale

    Mr. Cumberbatch in his film “The Imitation Game” has associated himself with bath tube like English comedian who is no longer funny. This was a mistake.

    • Mara Rules


  • interiris

    I am from the UK and it would never occur to me to use coloured as it reeks of a time when it was used to denote superiority. He rightly apologised so I fail to understand why so many people are still making excuses for him. Perhaps the message got lost but would it have got the same amount of media attention as has done if he had not in a moment of carelessness used an out dated word,

  • Trixie Mitchell

    Mr Cumberpatch is correct to say coloured people are poorly represented .
    It is racist and exclusive for Americans to claim only black people is corretc statement. Don’t apologize Mr Cumberpatch as your coloured people statement is inclusive, allowing for red Indians, brown Polynesians, yellow Asians & Mongolian etc etc. Americia continues to act too precious, as if they are the world view. Good on you Mr Cumberpatch for including a world view – that coloured people need to be represented more.

    • GraveDave

      Well maybe they need to write and create a bit more for themselves.Maybe they need to write stories and dramas about their lives and THEIR world. Why should white people have to keep writing in parts for minorities.Unless it’s a modern day inner city/ ‘urban drama ‘ , I cant see how they’e not already adequately represented. In fact in most cases they’re vastly over represented on TV . Let’ s not forget that old Benedict (unlike most of us whites) has an actual history when it comes to slavery. So that might be another reason for the guilt trip over unemployed ‘people of colour’.

      • melancholicmess

        The heads of the big studios who write the big fat checks are the ones who have to give the final go-ahead and if they don’t like it, they don’t approve it and the movie doesn’t get done. Kevin Costner recently spoke about it when promoting his new movie ‘Black & White’ and he said he had to come up with a lot of his own money just so he could make the movie. Shonda Rimes is killing it in TV with shows like Grey’s Anatomy and How To Get Away With Murder but she’s the only one. Hopefully others will follow suit but it will take a long time – it took SRimes this long too.

        • Timmy2much

          If the big studios wont invest in these projects then maybe the market isn’t there for those projects to make money.

          That could be for a variety of reasons such as the projects being too focused on stereotypes (ie gang culture or slavery). which might not have enough appeal to support more than 3 or 4 films per year, or that the target audience simply do not go to the movies – which is why we are seeing a glut of superhero films as those who read the comics will actually go and see the films.

          The other point is that studios wont generally favour a film that focuses on, for example, adventures based on an African tribe as a premise as this will not appeal to the vast majority of the audience (no historical context for the audience) – but if you went to an African country to get the film produced you might actually get a better response from the studios.

    • Lisa

      He only mentioned black actors, and it would be ridiculous to insist that Hollywood has good opportunities for all the groups you describe. He just made a mistake and apologised. Let it go.

  • WilliamS

    The problem is with you, I mean “u” –in America he should have pronounced the word “colored” rather than “coloured.” Also, he forget the “of.” It’s now “People of Color” (or PACs), to demonstrate the worldwide unity of all people bonded together in their nonwhiteness. People of White may still, however, be called “white people.”

    • Rocksy

      Excellent. I am ‘a person of white’ but my concern is that some boor might refer to me and my ‘of white’ bretheren as ‘off white’

  • Latimer Alder

    It seems Mr Cumberbatch has unwillingly been cast in a new version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.

    Is it only luvvies who get so worked up about trivia like this?

  • David Prentice

    The intellect-free response to this word is perhaps one reason US race relations are in the state they’re in.

  • bengeo

    Intention is the main thing. What did he intend, by saying that? I am not sure he intended anything significant.

    • Gwangi

      Indeed. The racism gestapo don’t see it like that though – and even English law, infected by race hysteria, now emphasises the PERCEPTION of the ‘victim’ not the intention of the speaker. The law says that IF someone thinks something was racist – it is! Thank Mad Macpherson for that betrayal of over 1000 years of English law.

      Of course, if this posh actor was a teacher and someone made a complaint, he’d get a warning or be suspended for calling a kid ‘coloured’. That shows how much the pc diversity gestapo rule us now.

      But, ultimately, who gives a flying fig what some posh spoilt actor Benidorm Bandersnatch says or thinks. They are just readers-out-loud anyway, and many actors are thick as gravy – yes, the posh ones too who live in a bubble and have no idea of the real world.

      • bengeo

        Unfortunatly, the term comes from the ideology of racism, that white people are white, and everyone else is lumped together under the term coloured.

        It fails to recognise that everyone has an ethnicity and it is an inadequate “one-size-fits all” description.

        It strips non-white people of their identity and reduces them to the most superficial physical identifier, as opposed to their particular ethnicity.

        Nor was it a term chosen by those it refers to, but instead imposed by the wider – and white – society.

        That is why he apologised.

        Leave it at that.

        • GraveDave

          Honkys and Darkies.I could live with that. s

        • MikeF

          You have just described ‘white’ society as ‘white’. You therefore distinguish it from every other society on the basis of the colour of the skin of the people whom you suppose comprise it. Isn’t that ‘racist’?

          • bengeo

            No, the ideology of racism describes white people as white. Not me.

            I would describe white people in this country as White British. As distinct from African British, Indian British, Pakistani British, Chinese British, West Indian British, etc.etc.

        • Sean L

          I totally agree on the lumping together bit. One qualification: the lumping together emanates from the anti-white professional race zealots, themselves mostly white of course, whose aim is to transfer Marxist class war, which requires an opposing duality, to the realm of race. Thus whites are equivalent to the “capitalist” or boss class, with non-whites, so-callled BMEs according to the latest PC definition, the down-trodden proles. Of course it’s an absurdity, as you say. There’s vast ethnic and cultural diveristy in Africa alone, certainly compared to Europe. But for the so-called “anti-racist”, race zelaots, proplerly understood as anti-white racists, they’re merely *black*. The other thing that you’re not quite right on, in contradiction to Dot Wordsworht, is the use of the word “coloured”. I’m not going to repeat what she says here, but do you seriously imagine you know more about language, its usage and history than she?

      • GraveDave

        Surely the more successful an actor one becomes the less time they will have for real reading. I mean all those scripts coming in, any other reading would be a distraction and hindrance to the ‘work’. There will also be a conditioning going on, especially if it is something politically controversial such as Twelve Years a Slave or The Imitation Game. .

    • Eda Andersen

      I actually think he did, otherwise why use it in the 1st place? He forgot the word black?

      • bengeo

        It appears he was bemoaning the fact that not enough Black actors get parts in Hollywood films.

        Hardly a racist sentiment.

        • Eda Andersen

          Yes, that was kind of a given, and by all means all help is welcome in fighting racism, i just find it odd that such a thoughtful, young man, would use such an old fashion word to address black people.

          • Helen of Troy

            Does racism need to be ‘fought’? Who is racist these days, and how so? I think it’s a convenient leftist bogeyman, myself. It serves their purposes to see it where it doesn’t exist but also to whip it up among the supposed victim population — against the rest of us.

          • Eda Andersen

            Who is racist these days? I don’t think you going to find lots of hands up for that one. Racism takes many forms and most societies have decided that language can be racist, direct discrimination and so on. The use of the word coloured people is one of those words that people, black people apparently feel unconfortable with, discriminatated agaisnt. Language and the words people use can be racist. As a child I was called black by other children. Not ugly, or fat or anything but black and that word had the power to hurt me. Terminology has to change to catch up with societies advancements and peoples feelings. Do I think that is a bit out of control, yes maybe, sometimes. But Racism is a delicate subject and very harmuful so I think one has to be careful with the words we choose to talk about other people that are non-white.

          • Helen of Troy

            All right, but let’s not assume that a) there are no worse crimes than ‘racism’, and b) racism is a harmful thing done only by whites to others.

        • mohdanga

          How many white actors get lead roles in Bollywood? Where’s the outrage?

  • Swiss Bob

    The grovelling apology is pathetic. What a poor luvvie.

  • Perseus Slade

    Time to get over this nonsense.
    To hell with these name games.
    If I prefer poodles to pomeranians, does that make me a dog racist?
    Let other people call me what they like
    and let me call other people what I want.

  • John Steadman

    Have I properly understood this: ‘Coloured people’ is racist and offensive and worthy of the most severe reprimand – or even sacking, perhaps, if you are, say, a football manager. But ‘people of colour’ – which I noticed Lenny Henry used in his recent editorial outing with the Today programme – is the essential term? Somebody please tell me that I have not understood properly.

  • Frank

    This article could probably be summarised as: “Benedict not the sharpest pen in the box”.

  • Eda Andersen

    It’s like walking on a mine field and I can only imagine what must be like to keep up with all the new terminology to refer to black people. Nevertheless, this guy is from the Uk and that’s a word not used at all here, so unless he was trying to sound posh, or clever or racist i don’t really know why he used that particular word; a word that is not really used in his own country. Maybe it was just to grab the headline, he must have known that the use of the word would cause a reaction and at the same time lots of talk about his own name. He also made sure he highlighted the problem with black actors in the UK, what a kind person…

    • bengeo

      My father was born within the sound of Bow Bells. He used that word till the day he died.

      “We had a runner win a gold in the Olympics. Linford Christie. Yes, he is British. Well, you know, a coloured.”

      • Eda Andersen

        That is kind funny. I don’t think black people would think that is in any way racist. I don’t anyway and I am half black.

        • bengeo

          We children did use to cringe, though 🙂

  • Mitzi

    When I was a child in a multi cultural environment all of 60 odd years ago we were told to call black people coloured not black. We didn’t need to use either word, our friends and neighbours whatever colour their skin were friends and people like us. Of course the odd ones who wanted to get a point across came out with the colour of the persons skin as they do today. Surely to keep harping on about someone who has inadvertently called someone by the wrong word (or whatever happens to be PC today) is not doing it maliciously and where at one point we didn’t have to think about what we are saying, today it is making people too nervous and too much aware they could be classed as racist and this in itself is creating the atmosphere of a very divided society. I have never myself looked at a persons skin colour, I take them as I find them and whatever religion, creed colour we should all make an effort to get on together as human beings and equals.

  • Helen of Troy

    I disagree that ‘black people’ is more polite than ‘blacks’, just as I think it a fetish to believe that ‘Jewish people’ is somehow more courteous than ‘Jews’. (As with any word, the context in which it is found is hugely important to its overtones and connotations. If someone wants to be threatening or confrontational, they can find almost any word with which to be so, whether it’s considered ‘polite’ or not.)

    We refer to ‘whites’ rather than ‘white people’ all the time. So what’s the difference? There isn’t one, except perhaps that insisting on adding ‘people’ to ‘white’ suggests groupdom or shared goals or solidarity. Which goes to prove my point that ‘black people‘ is not more courteous or casually polite than ‘blacks’.

    I suppose the Spectator must keep coming out with these articles, but sometimes I wish we could hear from someone that really has something insightful to say. Me, for instance. But you get me for nothing!

    • bengeo

      Because we white people chose to call ourselves white?

      • Helen of Troy

        I don’t understand your question. I didn’t choose to call myself anything.

  • Lina R

    Benedict Cumberbatch – who is one of the most famous actors on the planet – was making a valid point about black actors which as a white actor he didn’t need to raise. Unfortunately – as is often the case with the shrill, white, middle-class left – the substance of what he was saying was completely lost as they worked themselves up in a frenzy and screamed faux-outrage over a word. Shame they get more offended by syntax than the actual issue.

  • Dogsnob

    Who is it that has the authority to designate the descriptive, as pejorative?

  • Bob Andreas

    Noble body?

  • Adrianne Flynn

    Someone explain to me why George Takei​; “…As the world gets ready to watch the Oscars, some actors of color (there were none….” and Patricia Arquette; “…and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for…” can use the term “of colour” and no one gets upset, but, when Cumberbatch did it, the internet and world exploded? Is it because he said it with the “ed” on the end?

  • Mike

    Lmao he looks like an uptight british lord on horseback ready to venture out on a fox hunt with his hounds, it doesn’t shock me in the least that he didn’t know that would be offensive, he doesn’t seem like the type of guy who stays current on such things outside of his ultra-white existence. Understand that Idc at all, its only because he looks like what I described (about as white as white can get) which is why it caused such a stir, seriously… Who says “coloured people” anymore lol? I’ll be honest, I don’t even know what to call black people anymore, its like walking on egg-shells, ticking time bomb ready to explode — if you say “black” they’re offended, usually it gets a pass but it has happened to me before. As soon as you say “Black people” they cock their heads and ready themselves like I’m about to transition into a racist joke or something. If you call them African-Americans you single them out and *I* feel like a dick for doing so because for all I know the guy might be British, Idfk. You never hear people describe white people as “Jewish-Americans”, “Irish-Americans”, see what I’m saying? Its only black and Asian people who get that treatment, I personally feel like that’s more racist than anything. Its like saying they’re Americans but not really… Americans with an asterisk next to it. Meanwhile black people and Asians helped make this country what it is, Chinese people laid the backbone to this country with the railroads they helped build and black people slaved to make white folks rich while they did nothing but wear silly wigs sipping tea talking nonsense like “Everyone is created equal” only to go home to their slaves and plantations.