Friday, October 07, 2005

Next up, the c-word

No, not that c-word, it's "coloured".

Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has opened up a debate on people's attitudes towards the word and whether it's worth getting worked up about when there are more pressing issues of racism to deal with in British society.

In the article for yesterday's Guardian, Phillips says:
Most black or Asian people who venture out of the comfort zone of urban Britain will at some point hear someone refer to people like us as "coloured". Like most people of my generation, I regard this as a relic of a less enlightened age. Occasionally it masks an uncompromisingly racist viewpoint, but let me be clear: even when the intention isn't malign, its use offends me personally and every black person I know.
But then goes on to add:
If you are faced with a beetle-browed racist, it's easy to deal with. You tell them where to get off. But if the term is used by a gentle octogenarian, desperate to be polite? No matter how gently you do it - and believe me, I've been there - the correction always feels like a stinging rebuff. Next time they meet a black person they'll be even more anxious and reserved. And how will that black person interpret this reserve? Understandably as yet more evidence of deep-seated white hostility.
So is it a bad word? Or just one of those words that you can excuse old people using because it's what they were brought up with? And even if we make a decision about the word for ourselves, what do we do about it in real life? Many older people aren't really sure which words are OK to use since there have been so many shifts in meaning and nuance over time. I remember an elderly family member once asking me "So it's OK to call the coloureds black now, is it?", and choking on my coffee when an aged neighbour once referred to Tiger Woods as "that young nigger golfer"! But while we may be shocked and offended by such words, is it right or appropriate to take up cudgels every single time and "correct" such usage? And how do we now explain to Aunt Gladys that it's alright for young black people to refer to each other as "nigga" when she only stopped using that word 10 years ago!

The article by Phillips is followed up by a piece in G2 which looks at the background to the word and its use.

Once again, all comments welcome!

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language and Representation
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

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