Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Heart in the Right Place, Mouth Not...

Benedict Cumberbatch - a famous actor whose face has been likened to that of an otter  - has apologised for causing offence by his inadvertent use of the term 'coloured' to refer to Black people. In an interview (ironically) about opportunities in acting for non-white actors, he dropped the c-bomb (not that one...) when he said, "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." (from The Guardian).

'Coloured' is a strange word and one that causes a degree of confusion to a lot of people. The Civil Rights movement in the USA was often supported by the organisation NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) but in South Africa 'coloured' was a term used to segregate anyone who wasn't white but who wasn't entirely black.  For a lot of older/middle-aged people in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s 'coloured' was often seen as a less stark term than 'black' . Perhaps 'black' was viewed as too dark? This link to a piece on this blog from 2005 might help contextualise it a little.

Interestingly, this piece by Robert Lane Greene on The Economist's language blog also looks at how attitudes to swearing and taboo language have changed over time, including how racial terms have become a more stigmatised form of language while religious and sexual terms now clause less offence. But what it also shows is that as language changes, not everyone can keep up. The language we are brought up with often gets embedded in our mental vocabularies and is harder to shift from even when we know it's probably less appropriate in the modern day.

So, while Benedict Cumberbatch was obviously talking sense about the representation of black people in acting, he may well have offended a few people through his terminology. Having said that, in a time when racist and xenophobic political organisations are talking up the threat of immigration and multiculturalism, is Cumberbatch's well-intentioned but clumsy phrasing as worth getting upset about as some of the vile online postings by various UKIP and Britain First knuckledraggers?

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