Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"People Of Color" Doesn't Mean The Same Thing As "Colored People"

Edited by Azizi Powell

As an African American who was born in 1947, I remember when Black Americans preferred to be called "Colored" and/or "Colored People".

The term "Colored" can still be found in the name for the United States' largest civil rights organization "The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People" (NAACP). However, along with the racial referent "Negro", "Colored" and "Colored people" were retired in the 1960s and replaced with the referents "black" (or "Black" with an upper case "b") and "Afro-American". And by at least the 1980s, "Afro-American" was replaced by the referent "African American". To be clear, the terms "Negro", "Colored people", and Afro-American" are no longer acceptable formal or informal referents for Black Americans.

"Black" (or "black") and "African American" are sometimes used interchangeably. However, in my opinion, "African American" is the more formal term. That said, "Black American" is actually a much larger referent than "African American" because "Black American" includes people of some African descent living in the United States who aren't African American (such as people of some African descent from the Caribbean, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa).

Note: I know that "America" means more than "United States". However, I'm limiting "American" to a person from the United States for the purpose of these comments.

The referent "People of Color" may have been used prior to the early 2000s, but I first became aware of it about four years ago. "People of Color" doesn't mean the same thing as "Colored People". "People of Color" means all those races and ethnicities (with "ethnicity" here meaning Latino/Hispanic) who are not White.

"Person of color (plural: people of color, persons of color) is a term used primarily in the United States to describe any person who is not white. The term encompasses all non-white groups, emphasizing common experiences of racism. The term is not equivalent in use to "colored", previously used in the US as a term for African Americans only.

People of color was introduced as a preferable replacement to both non-white and minority, which are also inclusive, because it frames the subject positively; non-white defines people in terms of what they are not (white), and minority frequently carries a subordinate connotation.[1] Style guides for writing from American Heritage,[2] the Stanford Graduate School of Business,[3] Mount Holyoke College,[4] recommend the term over these alternatives. It may also be used with other collective categories of people such as students of color, men of color and women of color. Person of color typically refers to individuals of non-European heritage.[5]"
The South African racial referent "Coloured" has a different meaning than the term "Colored" did in the United States.
"Coloured, formerly Cape Coloured, a person of mixed European (“white”) and African (“black”) or Asian ancestry, as officially defined by the South African government from 1950 to 1991...

In early 20th-century South Africa, the word “Coloured” was a social category rather than a legal designation and typically indicated a status intermediate between those who were identified as “white” and those who were identified as “black.” The classification was largely arbitrary, based on family background and cultural practices as well as physical features...

The designation “Coloured” and all restrictions based upon it were abolished in the 1990s as the apartheid system was dismantled and the legal classification system was abandoned."
These comments about "Colored" and "People Of Color" are prompted by White British actor Benedict Cumberbatch's use of "colored" as a referent for Black actors during "The Tavis Smiley Show", a PBS (Public Broadcasting Station) television show which aired on January 26, 2015. Tavis Smiley is an African American male. After that show, Cumberbatch apologized for his use of the outdated term "colored".
By Tracy Walsh, Published, January 27, 2015, 1:23 PM EST
"British actor Benedict Cumberbatch apologized Monday for using the term "colored" on the "Tavis Smiley" show last week during a discussion about diversity in the film industry, CNN reported.

The star of "The Imitation Game" and "Sherlock" was discussing the barriers that black actors face when seeking roles in the United Kingdom versus the United States when he used the term.

“I think as far as colored actors go, it gets really different in the UK," he said, adding: "A lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in America] than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change.”

The British anti-racist organization Show Racism the Red Card criticized Cumberbatch for using the "outdated" term while applauding his overall comments on diversity, according to CNN.

The actor offered a contrite statement to People Monday:
I'm devastated to have caused offense by using this outmoded terminology. I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done. I can only hope this incident will highlight the need for correct usage of terminology that is accurate and inoffensive. The most shaming aspect of this for me is that I was talking about racial inequality in the performing arts in the U.K. and the need for rapid improvements in our industry when I used the term."...
Click for a YouTube video of that segment. The conversation about race starts at 22:31.

I agree with a number of people who have complimented Benedict Cumberbatch for his comments in support of diversity and also for offering a real apology instead of one in which he didn't take ownership of his misspeak.

A few commenters who posted on a TBM online discussion about Cumberbatch's apology ( suggested that he may have meant to say "People of Color" instead of "Colored People", for example here's a comment from a blogger posting under the name theghostofeustacetilley
"This is the "polite" term my grandmother used to use for black folks. Not that it makes any difference, and what an awesome apology, but perhaps he meant to say people of color."
It should be noted that Benedict Cumberbatch didn't offer the excuse that he meant "People Of Color" instead of "Colored People", although that would have been somewhat of an easy out for his misspeak. I think when that British actor said "Colored" he was using an outdated referent for

Here are several additional comments from that discussion that I found interesting:
"I'm a little surprised that a younger person used this outdated term. I was born in 1950 and 'colored' was the polite term to use if you needed to refer to an African American. Personally I've had to adjust my vocabulary a few times over the years. Carlin did a bit back in the 70s in which he said, 'Years ago a white person might have a black say, Who you callin' Black?' Now it's ,'Hey, who you callin' Colored?'."

"FWIW, that word "colored" has a slightly different carload of baggage coming from someone who's British than it does coming from an American. Not less unsavory, but different."

"This is the first I'm actually hearing about this, but I agree. It would bother me if someone referred to me as "colored", but my grandfather until his death in 1997 referred to himself and his children and grand children as Negro or colored."

"I have never been to the UK, but I had a British supervisor years ago who used the same term. I pointed out that using "colored" can get him in big trouble in the States. He was bewildered and very apologetic. I'm guessing "colored" is a term that is far more offensive in the US because of our history of racial struggles, particularly Jim Crow. "Colored" is a reminder of the pain of segregation and the struggle for equality. In any event, he sounds like a very good person who was caught up in a conversation and used an outdated term. He very sincerely apologized and that's all that matters."
As to PluckyInKy's theory that "Colored" was retired because it is "a reminder of
the pain of segregation and the struggle for equality", I think that the real reason why "Colored" was retired in the United States was because we (African Americans) wanted a referent that was geographically based like most other referents (for instance, German, Italian, British, Asian etc.)

Be that as it may, as Cumberbatch wrote in his apology that was published in People magazine, his misspeak provided an opportunity to discuss racial terminologies.

Thanks, Benedict Cumberbatch!

RELATED LINK "Why We Call Ourselves African American"

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  1. This is written in response to the question "What does the blog name "pancocojams" mean:

    Pancocojams means Black music throughout the world.

    That blog name and this blog itself is an off-shoot of my cultural website cocojams.

    I started cocojams in 2000 as a repository for examples of African American children's game songs, rhymes, and cheers. That website grew to also include multiple "pages" devoted to different categories of mostly African American songs, chants, and cheers, including "civil rights songs, shanties, fraternity and sorority cheers, and military cadences.

    I coined the word "cocojams" not knowing that there was a fruit with that name. In my mind, coco = chocolate (and therefore representing Black people) and "jams" = songs.

    In contrast, "pancocojams" focuses on Black music and dance and other Black cultural customs throughout the world, albeit with an emphasis on African American culture.

    For various reasons, I plan to discontinue in 2015. However, I have been posting a lot of the information from that website on pancocojams, and on two other Google blogs that I've started:

    civil rights songs

    and cocojams2

    Thanks again for your interest in and support for and for these blogs!

    1. I also meant to write that cocojams2 focuses on examples of contemporary (1960s to date) English language children's game songs, rhymes, and cheers, with a special focus on examples from African American culture.