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What’s Wrong With The Word ‘Coloured’?

Since Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions uttered the word ‘coloured’, many White people up and down the country have been losing their minds over the outrage it’s caused among Black and Brown people. “What’s wrong with it?”, they’ll demand, while others will say “but it’s okay to say ‘people of colour’, so why isn’t it okay to say ‘coloured'”? Well, it’s really quite simple: the word ‘coloured’ is an old-fashioned term, much like ‘half-caste’ and ‘Negro’. It’s offensive to many Black people. ‘People of colour’ is a relative new construction, and refers to anyone with dark skin. It is not the same as ‘coloured’, which also has connotations with South African apartheid, and which was used to classify anyone who was neither White nor Black.

Sadly, too many white people, Brendan O’Neill, for example, are incapable of seeing this and will claim, without a shred of self-reflexivity, that Black people “see racism everywhere” as he has done in the tweet below.

If anyone is being ‘divisive’, it’s O’Neill, who couches his racism in pseudo-libertarian language of opposition to identity politics.

Look, if you’re born with Black or Brown skin, you’re reminded of your ethnicity and social status every time you look in the mirror. That doesn’t happen for White folk. Moreover, those White people who claim to see nothing offensive in the word ‘coloured’ do so from a position of privilege and view the world through the lens of that privilege. O’Neill rails against ‘identity politics’, which provides convenient camouflage for his evident racism. It’s not the first time he’s done this either.

In their defence, some white people may claim that “John Barnes sees nothing wrong with it”. Well, Barnes is only one man and he doesn’t speak for all Black people, and neither does Trevor Phillips. But just because some Black people have no problem with the word, that doesn’t give White people the license to use it themselves. Furthermore, it reveals a great deal of insensitivity on the part of those White people who believe there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘coloured’.

Those people who share Brendan O’Neill’s weltanschauung will often be heard complaining that they can’t say the word ‘nigger’ and will often offer the feeble excuse, “but Black people use it”. First, not all Black people use it and second, why do you want to use it? Many of the most common racial slurs were coined by White people. These words have power behind them; the power of the dominant cultural ideology. It is the same ideology that produced the pseudo-science of racial classification. Racial slurs coined by minorities to refer to Whites, however, lack the same power. So, honky, for example, doesn’t have the same power as, say, ‘paki’ or ‘gypo’.

When Amber Rudd used the word ‘coloured’ to refer to Diane Abbott, she unconsciously revealed her inner racist in all its classificatory glory. She may deny she was being racist (so what if she’s had an on/off affair with Kwasi Kwarteng?), but when was the last time you heard the word ‘coloured’ being used to describe anyone? The 1960s? The 1970s?

I’ll leave you with the words of Prof. Stuart Hall.

It is much harder for black people, wherever they were born, to be accepted as British”.


Hall (2003:230)

Further reading

Hall, S. (ed.) (1997) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London: Sage.

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