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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