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Why using ‘coloured’ turns back the clock on progress

This article is over 3 years, 6 months old
Arguments about language reflect much deeper political issues about how society sees people, and how they see themselves
Issue 2731
A segregated water cooler in Oklahoma in 1939
A segregated water cooler in Oklahoma in 1939 (Pic: Library of Congress)

Greg Clarke’s forced resignation as chair of the Football Association last week for describing black players as “coloured” will have stirred uncomfortable memories for many.

From the 1950s to the 80s it was common for anyone non-white to be labelled this way, especially by older generations.

Doubtless, some thought it a more polite way to describe us.

But it always felt like an insult—in much the same way they often called mixed heritage people “half-caste” rather than “mongrel”.

“Coloured” was a legacy of Empire, a shorthand for describing the natives in broadly racial terms.

Now it was used to remind us of our colonial origins—and our supposed inferiority.


But outside Britain its meaning was different.

In the Caribbean and in apartheid South Africa, the term generally applied to those of mixed heritage.

In Brazil it was the chosen description of a layer of black people who wanted to put distance between themselves and their African heritage.

But its most acknowledged use was in the US, in the racially segregated Deep South. There the famous signs designated drinking fountains and waiting rooms for “Whites” and “Coloreds”.

Like the word “Negro”, coloured was until the late 1960s a term accepted by most people, black and white.

It was supposedly politically neutral—a word used in law and polite society.

That’s why the most famous campaign against racism was called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It was why civil rights leader Martin Luther King spoke of “citizens of colour” in his 1963 March on Washington speech.

But no one could escape the fact that coloured was a word that had been foisted upon black people.

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The terms to describe them had emerged from those who held the whip on the plantation fields.

Allowing oppressors the right to label those they oppressed had deep implications. It made it easier to accept their ideas too.

Notions of inferiority, so common among racists, could also find a home among some black people.

Those who grew up with the Civil Rights Movement were determined that they would find their own word to describe themselves. That word was “black”.

But the teenagers of the 1960s weren’t the first to reach this conclusion.

The effort to replace Negro and coloured with black had already built up a head of steam in nationalist circles in the 1950s.

It had a big influence on the cultural Avant Garde, and jazz in particular. These in turn drew on the Negritude cultural movement that began in France in the 1930s.

Language wasn’t the only battle over identity that emerged from the civil rights struggles.

Notions of beauty and body image were also in the firing line.

In many ways these issues fused under the mid-1960s slogan “Black is Beautiful”.

This in time was rebadged as the “Black Revolution” by radicals.


Singer Aretha Franklin was one of those who embraced the concept.

“It wasn’t that we were all that ashamed of ourselves, we merely started appreciating our natural selves,” she said.

“Sort of, you know, falling in love with ourselves just as we are.”

The new notion of blackness spread quickly around the world.

In South Africa anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko fashioned it into the Black Consciousness Movement.

In Britain, black replaced coloured as the accepted term for people of an African-Caribbean background.

But it also developed as a political description of all those who faced racism.

Those who today use the word “coloured” as a racial term are not just breaking a politically correct taboo.

They are turning back the clock on generations of struggle of oppressed people to determine for themselves how they are described.

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