Quick Fixes

Why ‘person of colour’ is okay but ‘coloured person’ isn’t

Language is powerful, and it changes. So does our willingness to tolerate it.

For the past few years, ‘BAME’ has been the dominant term to describe non-white groups in the UK, but it has been subject to considerable backlash.

According to the racial disparity commission, under Johnson’s leadership, the acronym which stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, is “unhelpful and redundant” and should be scrapped.

Broadcasters including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 have stopped using the term following a report by the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity that said it lacks nuance.

“The term BAME, quite simply, is lame,” says Yasmin Arrigo, Global Brand and Editorial Director at Amplify. Pointing to its catch-all flaw, she adds: “I have to look it up each time, to remind myself what the collection of letters stands for.”

The criticism largely revolves around the laziness and inaccuracy of the term. By lumping various, very different identities into one simplistic pot, it fudges the distinctions between them, which in turn makes it harder to address specific inequalities. One suspects BAME Lives Matter would not have been as impactful as Black Lives Matter, precisely because the latter is more specific.

Indeed, many Black and Asian people (and of course, people with diverse heritage) have argued that it feels like an attempt to subsume their individual identities in a sea of non-white.

“It doesn’t tell us much about who it’s referring to, and it carries implications that the person is disadvantaged or currently lives on the fringe of society,” says Shauna Moran, Senior Trends Analyst at GWI. “This isn’t how many minorities think of themselves or want to be portrayed.”

Despite clear distaste from the very groups it is supposed to be inclusive of, a very quick trawl on Google will show that BAME is still widely used. So we could not help but wonder, why are some terms more acceptable than others? And why is society so slow to read the room by not updating its inclusive lingo?

It’s more complicated than it looks: Before “BAME” there were a myriad of terms used which would be inexcusable to use today. Until only a few decades ago, for example, it was not uncommon to read “half caste” in school textbooks to describe people of dual or multiple heritage.

Being widely used does not equate to being less insulting.

“I don’t know any people of colour that found those terms acceptable,” says Arrigo. “They were offensive back then too, but we’ve come a long way since.”

In essence, people are less willing to sit back and accept words that they find offensive, even if they are widespread. Moran rejects the condescending notion that this is about being “oversensitive,” instead arguing that it just shows people of colour are finally being listened to.

“The list of outdated terms is expanding because people of colour feel more confident to say what’s on their minds without being judged,” she says.

Not all problem terms were always offensive. Some have a much more complicated history.

“Coloured” is an offensive term in the United Kingdom and United States, where its use recalls an era of widespread racism, but not in South Africa where it has a distinct meaning. In fact, the term was originally adopted with pride by formerly enslaved people in the US, only becoming seen as racist much later. The term ‘African American’, meanwhile, was initially rejected by many older Black Americans when it took off in the 1980s, as they felt it implied they had personally migrated from Africa.

As for “person of colour” – which we have used through this article – that is not uncontroversial either. It was admirably designed to reflect solidarity between oppressed racial groups, but has been widely criticised in the US for exactly the same reasons as BAME in the UK. Some argue it holds back progress by obscuring anti-Black racism in particular, tacitly acknowledging whiteness as default, and allowing for ‘diversity-washing’.

The comparison between “coloured person” and “person of colour” illustrates an important point about how we should treat language.

To someone who had never heard the terms before, they are both quite similar. Yet one is widely used today, while the other is now considered offensive across the board.

The obvious conclusion is that offence and acceptability are not determined by dictionary definitions. The meaning of words is collectively negotiated and culturally determined.

Effectively, if enough people think something is offensive, it is—and what we think is offensive can change.

So what should we say?

If you were hoping for a failsafe style guide for describing racial groups, you’re in for disappointment. “There isn’t some perfect term out there that won’t offend anyone,” says Moran. “It doesn’t exist.”

The good news is that this does not mean we have to tie ourselves in knots or cross our fingers every time we want to talk about race (or worse, avoid talking about it at all in case we inadvertently cause offence).

However you define yourself, a general rule is to aim for precision: if you are talking about Black people or people of Bangladeshi heritage specifically, use those terms. If you are deliberately making a point about all people who are not considered white, then go for “people of colour”.

More importantly, aim to do the right thing and approach the changing linguistic boundaries with an open mind. As discussed, these things are constantly being debated and sometimes change. If you get it wrong, do not let it be the end of the world for your journey of adapting.

“If you’ve caused offence, first of all listen to why the term was wrong and learn from the moment. Next, apologise, acknowledging the error and that the term was offensive. Finally, make a commitment to yourself to continue learning,” Arrigo suggests.

While you can’t expect people from different racial groups to act as your teacher, you can learn from their experiences and what they have to say. That way all of us can be part of the conversation.

Fundamentally, you might want to consider how often you really need to use controversial terms like “BAME” anyway. Moran, for example, calls herself British – not “Black British” or “Mixed British”.

Moran says that although “talking about ethnicity is so important, as pretending it doesn’t exist can do more harm than good,” it isn’t the first thing you need to know about someone. So unless you’re writing a report specifically around the race, then it shouldn’t take pride of place.

“It’s worth asking yourself, would I bring ethnicity up in this situation if the person was Caucasian? If the answer’s no, maybe leave it out,” she adds. 

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