The short answer to the question posed in Jim Bowman's blog post, "People of color OK, colored people not?" [February 2, 2015], is the term "colored people" is not only outdated but also carries historical connotations to enslavement, racism and segregation. That's why it's not OK.
The long answer is more complicated but worth the read so stick with me.
"Colored people" first surfaced in written text in 1611 because English cartographer and historian John Speed used "colored countenances." Over time in the United States the description "colored" came to almost exclusively define blacks. The adoption of the word in the U.S., however, has two trajectories. On the one hand, emancipated slaves began using the word to evoke racial pride after the end of the Civil War. On the other hand, the word was taken on as a derogatory reference, one seeped in the stench of racial segregation in the 1960s.
The term "colored" is used elsewhere in the world. In places like South Africa, where the word denotes people of racially mixed ethnicity, and Britain, where the term includes Asian British people as well, the adjective may carry less of a punch.
So, when well-known actor Benedict Cumberbatch said "colored actors" in a recent interview with talk show host Tavis Smiley he was not seeking to be offensive, he was being British. Outdated, yes. But British. He is not the first Brit to be reprimanded for the public use of the word "colored." In 2006 former deputy chairman for the Conservative Party Bernard Jenkin was removed from his position after saying "colored" in a radio interview.
To Bowman's second point: why is "people of color" a more acceptable term. It has a lot to do with the fact that the phrase is more inclusive and is not used to ostracize, abuse or degrade. According to American University professor Salvador Vidal-Ortiz in the Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society, "People of color explicitly suggests a social relationship among racial and ethnic minority groups...it is slowly replacing terms such as racial and ethnic minorities." He goes on to write, "People of color...is also a term that allows for a more complex set of identity for the individual—a relational one that is in constant flux."
Most may associate "people of color" with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's reference to "citizens of color" in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. But the phrase appeared much earlier, around the same time that "colored" was being used.
There a few different texts in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries where "people of color" can be found. One is a 1797 survey of the population in Haiti where the French term gens de couleur is used to describe a mixed race people. A decade later "An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States" applied to "any negro, mulatto, or person of colour." Again the French phrase gens de couleur liberes "free people of color" pops up in a pamphlet in 1818. And yet again in 1912 a Baltimore newspaper reported that statutes in different states sought to define "a person of color." The consensus among many states at the time was that any person with a "visible and distinct admixture of African blood" was a person of color.
The inclusiveness of the phrase cannot be denied, but maybe neither phraseology is OK. Both come with its own set of baggage. But if it comes down to one over the other, err on the side of "people" first terms. It acknowledges the human, first, then the attribute. The human part is more important. The race part is arbitrary...and socially constructed might I add, but that's for a different blog post.
Answer Book 2017
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