Why not 'colored people'? History says so.

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By Ashley Lisenby

Digital Editor

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 [February 2, 2015], is the term "colored people" is not only outdated but also carries historical connotations to enslavement, racism and segregation.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 Outdated, yes.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.

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Reader Comments

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OP Transplant  

Posted: February 11th, 2015 4:34 PM

Mr. Hammond - How about "of those problems specific to black Americans, whether they are referred to by a phrase that includes a participle or a preposition is a relatively minor one"? That eliminates discussion of global nuclear annihilation from the table.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: February 11th, 2015 3:26 PM

There are ALWAYS greater problems to discuss. For instance, how come we're talking about this and not the threat of global nuclear annihilation, which is clearly of far greater importance? The reason: all problems are fair topics of discussion, though not all are of equal importance. Incidentally, "semantics" relates to the meaning of words, and if the meaning of words is not important, then there's no point in discussing anything.

OP Transplant  

Posted: February 11th, 2015 2:13 PM

I think it's fair for PC'D to point out the insignificance of nitpicking semantics in the face of far greater problems. It's an academic exercise at best, and I don't believe that those who suffer the most from the burden of these problems have time or energy to join in the discussion of semantics. This is why, in my experience, I've heard the words "Yo, n****r" spoken countless times, but I've never heard a black person say, "Yo, person of color."

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: February 11th, 2015 12:53 PM

Digital Editor is not a "news" responsibility. That's a bit odd.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: February 11th, 2015 12:17 PM

@PC'D to Death, this is a blog post, not a news article. There's a difference. Blog posts are not news pieces. They are opinions of the author. So Ashley's blog post is responding to Jim's blog post.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: February 11th, 2015 10:42 AM

Just to be clear, PC'D, we should be able to talk about potentially racist/hurtful language while at the same time considering other social problems. Focusing on one is not the same as suggesting that the other is unworthy of discussion.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: February 11th, 2015 10:33 AM

The position that "what we really need to address is this rather than that" is specious. It's clearly possible to address more than one thing, and indeed we should.

PC'D To Death  

Posted: February 11th, 2015 8:31 AM

Only in Oak Park can we have joke news articles like this....when what we really need to address as a society is why just over Austin to the east black people are killing each other at an alarming rate? Just to balance it out can we also have an article why white kids from the west suburbs continue to buy heroin in the same area?

LOL @ OP Transplant! Well-played!  

Posted: February 10th, 2015 12:22 PM

I had an Early Childhood class where the instructor told us that "Ten Little Indians" was considered un-PC because they are now Native Americans. I think I asked her about just subbing it out for East Indians. In any case, I have come up with a PC version of "10 Little Indians." Tell me what you think: "One vertically-challenged, 2 vertically-challenged, 3-vertically challenged, non-gender-specific indigenous human beings...

OP Transplant  

Posted: February 10th, 2015 12:13 PM

How about "persons of African ancestry"? That would make me a "person almost inevitably mistaken for a Mexican by persons of African ancestry". I like it!

Winter Skye  

Posted: February 10th, 2015 11:36 AM

@Local: I don't have junk, sir, and I have quite a bit of melanin. My point is that RETARDED was once the PC term. Disabled is now used, but 'handicapped' was once PC. If you are soooooo "People First," then I guess "African-American" should be abolished since BP are people before they are from Africa. Oh wait...they're NOT from Africa directly, so that term is bogus when using race as a physical descriptor. It sure gets complicated when one is a whack job who thinks too much...


Posted: February 10th, 2015 9:00 AM

If I were into labels and the idea that it is okay to call anybody what I want, I'd call Skye an angry white man. Would that be okay? BTW "retarded" is not a appropriate term. "Cognitive disabilities" is not only appropriately respectful, it's also more accurate because, once again, even people with cognitive disabilities are people first, each with their own unique characteristics and personality.

Winter Skye  

Posted: February 9th, 2015 10:49 PM

@Bootstraps: No, I am sure some will take offense because I have noticed in life that some people look for reasons to feel offended. That is not my problem. By the way, RETARDED is NOT a bad term. It's just that these neurotic types are always changing it up and now SPECIAL is the new 'tard, in terms of dissing people. So no matter what you say, it can be used against you by those with bad intent. That is why it's dumb to quibble about this in the first place.


Posted: February 9th, 2015 10:40 PM

Skye, um, okay, I underestimated your convictions. I trust you'll be true to your beliefs and use your endearing terms for black people when you interact with them directly. I'm certain they will universally appreciate your unfiltered candor.

Winter Skye  

Posted: February 9th, 2015 8:51 PM

@Bootstraps: WTF are you on about?! "They" are not a monolith, my Caucasian friend! So some BP actually detest being called AAs and some may prefer it. I get to say whatever I feel like. These labels are superficial as hell. They are NOT THE SOUL! Melanin doesn't mean SHIT!


Posted: February 9th, 2015 5:40 PM

Regarding "people of color" or "African American"... If you had a kid with a mental issue, I'll bet you'd be PO'd if he or she were called "retarded" instead of "mentally handicapped" or "developmentally challenged,." Yet "retarded" was common not that long ago. So let's cut people of color some slack on how they want to be called. Their ancestors came here as slaves, were openly persecuted for 250+ years, & were denied the vote and a litany of rights. They get to choose their label, not you.

My High School English Teacher  

Posted: February 9th, 2015 3:04 PM

"People of color or colored people - same words in different order..." Actually, one contains a prepositional phrase while the other contains a past participle. It's no secret that participles have a long history of bigotry and hate. Let's pray for a world where prepositions are free, while participles, both present and past, are confined to the ash heap of history.

Ray Simpson from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: February 9th, 2015 12:19 PM

Harold Cain said it best - He was an American that happened to be black. Good perspective from a man who made things work for him. People of color or colored people - same words in different order - how can one be offensive and the other not?

Winter Skye  

Posted: February 9th, 2015 11:16 AM

@Local: I refuse to use African-American to denote Black Americans--absolutely refuse. Is that disrespectful? Fact is, I believe there are more Whites calling BP 'AA' than BP calling themselves that. And yet people use WHITE left and right without a trace of self-consciousness so why is White alright and we must step back for Black, hmmm?


Posted: February 9th, 2015 9:55 AM

So maybe the take away message is that we should all respect each other, including the way we identify ourselves.

OP Transplant  

Posted: February 9th, 2015 9:18 AM

Interesting analysis. The irony to me is that while all are expected to follow the ever-changing rules in speaking of people of African ancestry, those same people will continue to call those of European ancestry "white". African-Americans will, as a rule, continue their lifelong use of the word "Mexican" to describe me, despite the fact that I am not Mexican. Language matters...sometimes.

Winter Skye  

Posted: February 7th, 2015 9:26 PM

@Ashley: I commend you for such an interesting, well-written piece. But what flux is "people of color" denoting? How dark a person is during different times of the year due to Sun exposure? LOL. In any case, I was not aware that it is out-dated for Brits to use "coloured people." Is that really the case or just when Americans read or hear such a term? I think during the Civil Rights era, Negro was becoming more common and COLORED was associated with those wretched signs in the South.

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