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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 November 2006, 13:41 GMT
Is the word 'coloured' offensive?
The Magazine answers...

Bernard Jenkin
Jenkin: Offensive and out of date?
This Tory MP is in hot water for using the word coloured. But is it offensive, and when did it become so?

The day after Bernard Jenkin was sacked as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, he has sparked a race row by using the word "coloured" in a radio interview.

In times when commentators say the term is widely perceived as offensive, a Labour MP lost no time in condemning it "patronising and derogatory".

"It is shocking that in 2006 a Member of Parliament would still use the terminology 'coloured'," said Dawn Butler.

So is the word "coloured" offensive, or just dated? And why?

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"It's wrong," says Toyin Agbetu of Ligali, an African-British human rights organisation. "Because it strips me of my identity and reduces me to the most superficial physical identifier, as opposed to my African ethnicity."

The term was common parlance in the 1960s, but its origins are the problem, says Mr Agbetu. It comes from the ideology of racism, that white people are white, and everyone else is somehow other coloured. It fails to recognise that everyone has an ethnicity and is an inadequate "one-size-fits all" description.

Nor was it a term chosen by those it refers to, but instead imposed by the wider - and white - society.

Those who still use the term tend to be from older generations, he says, but adds that if they knew the history of the word, perhaps they would think again.

Universal use?

The debate is different in other countries, where the term is still widely used. In the United States, where the struggle for racial equality has been a huge political issue, the country's foremost human rights group is the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Set up in 1909, and initially called the National Negro Committee, it works to eliminate racial hatred and discrimination. The group is mostly referred to by its initials, but the name itself has never been changed.

So what should Bernard Jenkin have said instead?

Mr Agbetu says he could have talked about "people of all ethnicity", or specifically referred to African British or Asian British people.

Would everyone be offended by the use of the word? That depends, as taking offence is a subjective thing.

The ideal, perhaps not practical in Mr Jenkin's case, but achievable with a bit of foresight, is to ask people how they would like to be referred to - who they are and how they define themselves, says Mr Agbetu.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

It's perfectly reasonable to be offended by being called coloured, but how is it different to calling someone "white"? Surely, that's a narrow and limiting definition of someone's identity?
Gerry, London

What's wrong with just referring to "people"? Why feel you have to use an adjective which differentiates?
Chris, Worcs

Isn't it time we all stopped being so easily offended, both on our own behalves and on behalf of other people? Why does it matter? We're all the same inside, anyway, we all love our children and want to get on with each other.

I'm not sure about how offensive it is - it's just really inaccurate. I'm a pasty sort of pinky-whitey-freckley colour - I'm certainly not transparent or colourless.
Fiona, Maidenhead

It's a dated term for sure, however, to chastise somebody for using the term "coloured" might be missing the point as I doubt it's often used with racist intent.
Jim, London

When I was growing up in the 70s, "coloured" was considered by my white, middle-class demographic as the polite word for dark-skinned persons. To call someone "black", which is preferred by many people now, was extremely rude. In adulthood I see that we had this backwards, but it was well-intentioned. I sympathise a little with Mr Jenkin, as this minefield is being constantly re-laid. For Labour to take such gleeful advantage is shabby. But he does need to keep up. I understand why "coloured" is seen as offensive now and certainly wouldn't use it myself.
Rob Stradling, Cardiff

Don't be confused by the use of "colored" in NAACP. The organization's name goes back to the time when "colored" was respectful and civilized in comparison to other vocabulary used. In modern US-usage? Hugely offensive and racist. It's sad to see Britain moving to the hyphen-nationalities. For years it's been a problem in the American ideal (or myth) of the melting pot that no one ever "melts", but rather holds onto that hyphen. It undermines the hope that we are all equal and the same - on most levels - and focuses society on quantifying us by our differences.
Heidi, Washington DC

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