The Cumberbatch controversy

After Benedict Cumberbatch’s interview on the Travis Smiley Show, the twittersphere erupted. But why? Did he confess to murder? Shoplifting? Beating up old ladies in his spare time? No. He used the word ‘coloured’ in reference to black people. The media deemed it so controversial, the event acquired it’s own nickname, ‘coloured-gate’.

After extensive backlash, highlighting the word’s out-dated and potentially offensive nature, he made a profuse apology, calling himself an idiot and a complete fool adding: “I can only hope this incident will highlight the need for correct usage of terminology that is accurate and inoffensive”.

But, why the uproar? Well, ‘coloured’ is still considered offensive because it recalls a time when casual racism formed a part of everyday life.

“[It] was used to describe anybody who was not white, which may imply that to be white is ‘normal’ or default”, says the charity Show Racism the Red Card. “If we consider it, every human has a skin colour, so technically we are all coloured”.

But those so swift to condemn should take a step back and re-examine what was actually said. Cumberbatch was arguing that black people get a raw deal in acting: “I think as far as coloured actors go it gets really difficult in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the US] than in the UK and that’s something that needs to change”. So the huge irony here is that he’s being accused of racism for actually defending black actors in an industry that still remains hugely unequal.

What makes this even more unfair is that it was not too long ago that ‘coloured’ was considered a perfectly socially acceptable term. Historically, as the Oxford English Dictionary states: “Coloured was adopted in the United States by emancipated slaves as a term of racial pride after the end of the American Civil War”. It replaced ‘negro’, and the even more offensive ‘nigger’, terms traditionally associated with slavery.
There is even a worthy American body called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Would those same critics dare condemn them of using out-dated terminology? In 2008 Carla Sims, communications director for the NAACP in Washington, DC, said “the term ‘coloured’ is not derogatory, [the NAACP] chose the word ‘coloured’ because it was the most positive description commonly used [in 1909, when the association was founded]. It’s out-dated and antiquated but not offensive”.

To date, there has not been a movement to change the name of the organisation to use a different term. Terminology changes over time and is adapted based on cultural context and trends. In many countries across the world, the term ‘coloured’ is still considered acceptable. More confusingly, in America, black people are still referred to as ‘people of colour’, as we have heard from American playwright, novelist and critic Bonnie Greer; are we to judge her also?

Selma star, David Oyelowo has defended Cumberbatch, calling the whole affair ridiculous. “When you look at what he was actually saying it’s clear that he’s a huge supporter of black performers”, Oyelowo said, speaking at the UK premiere of Selma, in which he stars as 1960s civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.
“To attack him for a term, as opposed to what he was actually saying, I think is very disingenuous and is indicative of the age we live in where people are looking for sound bites as opposed to substance”. Indeed, Cumberbatch’s own apology appears to be written from a standard script, with a slight hint of despair and sarcasm suggesting the ridiculousness of the situation.

Even The Red Card, the UK’s leading anti-racism charity, said that they applauded Cumberbatch’s message to highlight Hollywood’s diversity problem, albeit whilst questioning his use of terminology.

“The lack of representation of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds within certain industries in the UK is an issue which needs addressing”, said a spokesperson for the charity. Therefore, despite the backlash there has been a positive outcome from ‘coloured-gate’, as these anti-racism organisations have been given more media attention, helping to drive support for their cause.

A cause that Cumberbatch was trying to promote in the first place. He tried to defend his black colleagues and friends, and criticise the deep-rooted inequality in the British film industry but instead, Benedict Cumberbatch has been made to grovel, profusely, to the public for forgiveness over a simple misuse of terminology.

Once again, Twitter and the rest of the media has completely missed the point.


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May 2022
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