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Colored or coloured, is an ethnic descriptor historically used in the United States (predominantly during the Jim Crow era) and other European-settled countries and their former colonies. In many of these places, it is now considered an ethnic slur.[1] Historically, the term denoted non-white individuals generally.[2]

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word colored was first used in the 14th century, but with a meaning other than race or ethnicity.[3]

The term has historically had a variety of connotations. In British usage, the term refers to "a person who is wholly or partly of non-white descent" and its use may be regarded as antiquated or offensive,[4][5] and other terms are preferable, particularly when referring to a single ethnicity.

In the West Indies the term "coloured" originally had more complex class and political meaning, specifically used to denote a person with some or all Black African ancestry but also of the same class as white or having certain similar privileges. Such a person might have been free or worked in collaboration with the system of slavery. Coloureds formed socially distinct class different from the majority of the subjugated population.[citation needed]

In the American South, the term "colored American" was preferred to "African American" by most of the individuals involved. They did not think of themselves as African, did not accept the sometimes demeaning label "African", did not want whites pressuring them to relocate to a colony in Africa, and said they were no more African than white Americans were British. In place of "African" they preferred the term "colored", or the more learned and precise "Negro".[6] Following the Civil Rights Movement, "colored" and "negro", both of them derived from Latin, gave way to the Germanic "black", seen as stronger and more dignified. However, some individuals have more recently called for a revival of "African American", or "Afro-American", so as to remove (divisive) attention to skin color.[7]

In South Africa and neighbouring countries, the term coloureds describes a multiracial ethnic group native to Southern Africa who have ancestry from more than one of the various populations inhabiting the region, including Khoisan, Bantu, Afrikaner, Whites, Austronesian, East Asian or South Asian.[8] Under Apartheid, South Africa broadly classified its population into four races, namely Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Indians.[9]

United States[edit]

In 1851, an article in The New York Times referred to the "colored population".[10] In 1863, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops.

The first 12 United States Census counts enumerated '"colored" people, who totaled nine million in 1900. The census counts of 1910–1960 enumerated "negroes". NPR reported that the "use of the phrase "colored people" peaked in books published in 1970."[11] "It's no disgrace to be colored," the black entertainer Bert Williams famously observed early in the century, "but it is awfully inconvenient."[12]

"Colored people lived in three neighborhoods that were clearly demarcated, as if by ropes or turnstiles", wrote Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about growing up in segregated West Virginia in the 1960s. "Welcome to the Colored Zone, a large stretched banner could have said.... Of course, the colored world was not so much a neighborhood as a condition of existence."[13] "For most of my childhood, we couldn't eat in restaurants or sleep in hotels, we couldn't use certain bathrooms or try on clothes in stores", recalls Gates. His mother retaliated by not buying clothes that she was not allowed to try on. He remembered hearing a white man deliberately calling his father by the wrong name: "'He knows my name, boy,' my father said after a long pause. 'He calls all colored people George.'" When Gates's cousin became the first black cheerleader at the local high school, she was not allowed to sit with the team and drink Coke from a glass, but had to stand at the counter drinking from a paper cup.[13] Professor Gates also wrote about his experiences in his 1995 book, Colored People: A Memoir.[14]

In the 21st century, "colored" is generally regarded as an offensive term,[where?] due to the fact that signs under Jim Crow depicted the term "colored".[4][15] The term lives on in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, generally called the NAACP.[4] In 2008, its communications director Carla Sims said "the term 'colored' is not derogatory, [the NAACP] chose the word 'colored' because it was the most positive description commonly used [in 1909, when the association was founded]. It's outdated and antiquated but not offensive."[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Butterly, Amelia (2015-01-27). "Warning: Why using the term 'coloured' is offensive". BBC Newsbeat. Retrieved 2020-02-22.
  2. ^ Statistical Abstract of the United States. Department of the Treasury, United States. 1934. p. 554.
  3. ^ "Colored | Definition of Colored by Merriam-Webster". Retrieved 2016-04-28.
  4. ^ a b c "Is the word 'coloured' offensive?". Magazine. BBC News. November 9, 2006. Retrieved August 18, 2012. In times when commentators say the term is widely perceived as offensive, a Labour MP lost no time in condemning it "patronising and derogatory"
  5. ^ "Definition of coloured in English". Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved 18 August 2012. In Britain it was the accepted term until the 1960s, when it was superseded (as in the US) by black. The term coloured lost favour among black people during this period and is now widely regarded as offensive except in historical contexts
  6. ^ Trigger, Bruce G. (1978). Northeast. Smithsonian Institution. p. 290. Retrieved 15 January 2017.
  7. ^ "Afro-American". Merriam-webster . com. Retrieved 6 February 2019. Definition of Afro-American: african American (First Known Use of Afro-American 1831, in the meaning defined above)
  8. ^ "coloured". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University. Retrieved 14 April 2014.
  9. ^ Posel, Deborah (2001). "What's in a name? Racial categorisations under apartheid and their afterlife" (PDF). Transformation: 50–74. ISSN 0258-7696. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-11-08.
  10. ^ "New York Times". September 18, 1851: 3. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ Malesky, Kee. "The Journey From 'Colored' To 'Minorities' To 'People Of Color' Facebook Twitter Google+ Email". NPR. Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  12. ^ Neilly, Herbert L. Black Pride: The Philosophy and Opinions of Black Nationalism: A Six-Volume History of Black Culture in Two Parts AuthorHouse, 2005; ISBN 1418416657, page 237 (Google Books)
  13. ^ a b Gates Jr, Henry Louis, Growing Up Colored, American Heritage Magazine, Summer 2012, Volume 62, Issue 2
  14. ^ Gates Jr, Henry Louis, Colored People: A Memoir, (Vintage, 1995), ISBN 067973919X.
  15. ^ "Derogatory Racial Terms to Avoid in Public". Retrieved 14 February 2015. Some people may think it's okay to simply shorten that phrase ["people of color"] to "colored," but they're mistaken. Like "Oriental," "colored" harkens back to an era of exclusion, a time when Jim Crow was in full force, and blacks used water fountains marked "colored" and sat in the "colored" sections of busses, beaches and restaurants. In essence, the term stirs up painful memories.
  16. ^ "Lohan calls Obama 'colored', NAACP says no big deal". Mercury News. November 12, 2008.