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Detail of a historical photograph showing historical use of the term in the US in contrast with "white"

Colored (or coloured) is a racial descriptor historically used in the United States during the Jim Crow Era to refer to an African American. In many places, it may be considered a slur,[1] though it has taken on a special meaning in Southern Africa referring to a person of mixed Black and White heritage.[2]

Dictionary definitions[edit]

The word colored (Middle English icoloured) was first used in the 14th century but with a meaning other than race or ethnicity.[3][4] The earliest uses of the term to denote a member of dark-skinned groups of peoples occurred in the second part of the 18th century in reference to South America. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "colored" was first used in this context in 1758 to translate the Spanish term mujeres de color ('colored women', literally 'women of color') in Antonio de Ulloa's A voyage to South America.[4]

The term came in use in the United States during the early 19th century, and it then was adopted by emancipated slaves as a term of racial pride after the end of the American Civil War until it was replaced as a self-designation by Black or African-American during the second part of the 20th century. Due to its use in the Jim Crow era to designate items or places restricted to African Americans, the word colored is now usually considered to be offensive.[4]

The term has historically had multiple connotations. In British usage, the term refers to "a person who is wholly or partly of non-white descent," and its use is generally regarded as antiquated or offensive.[5][6] Other terms are preferable, particularly when referring to a single ethnicity.

United States[edit]

Dilapidated hotel sign, Route 80, Statesboro, Georgia. The picture was taken in 1979, after the end of segregation.

In the United States, colored was the predominant and preferred term for African Americans in the mid- to late nineteenth century in part because it was accepted by both white and black Americans as more inclusive, covering those of mixed-race ancestry (and, less commonly, Asian Americans and other racial minorities), as well as those who were considered to have "complete Black ancestry".[7] They did not think of themselves as or accept the 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 European. In place of "African" they preferred the term colored, or the more learned and precise Negro.[8] However, the term Negro later fell from favor following the Civil Rights Movement as it was seen as imposed upon the community it described by white people during slavery, and carried connotations of subservience. The term black was preferred during the 1960s by the Black Power movement, as well as radical black nationalists (the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers), pan-Africanists (Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and political progressives. "Negro" was still favored as self-descriptive racial term over "black" by a plurality in the late 1960s; however, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, "black" was strongly favored.[7]

NPR reported that the "use of the phrase 'colored people' peaked in books published in 1970."[9] However, some individuals have more recently called for a revival of "African American", or "Afro-American", so as to remove attention to skin color.[10] "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."[11] "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.[11] Gates also wrote about his experiences in his 1995 book, Colored People: A Memoir.[12]

Census terms in the United States[edit]

In 1851, an article in The New York Times referred to the "colored population".[13][full citation needed] In 1863, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops.

The first 12 United States Census counts counted "colored" people, who totaled nine million in 1900. The censuses of 1910–1960 counted "negroes".

Term in NAACP[edit]

The term is still used in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, although it is generally referred to as the NAACP.[5] 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."[14] However, NAACP today rarely uses its full name and made this decision not long after the United Negro College Fund switched to using just UNCF or United Fund.

Southern Africa[edit]

In South Africa and neighboring countries, the term Coloureds refers to a multiracial ethnic group native to Southern Africa who have ancestry from more than one of the populations inhabiting the region, including indigenous (Khoisan, Bantu and others), Whites (including Afrikaners), Austronesian, East Asian, or South Asian[15] (also called Cape Malays; it was once a subcategory of the Apartheid Coloured racial grouping). Under Apartheid, South Africa broadly classified its population into four races, namely Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Indians.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Butterly, Amelia (27 January 2015). "Warning: Why using the term 'coloured' is offensive". BBC Newsbeat. Retrieved 22 February 2020.
  2. ^ Statistical Abstract of the United States. US Department of the Treasury. 1934. p. 554 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ "Colored | Definition of Colored by Merriam-Webster". Retrieved 28 April 2016.
  4. ^ a b c "coloured | colored, adj. and n." Oxford English Dictionary.
  5. ^ a b "Is the word 'coloured' offensive?". BBC News Magazine. 9 November 2006. Retrieved 18 August 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"
  6. ^ "Definition of coloured in English". Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 23 July 2012. 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
  7. ^ a b Smith, Tom W. (1992). "Changing Racial Labels: From "Colored" to "Negro" to "Black" to "African American"". The Public Opinion Quarterly. 56 (4): 497, 499–502. doi:10.1086/269339. ISSN 0033-362X. JSTOR 2749204.
  8. ^ Trigger, Bruce G. (1978). Northeast. Smithsonian Institution. p. 290. Retrieved 15 January 2017.
  9. ^ Malesky, Kee (30 March 2014). "The Journey from 'Colored' to 'Minorities' to 'People of Color'". National Public Radio. Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  10. ^ "Afro-American". Retrieved 6 February 2019. Definition of Afro-American: African American. First known use of Afro-American 1831, in the meaning defined above
  11. ^ a b Gates, Henry Louis Jr. (Summer 2012). "Growing Up Colored". American Heritage Magazine. Vol. 62, no. 2.
  12. ^ Gates, Henry Louis Jr. (1995). Colored People: A Memoir. Vintage. ISBN 067973919X.
  13. ^ "[title missing]". The New York Times. 18 September 1851. p. 3.
  14. ^ "Lohan calls Obama 'colored', NAACP says no big deal". San Jose Mercury News. 12 November 2008.
  15. ^ "coloured". Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 9 March 2014. Retrieved 14 April 2014.
  16. ^ 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 8 November 2006.

External links[edit]