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

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] though has taken on a special meaning in Southern Africa. Historically, the term denoted non-white individuals generally.[2]

Dictionary definitions

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 mugeres de colòr ('colored women') 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, 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 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,[5][6] and other terms are preferable, particularly when referring to a single ethnicity. When speaking more widely, the commonly used term today is people of colour.

United States

In the American South, the term "Colored" (or "Colored American"[dubious ]) was[when?] preferred to "African American"[dubious ] by most of the individuals involved. 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".[7] 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.[citation needed] 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.[8]

NPR reported that the "use of the phrase "colored people" peaked in books published in 1970."[9] "It's no disgrace to be colored," the black entertainer Bert Williams famously observed early in the century, "but it is awfully inconvenient."[10][unreliable source?]

"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

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 enumerated "colored" people, who totaled nine million in 1900. The census counts of 1910–1960 enumerated "negroes".

Term in NAACP

In the 21st century, "colored" is generally regarded as an offensive term, specifically in the West (and especially the US, due to the fact that signs under Jim Crow usually used the term "colored").[5][4] The term lives on in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, generally called 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 switch to using just UNCF or United Fund.

Southern Africa

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 various populations inhabiting the region, including indigenous (Khoisan, Bantu and others), Whites (including Afrikaner), Austronesian, East Asian, or South Asian.[15] Under Apartheid, South Africa broadly classified its population into four races, namely Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Indians.[16]

See also


  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 d "coloured | colored, adj. and n." Oxford English Dictionary.
  5. ^ a b c "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. 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. ^ Trigger, Bruce G. (1978). Northeast. Smithsonian Institution. p. 290. Retrieved 15 January 2017.
  8. ^ "Afro-American". Retrieved 6 February 2019. Definition of Afro-American: African American. First known use of Afro-American 1831, in the meaning defined above
  9. ^ Malesky, Kee. "The Journey from 'Colored' to 'Minorities' to 'People of Color'". National Public Radio. Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  10. ^ Neilly, Herbert L. (2005). Black Pride: The Philosophy and Opinions of Black Nationalism – A Six-volume History of Black Culture in Two Parts. p. 237. ISBN 1418416657 – via Google Books.
  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. 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.
This page was last edited on 25 April 2021, at 18:31
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