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Colored or coloured[1] is a term historically used in the United States during the racial segregation times, especially in the South. It was commonly used to describe people who do not have white skin or a Caucasian appearance (non-white) and also people with mixed racial heritage. This usually meant black African Americans, although the terms have also been applied to members of other non-white races as well. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word colored was first used in the 14th Century, but with a completely different meaning not related to race or ethnicity.[2] Since the 1960s, the term "colored", along with "Negro" and other historical racial/ethnic classifications such as "Eskimo" and "Gypsies", has fallen out of popular usage in the United States over the last third of the 20th century, and is now often considered archaic and potentially derogatory, except in certain narrow circumstances, such as the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In other English-speaking countries, the term has varied meanings. In South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the name Coloured (often capitalized) refers both to a specific ethnic group of complex mixed origins, which is considered neither black nor white, and in other contexts (usually lower case) to people of mixed race, including African Americans; in neither context is its usage considered derogatory. 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,[3][1] and other, more politically correct terms, such as people of colour, are preferable, particularly when referring to a single ethnicity.

History in North America

The term colored appeared in North America during the colonial era. A "colored" man halted a runaway carriage that was carrying President John Tyler on March 4, 1844. In 1851, an article in The New York Times referred to the "colored population".[4] In 1863, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops. The first 12 Census counts in the U.S. enumerated '"colored" people, who totaled nine million in 1900. The Census counts of 1910–1960 enumerated "negroes".

"It's no disgrace to be colored", the black entertainer Bert Williams famously observed early in the century, "but it is awfully inconvenient."[5]

"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."[6]

"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 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' female cousin became the first black cheerleader at the local high school, she was not allowed to sit with the team in a Naugahyde booth and drink Coke from a glass, but had to stand at the counter drinking from a paper cup.[6] Professor Gates also wrote about his experiences in his 1995 book, Colored People: A Memoir.[7]

In the United Kingdom

The term, spelled coloured, has the same meaning as it did in the United States, and fell out of favor roughly around the same time.

Some people within the Commonwealth of Nations have used the term "coloured" to refer to people from Africa, India, Pakistan, Aboriginal Australians, Asians in general, and American Indians.

In Southern Africa

In South Africa, the term Coloured is used exclusively to refer to people of mixed-race, or Khoisan descent, with the term black used for black Africans. "Coloured" was one of the racial groups designated under the Apartheid system of racial segregation, along with "Black", "White" and "Indian". The term is not generally considered offensive in South Africa. Most Coloured South Africans have a cultural identity distinct both from that of Blacks and Whites; some (particularly those who have non-Coloured parents) may adopt the cultural identity of one (or both) of their parents.

The term "Coloured" is also used to describe persons of mixed race in Namibia, to refer to those of part Khoisan, part white descent. The Basters of Namibia constitute a separate ethnic group that are sometimes considered a sub-group of the Coloured population of that country. Under South African rule, the policies and laws of apartheid were extended to what was then called South-West Africa, and the treatment of Namibian Coloureds was comparable to that of South African Coloureds.

The term "Coloured" (or "Goffal") is also used in Zimbabwe, where, unlike in South Africa and Namibia, most people of mixed race have African and European ancestry, being descended from the offspring of European men and Shona and Ndebele women; under white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia, Coloureds had more privileges than black Africans, including full voting rights, but still faced discrimination. In Swaziland, the term Eurafrican is used.

In Swaziland, the term Eurafrican is used.

Modern usage

In the 21st century, colored is generally not regarded as a politically correct term.[1][8][9] However, it lives on in the association name National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, generally called NAACP.[1]

In 2008 Carla Sims, communications director for the NAACP in Washington, D.C., 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."[10] To date, there has not been a movement to change the name of the organization to use a different term.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "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"<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Colored Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  3. "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<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "New York Times". September 18, 1851: 3. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 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)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gates Jr, Henry Louis, Growing Up Colored, American Heritage Magazine, Summer 2012, Volume 62, Issue 2
  7. Gates Jr, Henry Louis, Colored People: A Memoir, (Vintage, 1995), ISBN 067973919X.
  8. BarbaraPA. "Politically correct term for black people". Retrieved 14 February 2015. "Colored" is considered an old-fashioned term and slighly prejudiced.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Lohan calls Obama 'colored', NAACP says no big deal". Mercury News. November 12, 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>