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Realpolitik (see also Political realism; from German: real “realistic”, “practical” or “actual”; and Politik “politics”) refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on practical considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism.
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Friday, 23 December 2011

030 - Is 'coloured' offensive?

This stems from an old article we recently stumbled across on the BBC website, where Tory MP for Harwich and North Essex Bernard Jenkin found himself in hot water after using the term 'coloured' in a radio interview.

Bernard Jenkin: Context is key to understanding the offensive nature of 'coloured'.
Source: BBC Website (bbc.co.uk/news).

Naturally this provoked some considerable reaction, as Labour MP Dawn Butler labelled his comments as "patronising and derogatory". Realpolitik asks however whether 'coloured' is offensive, or whether we are drawing needless boundaries in language to create an unnecessary failsafe.

As with many of these contentious topics, the source of any potential offense should lie in the context in which such comments are made, rather than the label or term itself. For instance, to label an individual as 'coloured' may not necessarily intend a degree of offense, while other terms which may usually be perceived as 'less likely to offend' may be used in a more insulting tone.

Toyin Agbetu, founder of Ligali, an African-British human rights organisation claimed at the time about the term 'coloured' that:

"Those who still use the term tend to be from older generations... ...if they knew the history of the word, perhaps they would think again."
This is somewhat contentious, as if anything logic would dictate that life experience alone - whether direct or indirect - would perhaps make one more acutely aware of the historical context from which such comments derive.

Perhaps another motivating factor behind the use of such terms in language is found in the change of language itself. It is perhaps, that any perceived ignorance lies in a lack of awareness of the present rather than the past or historical context to which Mr Agbetu refers. It may be the case as with a great volume of language, that such terms while perceived as socially acceptable in past decades are now regarded as either taboo, or socially unacceptable.

This suggests that there is no ignorance of the meaning or historical significance of the word as such, rather a lack of awareness of the re-interpretation of a word in a later society. This - it must be noted - is not to condone the use of the word nor discredit it, rather to add another perspective on the situation. It must be clear, that the evolution of language must be recognised especially by politicians when making comment on society, yet to jump to the conclusion that such comments were made to segregate or offend is somewhat blind given the apparent lack of context in which such comments were made. Ignorant tirades such as those examined in our previous article 'My Tram Experience' where context is clear are another matter.

Another contentious angle, would be to suggest that sweeping umbrella terms such as 'coloured' should be made taboo, or socially unacceptable to avoid any such insult or accidental misinterpretation. Whilst one I'm sure can easily appreciate why people affected by such labels may not wish for their identity or cultural significance to be obscured and underwhelmed or undervalued by mass-terms, is the answer really to increase our labelling?

For instance, to be more specific than just 'white' or 'coloured', Mr Agbetu seems to suggest that the cure is in the detail. While 'British Asian', 'Afro-Caribbean' and 'Black African' - which are still I admit generalised terms - lend a hand to separating those who may otherwise have been labelled 'coloured', they also risk camping and cliquing individuals by pigeon holing and dividing into categories and subsets. However is further division in terminology the answer to resolving division of society?

Indeed in the United States where the history of Jim Crow laws creates a social frowning upon the word 'coloured', use of the terms 'coloured' or 'person of colour' may show its hand to resolving the argument, as it is generally used in a collective sense to positively amalgamate different cultures who may have shared similar experiences in society. Here 'colour' is used in a positive sense to collect and gather rather than as a tool of insult and derision.

Again, context as mentioned before is key, but it is saddening to think we could spend time arguing over segregation in society to only seek to resolve this with further labelling and division. While multiculturalism may not be something that can be easily thrust upon a person and forced, it should be allowed to become more of a natural progression rather than a series of legislative or social boundary-making. In this sense, Mr Jenkin may have been wrong to use the term 'coloured', but it is debate over the topic rather than contempt and labelling that will drive us forward.

What are your thoughts? Join the debate.

- Realpolitik -

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