13

face of a beautiful young actress with wild afro hair, dressed in 1970s clothes

SAM
Look... I owe it to myself to say this to you, okay? Leave Tony Crane. Just go far away from him. He's gonna ask you to marry him and he's gonna make you a business partner.

EVE
Is that what this is all about? Does it bother you that much? A coloured bird with a bit of power?

BBC One's Life on Mars series 2, episode 1

For those who have not watched the BBC TV series a very brief synopsis:
After an accident, Sam Tyler a Detective Chief Inspector in 2006, wakes up in 1973. Now a detective inspector, he has a love-hate relationship with DCI Gene Hunt—one of the most politically incorrect characters in the history of British television. Sam Tyler doesn't know if he's mad, in a coma or if he's travelled back in time. All he wants is to go back home to the future.


In view of the fact that the TV series is set in 1973, a time when sexism, racism, and homophobia was rife and the British general public had only started condemning those acts of behaviour. I was taken aback to hear the following lines:
Does it bother you that much? A coloured bird with a bit of power?

I was only ten years old in 1976 and I remember the noun Black (or adjective black) was considered derogatory, almost a taboo, whereas coloured was the "polite" term used to describe anyone whose skin was dark-coloured. But childhood memories can play tricks, so I'm not absolutely certain.

Was the term coloured derogatory in the 1970s? Did Eve call herself "coloured" because she knew it was offensive or did British black people call themselves that?

Nowadays, I know it's the other way round, and I'm pretty sure that Benedict Cumberbatch does too. But what about the 1970s? Shouldn't the actress line have been:

Does it bother you that much? A black bird with a bit of power?

  • 4
    I had a friend, back in the 70's (English born, from a Barbadian family) who referred to herself as "coloured". I'm sure she found it the right term to use and in no way derogatory. – Centaurus Feb 13 '15 at 17:52
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    @Centaurus but then why does Eve call herself "bird"? That was and always has been terribly sexist. – Mari-Lou A Feb 13 '15 at 17:53
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    Certainly in the US the terminology was undergoing a change in the 70s. – Hot Licks Feb 13 '15 at 18:26
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    'Life on Mars' probably doesn't strive over hard to keep to its standards of unacceptability. And 'A coloured bird with a bit of power' flows better. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 13 '15 at 18:50
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    @Mari-LouA - In general (although a few exceptions can always be found) members of a "disfavored" category are allowed to use terms which are offensive when applied to them by those outside their category. The use of the N-word in rap is a classic example, as is Chris Rock's use in his comedy routines about 15 or 20 years ago. In using the term to describe herself, she is essentially claiming that he (Sam) would use the term. In any case, in 1973 Manchester the term may well have been in wide use regardless of our current judgements as to its sexism. – WhatRoughBeast Feb 14 '15 at 0:06
11
+200

Thinking back, I believe coloured was originally a euphemism, used to avoid the word black which British people thought, probably correctly at the time, was offensive.

I believe the demise of coloured as an acceptable term dates from the emergence of black, mainly from the American black community, as a term of pride. With the growth in the use of black, I think coloured came to be seen, by some people (not all), as a patronising slur, a 'kind' way of not referring to a person's blackness, treating the fact as though it were a handicap.

  • So back in the 70s coloured wasn't considered offensive? Right? I think you're spot on in saying coloured was a euphemism. The "patronising slur" aspect, seems to ring a few bells too. Do you think (or know) a British black person in the 70s would have called themselves "coloured" or "black"? – Mari-Lou A Feb 14 '15 at 0:24
  • 'Back in the 70s' 'coloured' was the PC word to describe people of African / Caribbean ancestry. It was not derogative or offensive. – peterG Feb 14 '15 at 0:58
  • @Mari-LouA - My recollection is that, in the 70s in the US, the terminology was beginning to change. "Colored" was being deprecated and replaced with "black". There was a period of about 10 years when any word you used was guaranteed to insult someone. – Hot Licks Feb 14 '15 at 3:00
  • @HotLicks Yes I think that the experience you mention in the US followed virtually the same pattern as it did in Britain - or more correctly vice-versa. (On this matter we were definitely influenced by you). However where I think everyone here is slightly mistaken is in believing the transference from coloured to black as the politically correct term began in the 70s. I think the change began in the 60s, at around the time of the 'Black Power' movement in the US - Malcolm X and all that. Didn't MLK celebrate the idea of 'blackness'? hadn't there been a body known as (cont fwd) – WS2 Feb 14 '15 at 6:39
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    @Mari-LouA Re did I know someone? I remember my first managerial-type job, in which I recruited my own staff, which I began in 1969, in South London. The senior management of the company and its parent group were very prejudiced against employment of Indians, (and occasionally West Indians/Africans) and I had to fight a battle with my bosses (since it was predominantly Indians who were presenting themselves for employment). They would refer to the Indians as 'coloureds' (and worse). – WS2 Feb 14 '15 at 6:53
4

In this context, I think Eve was deliberately using derogatory terms. She's expressing her perception of Sam's point of view, so she uses language that reflects what she thinks he thinks of women and blacks.

  • 2
    It's a very possible interpretation, but you need to backup your theory with some facts or references. Otherwise you're just providing an opinion. – Mari-Lou A Feb 13 '15 at 19:36
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    How do I back up an interpretation with "facts"? If she were talking to me, that's how I would interpret what she was saying. – Barmar Feb 13 '15 at 19:43
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    I think the nature of the exchange makes it obvious that she's trying to be confrontational. It wouldn't serve the narrative purpose if the words didn't have these negative connotations. – Barmar Feb 13 '15 at 19:59
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    Shouldn't the line have been: Does it bother you that much? A B/black bird with a bit of power? I haven't seen the series yet, so all I have to go on are the printed words and the set-up you've provided. I believe your answer lies in the tone of Eve's delivery, and when I use my mind's ear I hear Eve issuing an ironic, maybe even sarcastic, challenge: Does it bother you that much? i.e., are you--a big powerful white man--so threatened by a small, powerless minority female (double minority). I agree with Barmar's evaluation that his answer it can't be backed-up, it's all in Eve's delivery. – user98990 Feb 14 '15 at 10:10
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    The delivery definitely adds to the sense. So even if that wasn't a particularly derogatory term at the time, using it in this way still suggested the idea of colored = inferior. And of course, the writers were dealing with the fact that this would be viewed by a 21st century audience, not a 70's audience. – Barmar Feb 14 '15 at 13:13
4

Based on my recollection of the 80s and 90s in a white to multicultural bit of London I would say "not really". There were certainly white people who objected but they were progressive, even hippie-ish types in other ways.

2

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When dismantling segregation was still casually status quo in the western hemisphere, as was the case in the 1970's, several words were used as substitutes for overtly racist adjectives and the word 'Coloured' was accepted as one of those substitutes to be used in/for/with polite company.

In January of this year (this is being written July of 2015) a United Kingdom entertainment celebrity gained inadvertent attention with his use of the word "coloured(s)" in a public interview.

So.

Why is/was the word 'coloured' seen as offensive in the West? Simple. It reflected an attitude of racial boundary and entitlement casually accepted at the time; in effect someone is white, or they are a person not white, and thereby colored or of color ( ... 'colour' and 'coloured' in the UK).

Coulored was a shadow word, a synonym, one of those polite words used in polite company, on the television, and perhaps with your Gran, instead of those niggardly, spiteful, offensive words of hate, superiority, and disentitlement, which as in the case of the example you cited, came to be embraced and used because people didn't like it

Curiously? In Africa, the word "Coulored" has an entirely different meaning. The word 'Coulored' -- spelled thus, and outside the shared UK/US word coloured/colored word dichotomy -- is a term referring to specific South African ethnic peoples.

From your original link: "Coloured referring to skin colour is first recorded in the early 17th century and was adopted in the US by emancipated slaves as a term of racial pride after the end of the American Civil War. In Britain it was the accepted term until the 1960s, when it was superseded (as in the US) with the use of the word 'black'."

  • Coloureds in South Africa were (and maybe still are) people of Asian descent - not Africans. During the years of apartheid there were special rules applicable to them. Perhaps the most celebrated coloured was one Basil D'Oliveira, a cricketer who was ineligible to play for the national team because of his colour. To cut a very long story short he came to Britain and was selected to play for England. But the South Africans refused to play England if there were 'coloureds' in the English team. It caused huge division in Britain, before we eventually refused to accept such a condition. – WS2 Jul 14 '15 at 8:31
  • The story of Basil D'Oliveira is well worth reading. – WS2 Jul 14 '15 at 8:36
  • When I moved to London (from the English provinces) in the 1960s I remember being shocked to see advertisements for accommodation which said such things as NO COLOUREDS, NO IRISH. ('Polite people' didn't even talk about gays and lesbians in those days) – WS2 Jul 14 '15 at 10:26
  • @WS2 ...from the link you provided: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coloured – Father Luke Jul 14 '15 at 11:22
2

Here's part of an answer given by Michael Foot to a question that he was asked during a Radio 4 programme that was broadcast on 10 June 1973 (which was within just a few months of the setting of the TV programme mentioned by the questioner), called Politics in the 70's. This programme was noteworthy because it placed Foot in conversation with Enoch Powell, who was regarded by many as supporting inflammatory views about black people, while Foot was an advocate of social equality.

Here, Foot is referring to Powell's contribution to the debate on race, especially the oratorical elements of this contribution.

I believe the way in which he [Enoch Powell] puts his case on this subject is destructive of the community in the sense that more and more of the ... er ... coloured people in this country are born in this country; they are citizens of this country. They should have absolutely equal rights with everybody else in this country, and if they are singled out as being a section of the community that is disruptive or that should be sent back to places where in fact they weren't born, that is disruptive of the community itself.

The long hesitation before he chose the word "coloured" was the only major disfluency in this section of the programme. Given Foot's views, he clearly wasn't searching for a word that was derogatory but one which was not. That difficulty cannot have been due to Foot's unpreparedness on the subject.

I was 9 years old at the time the story was set, and it accords with something in my own memories of the era. In my school at that time, there were very few black children and when teachers were openly racist to them in class, it raised few eyebrows at the time. Race was such an emotive issue that a speaker could feel (or sound) awkward no matter which word they used. "Coloured" was probably the most common term that I heard used without any pejorative intent during the 70s (especially the earlier parts of the decade). Also, there were plenty of epithets of varying intensity to choose from should one intend insult. But it's impossible to get the full linguistic picture without being aware that the very subject was itself taboo.

Returning to the question about the TV episode and its dialogue, it was of course television drama and all kinds of things may have influenced the script. I'd suggest that the average viewer in 1973 wouldn't have thought that the word "coloured" was more derogatory than any other word, but you'd have to ask the script writer what the dramatic intent was.

  • Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful answer and testimony. It helps confirm my belief that the term coloured wasn't considered derogatory or offensive in the early 1970s. Your chronological reference is also pertinent. – Mari-Lou A Jul 14 '15 at 14:59

protected by tchrist Oct 8 '15 at 1:00

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