When someone calls a black person "a colored guy", I can't help but think about the question "are white people colorless? Isn't white a color too?"

  • 40
    At one time using "colored" was actually considered more polite than using "black". This is one reason why the NAACP has that name.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 4, 2020 at 20:25
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    Note that in some countries, "colored person" has a specific meaning that is distinctly different to "black person": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Jul 5, 2020 at 7:04
  • 13
    "are white people colorless? Isn't white a color too?" – If you really are into nitpicking about calling black people colored, then the fact that white is not a color but a mix of all colors is much less interesting than the fact that black is literally the absence of color. Jul 5, 2020 at 8:03
  • 24
    @JörgWMittag only with light: not with pigments. It’s the other way round for pigments.
    – Tim
    Jul 5, 2020 at 11:35
  • 13
    Why are black people called that, when few, if any, "black" people are actually black? They're various shades of brown.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 5, 2020 at 17:14

7 Answers 7


"are white people colorless? Isn't white a color too?"

There is an interesting question at Is there a word for "bright colored eyes"? that is related.

The answer to that question is that the Farsi expression assumes that everyone has brown eyes.

Coloured" is used because the people who called other people "coloured" were British who, at that time were almost 100% "white". We can therefore understand that "coloured" is a subjective term. These subjective terms are quite common descriptives in languages.

It is not the fact that white people are "colourless", it is the fact that "coloured people have "a distinct and different colour".

The adjective "coloured" was fist used around 1400 to describe the complexion of a person:

Definitions from the OED:

2. With modifying adverb. Having a complexion (of the specified kind).Recorded earliest in well-coloured adj.

a1400 tr. Lanfranc Sci. Cirurgie (Ashm.) (1894) 181 (MED) If þe pacient be fleischi & wel colourid. [if the patient is fat and has a good colour.]

This is in current use:

1996 A. Weir "Children of Henry VIII" ii. viii. 189 Mary, at thirty-seven, was small and thin, and her fresh-coloured face had been marred by years of anxiety and ill-health.

In the mid-17th century, the world was divided into white, coloured, and black:

3 b. Denoting a member of any dark-skinned group of peoples, esp. a person of sub-Saharan African or (in Britain) South Asian origin or descent; in earliest use with reference to South America.

(The reference to South America was probably because it had a very diverse population: see the 1794 quote in which the distinction between "coloured" and "black" is made.)

1758 J. Adams tr. A. de Ulloa Voy. S.-Amer. I. iii. iii. 123 The Mestizo, or negro women, or the coloured women as they are called here [sc. Panama] [Sp. las Mugeres de colòr].

1794 C. Bishop Let. 14 Dec. in Jrnl. & Lett. (1967) 23 They Reckon the White inhabitants [of Rio de Janeiro] to be one forth of the whole,..the Coloured People one forth, and from twenty to thirty thousand Blacks.

The OED notes:

Coloured was adopted in the United States by emancipated slaves as a term of racial pride after the end of the American Civil War. It was rapidly replaced from the late 1960s as a self-designation by black (see note at black adj. 3a) and later by African-American, although it is retained in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In Britain, "coloured" was the commoner term for Asian, or mixed-race people until the 1960s.

So we have a split in English:

3c. Originally and chiefly U.S. Of or belonging to any group of dark-skinned people, esp. African-Americans. Also, during the era of racial segregation in the United States: intended for or restricted to African-Americans. Now usually considered offensive.

1821 Jrnl. Convent. Protestant Episcopal Church St. Paul's, Baltimore 21 The Colored School, taught in the afternoon, has 12 teachers, and 150 scholars.

In Britain, at that time. the term Black or Negro would have been used to refer to people of African descent (as in the 1821 quote), and "coloured" was restricted to those from British India or those of mixed race. e.g. A.C. Carmichael titled her 1841 book "Domestic Manners and Social Condition of the White, Coloured and Negro Population of the West Indies" It was not until much later - the late 20th entury, that the UK took up the term "coloured" to include anyone who was not white.

  • 4
    Apparently, Australian autochthons also get called, or call themselves, “black”.
    – tchrist
    Jul 5, 2020 at 3:19
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    I knew a lady from Barbados living in New York City in the 1960s who was horrified and offended by the growing use of the term "Black" in reference to her family. She insisted that "Coloured" was the proper and preferred term. She grew up under British colonial rule.
    – MTA
    Jul 5, 2020 at 16:04
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    @MTA: presumably she never had much luck getting them to accept that "u"! Jul 6, 2020 at 23:44
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    It is not the fact that white people are "colourless", it is the fact that "coloured people have "a distinct and different colour". - white people come in all kinds of shades too. Caucasians can be white Norwegians all the way to Indians and even Africans from the horn of Africa.
    – gbjbaanb
    Jul 7, 2020 at 9:34

Some say that "colored" is neutral or in some cases even respectful, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the term is a racist distinction (cf. Jim Crow) and only ever meant "non-white." According to Wikipedia:

Colored, or coloured, is an ethnic descriptor historically used in the United States (predominantly during the Jim Crow era) and other European countries and their former colonies. In many of these places, it is now considered an ethnic slur.1 Historically, the term denoted non-"white" individuals generally.2 In contemporary English today, the term "people of colour" has become widespread and is considered more acceptable than coloured.

Example of drinking fountains (and labels of same) during the era of segregation:

African-American man drinking from "colored" drinking fountain in the mid-20th century

The distinction here is clearly to keep "colored" people from drinking at the "white" fountain.

It is worth noting, however, that at one time even organizations created and run by African-Americans used the term widely. Cf. the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

That said, these days it is advisable not to use that term yourself, especially if you are white.

  • 6
    In the US, the term PoC (People of Colour) is still used, although in the U.K., normally BaME is used.
    – Tim
    Jul 5, 2020 at 11:39
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    @Tim what does 'BaME' stand for?
    – Mitch
    Jul 5, 2020 at 12:42
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    @Mitch Black And Minority Ethnic.
    – Vicky
    Jul 5, 2020 at 13:18
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    @Vicky - I believe it's Black, Asian and minority ethnic. Jul 5, 2020 at 13:47
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    @Mitch: it varies. Sometimes it is about skin colour, sometimes it literally does mean any ethnic minority. For most statistical purposes in the UK, under "White" you'll see "British", "Irish", and "other white (please specify)" as options. Sometimes there are more break-downs of white. So in that sense Polish is an ethnic minority. There is some dispute whether this is improperly excluding British national minorities (such as Welsh) from consideration as ethnic minorities. Jul 6, 2020 at 23:50

Terms like this are inherently problematic. If I describe my friend as "this kid with glasses and a lightning-shaped scar over his right eye," it's pretty clear that I'm describing objective identifying characteristics that are value-neutral, probably so you'll recognize him the next time you see him at Hogwarts.

Not so with words that describe race and nationality. The US has cycled through a lot of different terms for African-American people over the years. The words are pretty arbitrary in terms of their etymologies and literal meanings, so they're basically a random set of code-words. But what they code for is real and important. As an example, consider the following illustration, from an 1899 book by H. Strickland Constable (who I think was an upper-class Englishman):

enter image description here

Now in 1899, "negro" was actually a pretty respectful term for a posh Englishman to use for an African person -- more respectful than the term that was, for example, universally used by white people in Alabama. But the word comes laden with all kinds of values. It connotes notions about race that we would now consider to be total pseudoscience (as in the caption of the figure). Because it was supposedly a biological term, it ignored the whole question of whether there ought to be a historical or cultural aspect to it, and it conflated African-Americans with Africans, who were completely different culturally.

A similar example is this photo from 1965:

enter image description here

These people were sticking their necks out for an oppressed group, but the word "homosexuals" on the picket sign is jarring today, because it carries a connotation of being from that era, which was a time when gay people's sexual orientation was conceived of by most people as either immoral behavior or a mental illness. Likewise, I don't refer to my step-father as "oriental," which sounds like a word my grandmother could have used innocently, and carries the same pseudoscience connotations as "negro."

If you want a literally correct word for African-Americans, a good one logically would be "darkies," but that would be an awful social gaffe in today's America, because it sounds like something from Reconstruction. Actually what happened was that "negro" and "colored" gave way in the US in the 1960's to "black" or "Black," which connotes a different understanding. It emphasizes culture rather than ancestry, and in the capitalized form it indicated that Black people were thinking of themselves as an oppressed nationality, like the Irish. In the US, we also have "African-American" now, which emphasizes the analogy with other groups who came to this country.

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    "the term that was, for example, universally used by white people in Alabama" of course began its life as the word negro. There are people even today who pronounce the words nearly identically. I would also note that there is a phenomenon where a "polite" term is introduced as a euphemism for some impolite term, only to evolve into impolite term itself. This can be seen in the terms relevant to the present question as well as with terms for "toilet" (itself originally a euphemism) in the US, and also in general with terms that describe women ("hussy," German Weib, Romance puta).
    – phoog
    Jul 6, 2020 at 18:51
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. Jul 7, 2020 at 17:08

"are white people colorless? Isn't white a color too?"

In scientific terms, white is not a single colour (i.e. a single wavelength of light). It is a combination of all visible colours. Some people describe white as a colour others don't. Of course "white" people aren't white at all. Their complexion varies according to health and exposure to the weather.

In 18th century Europe, a pale complexion was an indication of privilege. People who spent most of their time indoors were considered superior to those working in the fields. Note: I'm not talking about racial characteristics. I mean that "white Caucasians" who work in the sun get a tan.

This is true to the extent that white face-makeup was widely used to exaggerate the effect. Here's an example. I don't guarantee its total accuracy. https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-th-century-vintage-make-up-girl-style-image40087763

Of course the opposite is now true. Pale-complexioned people see a dark skin as desirable and indicating privilege (it indicates you can afford a holiday in the sun). Hence the proliferation of tanning booths.

  • 4
    The part of this answer that directly responds to the OP's question is that 'in scientific terms, white is not a single colour'. But in the same scientific terms, black is not a colour either, so that doesn't explain why black people would be referred to as coloured, or of colour.
    – jsw29
    Jul 5, 2020 at 16:05
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    @jsw29 - So called 'black people' are in fact of varying shades of brown. Most people agree that brown is a colour. Also, my point is that such vocabulary likely comes from a historical comparison with "white" Jul 5, 2020 at 16:13
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    Indeed, but as you yourself say in the answer, white people are not actually white either. So, (1) if one goes by the actual colour, both white and black people are coloured, (2) if one goes by what they are called, and one interprets coloured in what you call 'scientific terms', then neither white nor black people are coloured, (3) if one goes by what they are called, and one interprets coloured in another way, then again both are. None of these ways of looking at the matter puts white and black people on the opposite sides.
    – jsw29
    Jul 5, 2020 at 16:24
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    Yes, that is the answer!
    – jsw29
    Jul 5, 2020 at 16:37
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    @jsw29 Indeed. As far as I've seen, every attempt to justify any given racial term by logic fails. This must be inevitable, since race itself is not a strictly logical concept, and skin color is only a part of it. Whatever term one chooses will necessarily fail for certain cases. We just have to accept that these terms don't fit perfectly, because they are useful nonetheless. For the most part, when someone uses one of these terms, the meaning is clear.
    – phoog
    Jul 6, 2020 at 18:58

George Carlin said it best :


“Now, if all of this begins to put you in mind of so-called politically correct language, or politically correct speech, then you and I are on the same track. So let's visit that playground of guilty white liberals, the land of the politically correct. In recent years, the P.C. folks have found some new ways of shading the truth in order to make people feel better — especially minorities. One of the newer phrases making the rounds is “happens to be”: “he happens to be black”. “I have a friend who happens to be black.” Oh I see, yes, yes... Like it's an accident, you know! “Happens to be black? – Yes, he happens to be black. – I see, I see, I see... he had two black parents? – Yes, that's right, two black parents. – I see... And they had sex? – Oh indeed they did. – I see... So where does the surprise part come in? I should think it would be more unusual if he just happened to be Scandinavian.” Another favorite term, recently favourite term, is “openly”: “openly gay”. “I have a friend who's openly gay.” But that's the only minority they use that for. You know, you wouldn't say someone was “openly black”... Well maybe James Brown... Or Louis Farrakhan — Louis Farrakhan is openly black. Colin Powell is not openly black; Colin powell is openly white; he just happens to be black. And while we're at it, when did the word “urban” become synonymous with the word “black”? Did I sleep through this perhaps? “Urban Styles”, “urban trends”, “urban music”... I was not consulted on this at all again, didn't get an e-mail, didn't get a fax, didn't get a postcard, that's fine, let them go. So, I would like to tell you how I handle some of these speech issues concerning minorities. First of all, I say “black”; I say “black” because most black people prefer “black”. I don't say “people of color” because it's dishonest; it means precisely the same thing as “colored people” which is an insult, so if you're not willing to say “colored people” you shouldn't be willing to say “people of color”. And besides, to me the whole idea of color seems a bit specious, really. I mean, what should we call white people? “People of no color”? Isn't pink a color? And in fact, white people are not really white at all, they're different shades of pink and olive and beige — in other words, they're colored. And black people are rarely black, I see mostly various shades of brown and tan, and in fact some light-skinned black people are lighter than the darkest white people. Look how dark the people in India are: they're dark brown, but they're considered white. May I see the color chart, please? “People of color” is an awkward phrase that obscures meaning rather than enhancing it. What shall we call fat people, “people of size”? I also don't say “African-Americans”, I find it cumbersome and confusing. Which part of Africa are we talking about? Egypt? Egypt is in Africa but Egyptians aren't black; they're like the people in India, they're dark brown white people. But they're Africans. So why wouldn't an Egyptian who becomes a US citizen be called an African-American? The same would apply to South Africa; suppose a white racist from South Africa becomes an American citizen, couldn't he call himself an African-American? If for no other reason than just to bother black people... And what about a black person born in South Africa who becomes an American citizen, is he an African-American or is he a South-African-American? Or is he simply a South-African-American-African-American? You know, it's just so much more tedious liberal labeling. Liberals should be taught that labels divide people, and I think we could probably do with fewer labels, not more.”

(The whole speech is a highly recommended listen, it's both brilliant and hilarious, as he was on stage, but with a more polite language geared toward a more high-brow audience. It contains an early version of his “Modern man” slam, later expanded and included in his 2005 comedy show “Life is worth losing”.)

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    I had to downvote for several reasons: 1. it's just a copy and paste job, original content is preferred on this site. 2. A wall of text always makes it more difficult to read. 3. The monologue doesn't answer the question. The comedian is in fact denouncing the hypocrisy and absurdity of language. 4. The only relevant bit is "People of color” is an awkward phrase that obscures meaning rather than enhancing it." which is not an answer. I adore Carlin but his is an opinion piece, biased, in order to make laughs. Unsuitable as an an explanation as to why we (don't) say "colored"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 5, 2020 at 12:28
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    The link would have been great as a comment on the OP, but yes, this is not an answer.
    – Mitch
    Jul 5, 2020 at 13:56
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    I really like how most people have upvoted Mari-Lou's downvote rationale, but left it at only two downvotes, so's not to overly discourage a new contributor. That's SO much nicer than seeing a ton of downvotes with no rationale given :) [Of course, could be the other seven people didn't have downvote privs yet, but I like the first possibility more.] Jul 5, 2020 at 19:45
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    @Mari-LouA Well, sorry... é_è DewyMorgan: Well, thanks, I guess... But I still think that it's relevant to the question, since the reason why this expression is used at all is in order to not offend (or to offend depending on who you ask). It's related to the notion of euphemistic language, and euphemism treadmill, which G. Carlin develops in an earlier segment of that speech (with his striking demonstration of how – and why – “shell shock” became “post-traumatic stress disorder”). What matters more and more is not using accurate language but using language as neutral (and dull) as possible.
    – GabrielB
    Jul 5, 2020 at 20:42
  • Off-Topic: If you ask me PTSD is a far better, more accurate descriptive expression than "shell shock" which originally referred to the effects that exploding artillery shells had on a soldier's physical and psychological health.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 6, 2020 at 6:27

“Why are black people referred to as “colored people?”

In the twenty-first century, the short answer is that they are not.

The word “colored” when used to classify or categorize people is an anachronistic term dating back to before the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. It has not been in use as a socially acceptable term for over fifty years. Anyone under 70 Years old using the term today to refer to black people is looked upon (usually correctly) as racist. Anyone 70 or older using the term today is looked upon as ignorant or uncouth. Today the viewpoint on the term can be summed up in the words of African child-poet, Agra Gra in a poem dating back to the mid-1980’s that was nominated for best poem of 2006 by the U.N.

And You Call Me Colored
When I was born I was black
When I was sad I was black
When I was hot I was black
When I was sick I was black
When I was scared I was black

When you was born you was pink
When you was sad you was blue
When you was hot you was red
When you was sick you was green
When you was scared you was yellow

And you call me colored.

Categorizing a person based on their race is a very divisive and disruptive thing often used to create a dehumanizing effect in order to subjugate a class of people. “Colored” was a term to replace even more caustic terms in an effort of what we would term today as political correctness. Over time, the use of “colored“ was relegated to disuse for being socially unacceptable due to the fact that it was still used to separate and divide people to exclude them from the majority. Though, derivatives of its can still be found in some societies.

The term “people of color” is still used in the United States to denote anyone who is identified as not “white”. It is supposed to be a term of inclusion, uniting all racial ethnicities. It is still looked upon with some measure of controversy.

In South Africa, a coloured person is distinctly different than a black person. The term signifies a group of South Africans that come from multi-racial lineage. During the Apartheid Era, people from this group we’re considered their own separate race. Due to the segregation of Apartheid in all aspects of life including jobs, housing, politics, social interaction, and marriage, the children of mixed-raced lineage became genetically more and more distinct as their own distinct race generation after generation. Wikipedia states, “Genetic studies suggest the group has the highest levels of mixed ancestry in the world.“ Phenotypically, coloured (as they are called), especially cape-coloureds, display distinctive features that set them apart as unmistakable contrasted to whites, blacks, Indians, and other mixed-race individuals. Sort of a mix between African, Dutch, and French with some individuals throwing Malay into the mix.


This link explains the origin of the phrase: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcG6bVkopIM

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