Coloured, written as colored in America, is a word that has been applied to people who are not white. It has meant different things at different times and places. It is still current in South Africa and neighbouring countries, but in Britain and America it is somewhere between dated and offensive. That is why when Lindsay Lohan lately informed us that Barack Obama will be the first coloured president of America, she put her foot in her mouth.
In the 1700s the word meant anyone who was not white. It was close to what the terms non-white and people of colour mean now, but back then it took in Italians and Jews – anyone who was noticeably darker-skinned than an Englishman.
That is the meaning it had in Britain up until the 1950s, though at some point Italians and Jews crossed over to white (when and how?) and the word came to mean anyone darker than a European. This is how Winston Churchill used the word when he said too many coloured people were coming to Britain. He meant West Indians, Pakistanis and so on. After the 1960s the word began to seem dated and fell out of respectable use.
In America the word had a different history. Like in Britain, it started out meaning anyone darker than the English, but because America had a large number of blacks, in time it came to mean mainly just black people from the early 1800s onwards.
It was the main word Frederick Douglass used in the 1840s and that of most blacks from the 1860s to the 1960s, the first hundred years after the slaves were freed. That it how it became the C in NAACP: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But Jim Crow whites used the word too, putting it on their signs that said, “Colored Only”. So by 1910 Negro began to take the place of coloured as the politically correct word for blacks, a position it held till the late 1960s when black took its place, which in turn was replaced in the late 1980s by African American.
That is at the level of political correctness. Most black people called themselves “coloured” up until the 1960s. Now most call themselves “black”. The words “African American”and “Negro” never had mass support among blacks.
You can still hear the word “coloured” in old Hollywood films and from very old people – much older than Miss Lohan.
In South Africa the word is still current but came to mean something else: those who were neither white nor black but mixed. There is no One Drop Rule in South Africa. Under apartheid there were four races: White, Black, Coloured and Indian, all with capital letters. Coloureds were above Blacks but below Whites. Most are part black and part white, but many are mixed with other things too, like Javanese. Some want the word changed to “brown”.