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.
In Britain that is the meaning it had 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. like from the Caribbean and South Asia. After the 1960s the word began to seem dated and fell out of respectable use.
In America before 1830 “coloured” was mainly applied to mixed-race Africans, people who were part black and part white. They were sometimes called “brown”. By the 1830s, “coloured” took the place of “African” as the main word most black people used when talking about themselves. “African” fell from grace in the early 1800s because whites were talking about sending Africans back to Africa! “Coloured” was the main word David Walker used in the 1820s, Frederick Douglass in the 1840s, and Solomon Northup in the 1850s. It is the C in NAACP.
Under Jim Crow (1877-1967), its use spread to “Colored Only” signs and working-class whites.
By the early 1900s, among both blacks and whites,”coloured” was the main working-class word for black people. “Negro”, meanwhile, was the main middle-class word, the kind you would see in the newspaper, a book or a government report.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the word “black” swept away both “Negro” and “coloured”. By the late 1980s, “African American” became the new middle-class word.
In 2008, 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. In fact, they are the most racially mixed people in the world. Some want to replace it with the word “brown”.
Major revision in 2015.