As former Home Secretary Amber Rudd learnt last week, “coloured” is not an acceptable word to describe people of black and minority ethnic background. It is not acceptable here in the UK in 2019, and has not been for many decades, assuming it ever was. I have encountered many people over the years who had not learnt this.
One memorable occasion was in the summer of 2006 in Stratford-on-Avon. I was there for the day, with the wife of an old friend from college, to see all three parts of “Henry VI”. The three plays were spread out over 12 hours. It was quite a day, incorporating over four hours’ driving time for me, before and after the performances. During the first interval (in “Henry VI part I”) we ended up in a brief conversation with someone who looked at least 10 years older than me. He started it, drawn more to my friend’s wife than to me, unquestionably. If I had been there on my own, he would have left me alone. Chuck Iwuji, the actor playing Henry VI, is black. Just after the bell had sounded for the final time, to encourage us to return to our seats, our fellow theatre-goer said something along the lines of, “I wonder what Shakespeare would have said if he’d known there’d be a coloured actor playing the king. I’ll bet he’s spinning in his grave right now.” I still wonder, all these years later, if I should have put him straight, but the bell had rung. I said nothing. Literally. Not even a “See you later” or a “Take it easy”. Just a shake of the head. We returned to our seats still in a state of shock.
I recall very clearly a friend putting me right, the last time I used the word “coloured” to describe someone who was black. It was at a party in 1984. She said, “Coloured? What colour would that be then? Green?” I said, “Well, no, you know, uh, black.” She advised me to say “black” instead, so I did, and have done so ever since. But, in my defence, in the 1970s and into the 1980s many white people used the word “black” in an offensive way. By saying “coloured” we were steering clear of the offensive use of the word “black”. The great Stevie Wonder himself uses the word “coloured” in his 1973 song “Living for the City”: “To find a job is like the haystack needle / ’cause where he lives, they don’t use coloured people”. If it was okay for him, I figured it was okay for me. I know better now. So does Amber Rudd, I hope.
Incidentally, three weeks after the all-day “Henry VI” fest I returned to Stratford-on-Avon for another rarely performed Shakespeare work, “Henry VIII”, at Holy Trinity Church. Shakespeare is buried in that church, as you may know. There was nothing to suggest that he had been spinning in his grave at the prospect of a black actor playing the role of Henry VI. I think that Shakespeare would have been fine with it.