history of the word colored orig mg_00005107.jpg
Why the term 'colored' is so offensive
01:12 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

"Good Morning America" anchor Amy Robach apologizes for using term "colored people"

John McWhorter: It's not the right term to use, but isn't a racist epithet like the N-word

CNN  — 

Our culture has become rather exquisitely attuned to spotting when people use the N-word and drawing conclusions about their character when they do so. But variety is the spice of life, and now it’s time to be angry that Amy Robach on “Good Morning America” referred to black people as “colored people.” We are to speculate over whether that means the letter R is more than just the first one in Robach’s last name, but also signifies that she, like Ellen Degeneres was adjudged by some last week, is a (shhh!).

John McWhorter

The logic behind this is that it’s inappropriate to call black people “colored” in 2016, and in itself, it is. For most of the 20th century, the polite terms were “colored” and “Negro.”

However, in the 1960s, many black leaders came to see those terms as accreted with implications of black people’s horrific treatment under slavery and Jim Crow. As a result, Malcolm X, for example, preferred “black,” and by the time I was a conscious person in the early ’70s, black had long erased “colored” and “Negro.”

Then, of course, in the late 1980s Jesse Jackson felt that even “black” needed an overhaul, possibly freighted with the negative implications of black as connoting evil or impurity. “African-American” carried, he and many people thought, a more celebratory sense of heritage, a connection to something besides segregated water fountains and lynchings. Since then “African-American” has been considered the proper term.

But at the same time as “African-American” came in, “person of color,” considered to include other nonwhites, also became popular. In practice, person of color has always referred more via implication to black people and Latinos than to, say, Asians, and some would venture that black people have a little more purchase on the term than Latinos.

However, colored and Negro do not classify as slurs in the same vein as the N-word. They are no longer what black people prefer to be called, but only the N-word was always been used as an epithet, being a direct charge that a black person is inferior.

That isn’t true of colored or Negro, as is clear from the simple fact that both terms are proudly preserved in the names of bodies such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the United Negro College Fund.

When we see a black performer in an old movie or a black person in an old interview refer to themselves as “colored” or a “Negro,” we do not wince as if they were being called the N-word. This is because there’s a difference between a word being antique and inappropriate and a word being a putdown.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

So, fast forward to “Good Morning America,” 2016. A white woman says “colored people.” Now, some may find the notion of a white person deliberately popping off with “colored people” valuable evidence that racism persists in American society. However, something else that persists in American society is basic human rationality, and however Robach felt about black people privately we can be quite sure that she would not pop off with “colored people” on purpose. It would threaten her job (look at the outcry right now, for instance). Racism these days almost always requires discovery, interpretation.

In this case, anyone would guess that Robach really meant to say “people of color” and slipped up. That’s exactly what she said and there is all reason to believe her.

For one, spontaneous speech is always riddled with false starts and errors – listen to yourself in the heat of a conversation and you will notice how shaggy casual speech is. Besides, “colored people” is an especially easy mistake given that it sounds so much like “people of color.” A man of wealth, a wealthy man; a woman of wisdom, a wise woman; a person of color, a colored person. This is just how language works.

Robach’s job here is simply to apologize for the slip-up, as she did. Her explanation should be accepted as readily as an apology for a misdialed phone number. We all do it, and there’s no reason this universal linguistic trait amply studied by psychologists and linguists – the slip of the tongue – would somehow cease to exist when it came to words referring to descendants of African slaves in the United States in the early 21st century.

There are, after all, genuinely rude things certain people are saying. I seem to recall a certain uniquely bumptious someone crowing recently that he will “produce for the African-Americans.” That “the” has a distancing effect – it makes it sound like “those” African-Americans live in a zoo, “over there.”

In contrast, someone slipping up and saying “colored people” – when the nation’s leading civil rights organization is called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People”? As Omar on “The Wire” was given to saying, “Ain’t no thang.”