Rod Liddle: Benedict Cumberbatch and What's Really Offensive

By Liddle, Rod | The Spectator, January 31, 2015 | Go to article overview

Rod Liddle: Benedict Cumberbatch and What's Really Offensive


Liddle, Rod, The Spectator


How should we refer to non-white people, and foreigners in general, given that of course we do sometimes need to mention them, perhaps over dinner in White's or when mulling over where to go on our holidays? This is an important question, because the approved terminologies seem to shift by the day, if not the minute, and we could find ourselves in a lot of trouble. I remember the late US politician George Wallace, when he was governor of Alabama, being ticked off for having used the word 'negroes'. Quite unacceptable, he was admonished -- the correct term is 'blacks', and there's an end to it. 'Sheesh,' Wallace replied, 'we jes' got used to calling 'em negroes.' I accept, of course, that when it comes to the issue of how not to racially offend someone, George Wallace is an imperfect role model. In later life he got a bit nicer and said he was very sorry. As we all will.

I was drawn to this topic as a consequence of the plight in which one of our most celebrated young actors, Benedict Cumberbatch, finds himself. During an interview with the black presenter Tavis Smiley on a US TV show, Cumberbatch bemoaned the lack of opportunities for black and ethnic minority (BME) people in the UK film and television industry. This is something we should all do, given the opportunity, when abroad -- slag off the UK for its inherent, antediluvian racism: Je suis Lenny Henry!

The problem, though, is that Benedict did not use the term BME. He used the term 'coloured people'. Oh dear. Cue the inevitable Twittercaust. How very dare he! There was a massed screeching of outrage and Cumberbatch was forced into making one of those very familiar public apologies, nose scraping the ground, visions of his highly promising career going up in racist smoke.

It probably did not help that a) Cumberbatch was the star of the extremely PC movie 12 Years A Slave and b) his own family made its humungous fortune out of slave plantations in the Caribbean. I'm rather with the Labour MP Chris Bryant on the unhealthy profusion of toffs in our films and in the music charts, and have never had much time for either Cumberbatch or his equally well-bred and agreeably fey colleague Eddie Redmayne, whom my wife slavers over.

But I feel a sparrow fart of sympathy for him now. Apparently the correct term in the USA is not even 'black', but 'people of colour'. Forgive me, but there is no meaningful semantic difference between 'people of colour' and 'coloured people'. Why does one offend, then, when the other does not? Isn't this a case of confected outrage and manufactured sensitivity? …

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