Opinion: Cumberbatch misspoke – now let’s get over it and fight real prejudice
Editor’s Note: Amma Asante is an award-winning British screenwriter and film director known for “Belle” and “A Way of Life.” Follow her on Twitter.Watch her talk at a TEDx event. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
London (CNN) I found myself talking back to the radio this morning in a way that I’ve never quite done before.
The station was LBC, one of the UK’s leading radio stations, and the topic in question was British actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of the term “colored” during his appearance on the “Tavis Smiley Show” on PBS in the United States.
The uproar that has ensued has left me slightly perplexed.
Cumberbatch was discussing with Smiley the inequality of roles for black actors in the UK and the frustrating lack of opportunities for them — a subject that is close to my heart.
In doing so, he mistakenly used an outmoded term to describe his fellow colleagues in their struggle.
I am, and have been, offended by the term when it has been used towards me, and I don’t ever want to be described by this word — one that is rooted in an abhorrent period of history in many countries, and has connotations that were intended to offend.
It of course later became the politically correct term du jour, before finally being absented from common parlance, for good.
But wait! My yelling at the radio this morning comes from a place where I find myself wondering.
Why are we choosing to lose the nuances here? Are we more comfortable with obscuring the bigger picture behind an admittedly mistaken use of a word, than we are with receiving the actual message that the sender was trying to offer — a very necessary message about injustice and inequality from someone who cared enough to voice it?
Isn’t there a space to explore intent in a person’s actions, even when it comes to use of language that can offend? Can our racial debates simply be reduced so easily to black and white, good or bad?
My slight connection with Cumberbatch is that we were once Facebook friends. We are loosely connected through industry friends and some of them are of color.
So for my part, I see an actor who was on Smiley’s important show who was trying to stand in unity with his fellow actors, about an issue that has mostly been highlighted by those of color within the entertainment industry.
I am one of those industry members.
I have never understood issues of any kind of prejudice and inequality to be anything other than a problem for all of society.
The idea that we can relegate certain groups to the margins, stifling any potential they may bring to the mainstream, seems a foolish lack of foresight in understanding that such prejudice harms society as a whole — not only those relegated.
And, in my opinion, to change endemic injustices requires a holistic approach — one that calls on all areas of society to come together to demand change.
So when an actor like Cumberbatch takes on questions of inequality and is not simply pulled up and corrected, but has his whole background and character denigrated for using a word of outdated terminology, in spite of the greater message in his words, are we not responding with the very same prejudice that we have used to label him?
Are we not also terrifying others who may wish to speak out on the same issues? Won’t they keep quiet for fear they may make a mistake under the pressure of an interview and the importance of the subject and find their message lost? I myself have struggled in interviews to ensure my message is not lost in the split-second use of an incorrect word.
The word has too much meaning and history for me as a black woman, but it is possible for others who are nervous and under the pressure of concerns to “get it right” to become confused and use the term “colored” in place of “people of color” when wishing to embrace black and other non-white ethnic groups.
It’s not correct, but it’s possible to make the mistake, with the best intentions of trying to encompass all persuasions who encounter racism but in the end, I feel we all lose out if we dwell on the naïve use of a word (and subsequent apology) and become deaf to a message.
We make mistakes. But isn’t it time we started to have more nuanced discussions on race — where heart and intent are taken into account, allowing us to concentrate on the very real battles we face to eliminate the existence of racism from all elements of our world?