How Should We Navigate the Changing Linguistics of Race?

Sixth form students at Harrison College, Barbados in the mid 1960s (by kind permission of Donald Graham)

I was standing in the echoey entry hall of the British Library when I took a call from an interviewee I was scheduled to meet the following week. I’m in the middle of an oral history project exploring the experiences of white families in the Caribbean in the decades around independence and, as part of that project, I am doing a series of life history interviews. The caller, let’s call him Christopher, was in his nineties. He was soft-spoken, and his Barbadian-Northern-English accent was difficult to follow over the phone. It was clear, though, that he was very anxious about our upcoming interview.

He prevaricated for a while. Would I be wanting lunch when I visited him? Would I be able to find his street? Finally, hesitatingly, he came to the point. His granddaughter had scolded him recently for using the word ‘coloured’. Would it be a problem if he said that in the interview? He didn’t want to say the wrong thing. It wasn’t that he had anything against ‘coloured’ people, he told me, in fact he had several ‘coloured’ relatives. He came to an uncertain halt.

I wasn’t immediately sure how to answer. My research investigates the contours of past racial attitudes, including its language. So – after a pause – I decided to tell him that if ‘coloured’ was the term that felt natural to him, that was what he should use. 

He was hard of hearing and my voice crescendoed as I repeated this statement for him a second time. I noticed that I glanced around as I spoke. I felt embarrassed and awkward to be overheard – remembering Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent fall from grace for calling black actors ‘coloured’; remembering the haunted atmosphere of St Nicholas Abbey, a Barbadian sugar plantation built on slavery and owned by one of Cumberbatch’s ancestors. Cumberbatch should have known better, I thought, and I wondered if, in condoning the use of this word, I was also making a mistake.

In the following days I returned again and again to Christopher’s question, and to the implications it had for my upcoming interview with him, for how we access memory and for how we study and talk about the racial attitudes of the past. 

In sculpting my research proposal, I had thought deeply about the sensitivities of the subject I wanted to work on. In the era of Black Lives Matter and of campaigns for Britain to reconsider its attitude to its colonial heritage, I was aware that a project focusing on white experience might provoke resentment and hostility. A nuanced history of this experience, one that took into account contemporary feelings, nonetheless seemed to me to form an important part of the picture of how the landscape of race has evolved and continues to evolve today. 

What I had failed to factor in, though, was the sheer linguistic difficulty of talking to people about race. At this moment in time, the red flags are clear to many of us: there are words we understand must never be said or written; words that feel out of date and dubious; words that are acceptable. The trouble is that the words which are acceptable can feel remote from the historical experience I am trying to tap into. Navigating the linguistics of race is difficult enough for someone like me, trying to articulate something about the history of race to a modern audience. But before I even get to this point, I need to have conversations with people who, also aware and wary of the issue of ‘correct’ discourse, may find themselves uncertain of how, in the contemporary context, to articulate their memories. 

My interviewees were born in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In Christopher’s youth, Barbados was a British colony. Black and white people sat separately in churches and cinemas. And he was taught by his – fairly liberal – parents that ‘coloured’ was the respectful term to use when referring to the black population. Some of the alternative words used for black Barbadians in this period are not even printable today.

In Christopher’s lifetime, he had seen the word ‘coloured’ replaced, at least in part, by ‘Negro’ and then succeeded by ‘black’ (or ‘Black’). Each step in this evolution was driven by the efforts of black people to redefine themselves and gain standing in a society that has historically held them to be subordinate. 

During the first few minutes of our interview, Christopher’s responses were stilted and cautious. The language of the past and the present seemed to have become tangled knottily in his head, the words of his youth coming most naturally to his tongue, later words coming more clumsily if at all – a new, half-learned vocabulary. The contemporary mode of racial discourse had left him tongue-tied and uncertain about how to describe his personal experiences.

I wasn’t sure how to ease the process. Should I mirror his outdated terminology or speak from the contemporary palette? Part of me itched to encourage him to adopt the words that felt to me correct. But as a historian I almost relished his slips into what is now considered unacceptable language. These were exactly the sort of undercurrents that I wanted to capture.  

The approach that I followed, in this interview and subsequently, was a sort of bricolage. Sometimes I used ‘black’ where an interviewee used ‘coloured’. Sometimes an interviewee resisted this and it felt like the issue of language was getting in the way and so I stopped, either adopting their own terms or using convoluted phrases to get around the issue. (‘Did you have non-white friends as a child?’) This process of linguistic navigation could feel awkward and uncomfortable, but I discovered that the longer the interviews went on, the more the issue receded. Interviewees settled into the language of the period they were describing. I was getting an enlightening glimpse of the past. 

Along with teaching me linguistic flexibility, this project has drawn my attention to how the evolution of language can be useful rather than problematic for oral historians. I listen back to Christopher telling me a detail from his childhood. ‘We called the village boys “black rats” and they called us “white mice”. Can I tell you that? . . . Yes . . . I think that’s just about acceptable.’ What I am hearing is not just what it was like to be a white child in interwar Barbados, but what it has been like to carry memories of that childhood through subsequent decades. The racial landscape of an entire lifetime is being illuminated.

Featured image: Sixth form students at Harrison College, Barbados in the mid 1960s (by kind permission of Donald Graham)

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