Slurring Language

Black British screenwriter and director Amma Asante jumped in on CNN yesterday in defense of actor Benedict Cumberbatch. He’d used the word “colo(u)red” on a U.S. TV talk show. She feels the anger directed at him for saying it is missing the point:

Opinion: Cumberbatch misspoke — now let’s get over it and fight real prejudice

Two countries separated by a common language. To understand Cumberbatch’s employing it requires first remembering that he’s not an American. It is now a decidedly “old-fashioned” word here in Britain, yes; but it is not unheard of coming very occasionally from younger whites (like Cumberbatch), although it’s far more likely to be uttered by one born before “1945.”

An older person I know had straight-faced congratulated me this way upon Obama’s election in 2008: “You have a coloured president now. America’s so much more open-minded. It’s wonderful.” Based on the contexts, as I’ve heard it, it is used as synonymous with “black.” Although it could certainly be tossed out as a slur or a put down, that’s not how I’ve (mostly) heard it said.

But how we internalize others’ descriptions of our race or ethnic background is intensely personal of course. I am not black and I would not presume to speak for anyone else as to how they interpret any description leveled at themselves. That said, the language issue raised there led me to recall a vivid, personal experience.

* * *

One of my wife’s aunts – who is now 80 – was married to a man who died in 2005. “Frightfully English” in his manner, he had been an army officer during WWII and served in Normandy in 1944. However, early on during the liberation of France he had been hit in the head by shrapnel and badly wounded.

Subsequently he had a solid post-military career – and looked fine – but for the rest of his life was also officially “disabled” due to those wounds. As a nurse and, eventually, an NHS matron, that aunt’s training proved invaluable as his health deteriorated later in his life. And they had no children.

They had been at our wedding. We saw little of them in the years right afterwards, but that wasn’t planned; it was just how life had taken us all. I’ll never forget his funeral – where two magnificently dress-uniformed British soldiers stood at perfect attention outside his long-time Roman Catholic church as his casket was taken outside en route to his final resting place.

I do now wish I had known him much better. In recent years, we and that aunt have grown closer. She visited us at our place in the Catskills in 2013. She’d flown with a woman friend to New York (the first time that she’d been to the U.S. since 1983) to visit that friend’s daughter (who is married to an American), and went well out of her way during her visit to jam in a side trip 150 miles to the north just to come to see us.

For years my wife had been telling me, “She’s got a real soft spot for you.” I had never quite understood why. She hardly really knew me; our relationship had always been friendly, but formal.

Back here in Britain, during a visit we had with her in Buckinghamshire several months after her trip to the Catskills, we were eating lunch at a country pub we’d all rambled to from her house. As we sat over our meals and chatting, she brought up her late husband. Unsurprisingly she still misses him terribly.

“You would’ve so loved him if you’d really known him well,” she told me wistfully at one point.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy.

Some of his family had hailed from Trieste generations before he was born, and after various “intermarriages” he had still inherited an Italian surname. As his widow, that name remains hers. All smiles, she leaned into me and added that others in her family, way back when, she suspected, had always been a bit narrow-minded about him because of his Italian heritage.

Suddenly she giggled, touched my arm, and loudly declared, “I married a dago just like Helen did!”

* * *

I thought, “Dago?” The whole pub must have heard. I didn’t see my wife Helen’s immediate reaction. I’d almost fallen off my chair (and I was quite sober), but said nothing in response.

I also realized within seconds what I had stupidly never grasped before. Her niece (my wife and her goddaughter) had married a similar man (me). We have no kids also. I am only “half-Italian” and any direct connection I have to Italy is generations old. Again, like her late husband. I must remind her in some ways of him.

True, she had used what is now considered an archaic slur; I hadn’t heard it in conversation – even from bigots – in ages. But its use had struck me, weird as this may read, as just her way of displaying an ease of intimacy she had by then come to feel with me. She was pulling me closer.

She had definitely NOT meant to insult me. I’m sure if she had thought for an instant that I’d been offended that she would have been utterly horrified. And I wasn’t “offended.”

I do believe there are those times we can be far too quick to want to find a way to faint, or to be scandalized, rather than calmly seek a way to understand.

Have a good Thursday, wherever you are in the world. 🙂

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Author: “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.