Government Minister, Amber Rudd, has hit the headlines again for the wrong reasons after her seemingly well intentioned criticism of the fact that high profile women suffer increasing levels of online abuse and in particular of such abuse being targeted at women from ethnic minorities.
Ms Rudd gave the example of the abuse levelled at Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, as being an example of unacceptable treatment of a woman from an ethnic background. She no doubt anticipated that her show of sympathy to a member of the opposition benches would be welcomed as decency overcoming party political divides. But all these apparently good intentions were undone by Ms Rudd’s choice of language.
“Coloured” is a term that many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people find offensive because it is reminiscent of the pre-Civil Rights Movement days in America when signs would be displayed telling “colored” people where they could sit and where they could not sit. The term has ever since become synonymous with racism and segregation for many BAME people.
Conversely, thinking back to my own childhood in the 1980s in a rural part of the UK where such a small proportion of BAME people lived that you would frequently go days without seeing anybody who was of a different ethnic group, it was common for older relatives to refer to BAME people as “coloured”. I am certain that such people had no intention of using a term that was offensive – they genuinely believed that it was an appropriate term to use.
The reaction on social media to Ms Rudd’s apology for her use of language has been indicative of the strong feelings that are engendered by this issue.
On the one hand, many people are shocked that a seemingly well educated politician in such a senior role could possibly think it acceptable to use the term “coloured” in 2019. Yet there is a significant number of other people whose collective view can be summarised as: “we didn’t realise the term was so offensive and we don’t know what term we should use instead”.
This particularly matters in an employment context because of the danger that the use of clumsy language that offends a work colleague can give rise to a complaint of discrimination or harassment. The significant point about harassment is that it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the maker of the comment intended to offend anybody. If it has the effect of offending somebody, it will amount to harassment if it was reasonable for it to have had that effect. For the reasons described above, it is entirely understandable that a BAME employee would take offence at a colleague referring to people as “coloured”.
I have conducted training sessions for businesses on equality and diversity as well as on harassment and discrimination, where I have sometimes referred to unofficial guidelines on what terms can be deemed acceptable and unacceptable. It is noticeable how the reaction in the room is split between those who welcome the information and those who are resistant to what they see as political correctness taking over.
The use of inappropriate terminology is not an issue confined to race discrimination.
There are terms that might have been used several years ago to describe people with disabilities (“handicapped” being a prime example) that are no longer seen as being appropriate. Knowing the appropriate terms to use to describe people of a particular sexual orientation, people undergoing gender reassignment or people who identify with a gender that is different from their birth gender can also often present a challenge. Take for example the term “queer”, which is considered by many to be offensive and inappropriate but is a word by which some gay people feel they identify.
From an employer’s perspective, the best advice is to ensure that your workforce is regularly updated on equality and diversity training. It is also important that such training is delivered not from an approach of “You can’t say that anymore!” but rather from an angle of helping people understand why a term might actually be much more offensive than they realise.