My thoughts on the Benedict Cumberbatch controversy (and his apology)

We all love Benedict Cumberbatch, but he’s far from perfect, as we all learned this week. In case you missed it, Cumberbatch was on the Tavis Smiley show on PBS and referred to black actors as “colored.”

“I think as far as colored actors go, it gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the US] than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change,” Cumberbatch told Smiley.

It was a moment that took people by surprise. Despite the context with which he used the term, his use of the word “colored” felt antiquated, and for many, quite offensive. The term is extremely outdated and harkens back to an era of institutional segregation in America. It’s also considered by many dehumanizing.

Of course, Cumberbatch didn’t mean it that way and his heart-felt apology reflected as much:

I’m devastated to have caused offense by using this outmoded terminology. I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done. I can only hope this incident will highlight the need for correct usage of terminology that is accurate and inoffensive. The most shaming aspect of this for me is that I was talking about racial inequality in the performing arts in the U.K. and the need for rapid improvements in our industry when I used the term. […]

I feel the complete fool I am and while I am sorry to have offended people and to learn from my mistakes in such a public manner please be assured I have. I apologize again to anyone who I offended for this thoughtless use of inappropriate language about an issue which affects friends of mine and which I care about deeply.

 Now, we have heard all kinds of apologies from celebrities who have accidentally (or purposefully) offended any number of people, and they are usually less genuine than this one. One of the reasons Cumberbatch’s apology did not come off as canned or forced (as so often is the case) is because of the context in which he used it in the first place. Cumberbatch was exploring the fact that roles for non-white actors are harder to come by in an attempt to bring awareness to the severe lack of diversity in British films. (We know that we have the same issue in the U.S.) Though Cumberbatch’s misuse of the proper term — which currently would be “people of color” — came across as much more offensive than intended, the issue he was speaking on came from a good place.

As a person of mixed race, I always appreciate a quick apology. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the proper terminology to describe a person from a particular race, and in this case, it really does seem like Cumberbatch was unaware of how outdated his verbiage was.

I used to joke that I was the leader of racial insensitivity, largely because everyone would turn to me to make sure I wasn’t offended before continuing a conversation. As I have gotten older, I have noticed that I am much harder to offend.

There are countless offensive comments and acts going on in our country alone on a regular basis. Genuine people like Benedict Cumberbatch accidentally using an outdated term? That would have offended me in the past, but it does not offend me now.

I often joke that I am glad that I’m not famous, and this is exactly why. I am pretty sure half of my tweets are offensive to someone, and famous people have to be on top of every word that comes out of their mouth (or fingertips). To be in the spotlight all of the time means that you have a responsibility to be hyper-aware of what you are speaking on, what language you are using, and everything in between.

That’s not to discredit anyone who was offended by his comment. If anything, it reflected an lack of understanding and sensitivity—which is a larger issue in the entertainment industry altogether.

All I am saying is: there is a clear difference between an offensive celebrity and an honest, well-meaning one, and I think we all know where Cumberbatch lands. In conclusion, I’m still Team Benedict.

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