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Cumberbatched: The Importance of Terminology

Many readers will have come across the incident in the wider media last week involving the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, wherein he used the term “coloured” to describe black actors while giving an interview on an American talk show. While he has since apologised profusely for use of the term, the furore that followed immediately after the initial remark has shined a light on attitudes to such terminology on both sides of the Atlantic.

The irony of Mr Cumberbatch’s ill-chosen words were that they were used while he was in the middle of conveying a very commendable message regarding the difficulties facing black actors in the UK as relates to their American counterparts.

The incident as a whole gave rise to much discourse via mainstream and social media as to the issue of appropriate terminology and how such has evolved over the years. The official stance from many civil rights groups both in the UK and US is that the term ‘coloured’ is now very much outmoded and has the potential to cause offence due to the connotations associated with its historical use.

Mr Cumberbatch being a Hollywood actor these days, his comments could be considered to have been made while he was in what would equate to his workplace. Being self-employed however, Mr Cumberbatch was of course not accountable to any HR Department, or subject to any disciplinary action; instead he faced a public backlash, quickly dealt with by a robust apology, doubtless proofread by his PR handlers.

The general composition of this incident however could and does happen on a daily basis in a great many workplaces in the UK. There are still individuals of the older generations that recall the term ‘coloured’ as once being acceptable across the board. The original and leading proponent of the black civil rights movement in the United States to this day still uses the term in its moniker, the NAACP or National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

In the context of UK employment law then, what might the run of play be were an employee in the workplace to make the same comment as Mr Cumberbatch during discourse or within earshot of a black colleague who took offence to the term?

The recourse the offended employee would be able to seek would potentially be that of a claim for harassment on the basis of race under the Equality Act 2010. The employee making the comment would arguably have engaged in unwanted conduct relating to race that had the purpose or effect of violating their black colleague’s dignity.

The theoretical offending employee described above not being a self-employed Hollywood actor, consequences in the form of litigation for both them and their employer would likely follow. The employee may likely face a tough time defending the comment as Mr Cumberbatch did, however the employer if correctly prepared may be able to stave off being tarred with the same vicarious brush of racial harassment.

If the employer here has ensured that its staff have been given clear guidelines as to what constitutes harassment, when such occurs contrary to those guidelines the employer will be able to advance a defence that it had taken reasonable steps to prevent harassment in the workplace.

From an employer’s perspective it is important to ensure that the above guidelines are put in place to ensure that this defence is available if required. For the employee (or Benedict Cumberbatch) in this scenario, the lesson is simply to be more aware of what is and is not acceptable terminology in the present day.

As always if I can provide you with any further assistance on queries relating to racial discrimination or any other issue, please do not hesitate to contact me for a free consultation on 0113 350 4030 or samira.cakali@scesolicitors.co.uk


Please note that the information in this blog is to provide information of general interest in a summary manner and should not be construed as individual legal advice. Readers should consult with SCE Solicitors or other professional counsel before acting on the information contained here.

Samira Cakali

Samira Cakali is a pragmatic and approachable solicitor advocate with extensive contentious and non-contentious experience in the fields of employment law as well as civil litigation, within a range of commercial businesses from SME’s to multinationals as well as senior executives.

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