Thanks to the internet and a 24/7 news cycle which feeds our fascination with celebrities, hardly a week goes by without a celeb feeling obligated to offer a mea culpa for misbehavior that somehow personally offended masses of strangers. The most recent case in point: actor Benedict Cumberbatch and his casual reference in a TV interview to an antiquated term for blacks.
Cumberbatch was responding to a question from PBS host Tavis Smiley about the lack of diversity in the British film industry when he said, “I think as far as colored actors go, it gets really difficult in the UK, and I think a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the U.S.] than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change.” This was in the context of praising black British comedian Lenny Henry, who launched a campaign to ensure greater diversity in UK media. “We’re not being representative enough in our culture of different races,” Cumberbatch told Smiley, “and that really does need to step up a pace.”
“Colored” as a racial term, of course, is a word that smacks of the days of pre-civil rights segregation in America. It has since been superseded by the kinder, gentler phrase “of color”—except perhaps among a few older-generation Americans who didn’t get the memo, not to mention the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Cumberbatch’s use of the word seemed jarringly dated, but considering the context of the discussion, it could not possibly be considered intentionally derisive. It wasn’t as if he were throwing around the “N” word at a KKK rally or in a rap song. He innocently misspoke while expressing his genuine concern, on a talk show with a black host, about securing more opportunities for black actors. Tavis Smiley himself didn’t even comment on his guest’s wording at the time. It was a minor, accidental error.
But of course, kneejerk umbrage lit up social media, as it regularly does. Some (but by no means all) people of color felt offended or even threatened, and sanctimonious people of non-color felt offended on their behalf. Actor David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Oscar-nominated Selma, rightly countered that it was “ridiculous… To attack him for a term, as opposed to what he was actually saying, I think is very disingenuous and is indicative of the age we live in where people are looking for sound bites as opposed to substance.”
But the horrified Cumberbatch nonetheless felt compelled to issue a statement which, in light of his innocuous intent, was nothing short of groveling. He was “devastated” and “a complete fool,” he said of this “shaming” incident:
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…[W]hile 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.
The media sat in smug judgment. The Atlantic deemed it “the right way to apologize,” as if The Atlantic were a sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Lindy West atThe Guardian sniffed that Cumberbatch needs to remember to check himself because he comes “from a very rich family whose wealth and success derive directly from slavery.” He is indeed from upper-crust origins built upon his ancestors’ involvement in the Barbados slave trade over two hundred years ago—which is no fault of Benedict’s unless one believes in collective guilt. And the notion of collective guilt is racist.
West, who is white, went on to give Cumberbatch grudging approval for his heartfelt apology, then to lecture him arrogantly that if some “people are still mad” at him afterward, he needs to “shut up” and “listen for awhile… Sometimes people don’t forgive you, and that’s OK. You’re not entitled to redemption, and a good apology doesn’t demand it.”
On the contrary, he did nothing requiring forgiveness or redemption. Yes, words matter, but so should intent, context, and common sense. Benedict Cumberbatch innocently misspoke. No offense was intended, no real-world harm was done. Strangers on the internet are not owed a contrite apology—although sadly, in our PC times they have been acculturated to expect one.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/30/15)