Do you know how to tell which type Irish pub you are in? Ask for a whiskey. I learnt this when I asked for a glass of Bushmills in an Irish pub in Birmingham. The relevance of which will be dealt with later.

I noted that in two articles in The Guardian last week on the topic of race and racism the expression “people of colour” was used as opposed to “black” or “ethnic minorities”. Has there been a shift in the correct terminology, and if so what’s the thinking behind it? To answer this question I did what most people do these days and googled it.

“Coloured people (which in South Africa means ‘people of racially mixed ancestry’) has in the United States a connotation different from people of coloUr… Coloured is often taken as a slur, even when not so intended, and so this term is better replaced by black. People of colour, on the other hand, is a phrase encompassing all nonwhites… When used by whites, people of colour usually carries a friendly and respectful connotation, but should not be used as a synonym for black; it refers to all racial groups that are not white,” wrote William Safire in The New York Times in 1988.

In US history, “person of color” has often been used to refer only to people of African heritage. Today, it usually covers any person of African, Hispanic, Native American, Asian or Pacific Island descent, and its intent is to be inclusive.

Cultural sensitivity

So the expression person of colour comes from the US. I don’t know why it has taken so long to a cross the Atlantic. People of colour simply identifies those who have in common the fact that they are not white. It includes people of mixed race, although President Obama is more often described as the first black president of the United States rather than mixed race.

‘People of colour is preferred to “non-white” or “ethnic minority” because these expressions are not as neutral as they may appear’

In the US for people of colour the experience of growing up even in the same neighbourhood is different depending on whether you parents were immigrants or descendants of slaves. This distinction doesn’t seem to apply in the UK, where there tends to be either a religious divide in the community, Muslim or non-Muslim, or simply a case of first generation immigrants versus second or third generation, (those more recently arrived versus those born in the UK).

People of colour is preferred to “non-white” or “ethnic minority” because these expressions are not as neutral as they may appear to those less aware and sensitive to the language of race. People of colour sounds more positive and is more inclusive. If you are referring to a specific ethnic group then the convention is to use people of African heritage or Asian heritage. I have noticed people in education use this terminology yet most of us use the terms black and Asian.

If this seems all rather politically correct to you then think how confusing it must be to people around the world who simply refer to “the Irish” with no awareness or sensitivity to issues of nationality, religion, history or culture. Bushmills is an Irish whiskey that in Birmingham used to only be served in the Republic of Ireland pubs.