Benedict Cumberbatch says he was an ‘idiot’ and ‘devastated’ by word choice to black TV host

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(CNN) — Oscar-nominated star Benedict Cumberbatch has apologized for referring to black actors as “colored” on a U.S. talk show.

The “12 Years a Slave” actor said he was an “idiot” and “devastated” at his choice of words during an interview with PBS’ Tavis Smiley about the lack of diversity in the British film industry.

Cumberbatch, 38, told Smiley: “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.”

His comments were criticized by some observers on Twitter as being insensitive and out of touch. One user called Sonya Thomas asked: “Benedict Cumberbatch used the term ‘coloured’ to describe black actors. What year are we in?”

But Smiley, who is black, defended the “Sherlock” star on Monday, tweeting: “Those who saw Benedict Cumberbatch on @PBS, know he feels persons of color are underrepresented in #Hollywood.”

The actor, who appeared on Smiley’s show to discuss his Oscar-nominated role in “The Imitation Game,” praised the efforts of Lenny Henry, a black British actor and comedian who has launched a campaign to ensure more ethnic minorities are employed in the UK media.

“Something’s gone wrong — we’re not being representative enough in our culture of different races, and that really does need to step up a pace,” Cumberbatch said. “It’s clear when you see certain migratory patterns that there are more opportunities here than there are in the UK.”

Cumberbatch issued the following statement to People magazine on Monday: “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.”

Anti-racism campaigners in the UK lamented Cumberbatch’s use of the word as “outdated” but praised the actor for highlighting “a very important issue within the entertainment industry and within society.”

“The lack of representation of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds within certain industries in the UK is an issue which needs addressing, and we are pleased that Benedict has spoken out in support of more appropriate representation and of the views of actors and campaigners like Lenny Henry,” a spokesperson from Show Racism the Red Card told CNN.

“In doing so, he has also inadvertently highlighted the issue of appropriate terminology and the evolution of language. Show Racism the Red Card feel that the term ‘coloured’ is now outdated and has the potential to cause offence due to the connotations associated with the term and its historical usage.”

“Appropriate terminology differs from country to country; for example, we know that in some countries the term ‘coloured’ is still widely used, and that in the US the term ‘people of colour’ is quite common.”

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  • Jack Mehoff

    How about people of color? is that okay? Geez. Yes what YEAR are we in when a simple word such as color “offends” so easily!? People today need to get a grip on reality and get over themselves. This was not that bad and barely qualifies to be considered a mistake.

  • blah

    Save some of that super sensitivity and use it to refrain from sexist language and attitudes as well. Why all the focus on race, race, nothing but race? Sexism is still treated as if it’s only natural and deserved by all females. Half the human population is female and so THAT is a far more important issue. A lot of potential is lost due to the continuing ignorance over biological sex and assigned gender roles. e.g. genital mutilation all over the muslim world gets a pass but it’s taboo to say word one against the Islamic ideology, let alone muslim people themselves. e.g Sexism in the workplace in which discrimination is carefully applied so as not to cross any line and get a lawsuit. Apparently most of you have to be forcibly told to stop being prejudiced against individuals based on your faulty overgeneralizations. Hey, I know! Why not permit individuals to be themselves and quit forcing everyone into the generalizations for their type? “Most” people of a type may be xyz, but that NEVER means ALL of them are. And, most importantly, it NEVER means that a given individual that you encounter on the street SHOULD fit the stereotypes of whatever demographic they belong to. Grow up and start thinking a bit more and judging a bit less.

    An entire article because a fawning white apologist man said the word “colored?” Hey, people of color use the phrase “people of color.” If you’re going to be THAT sensitive to others’ feelings, then please spread it around to the females, the gays, the sensitive males and the macho females. Thanks.

  • john

    This terminology goes back to 60s and 70s Britain when saying ‘coloured’ was the polite way of addressing black people. To call someone black in 70s Britain was seen as offensive. I’m sure Benedict’s’ parents would have been teaching him that this is the polite way of talking. So to criticise someone who is instinctively trying to be polite is wrong. There are plenty of horrible nasty racist people in the world to have a go at before Mr C. !