Anthropology / Everything Human

Why Do We Keep Using the Word “Caucasian”?

"Race"

Why Do We Keep Using the Word “Caucasian”?

The word “Caucasian” is used in the U.S. to describe white people, but it doesn’t indicate anything real. It’s the wrong term to use! My colleague and one of my longtime writing partners, Carol Mukhopadhyay, has written a wonderful article, “Getting Rid of the Word ‘Caucasian,’” that is still relevant today for how it challenges us to critically examine the language that we use. It’s obvious that language shapes how we perceive and see the world. And we know how powerful the concept of race is and how the use of words related to the notion of race has shaped what we call the U.S. racial worldview. So why do we continue using the word “Caucasian”?

To answer that question, it is helpful to understand where the term came from and its impact on our society. The term “Caucasian” originated from a growing 18th-century European science of racial classification. German anatomist Johann Blumenbach visited the Caucasus Mountains, located between the Caspian and Black seas, and he must have been enchanted because he labeled the people there “Caucasians” and proposed that they were created in God’s image as an ideal form of humanity.

Caucasian terminology origin - Johann Blumenbach’s five-race taxonomy placed “Caucasians” at the top as representing an ideal type of human. The other four races were viewed as “degenerate” forms of this original creation.

Johann Blumenbach’s five-race taxonomy placed “Caucasians” at the top as representing an ideal type of human. The other four races were viewed as “degenerate” forms of this original creation. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach/Wikimedia Commons

And the label has stuck to this day. According to Mukhopadhyay, Blumenbach went on to name four other “races,” each considered “physically and morally ‘degenerate’ forms of ‘God’s original creation.’” He categorized Africans, excluding light-skinned North Africans, as “Ethiopians” or “black.” He divided non-Caucasian Asians into two separate races: the “Mongolian” or “yellow” race of Japan and China, and the “Malayan” or “brown” race, which included Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders. And he called Native Americans the “red” race.

Blumenbach’s system of racial classification was adopted in the United States to justify racial discrimination—particularly slavery. Popular race science and evolutionary theories generally posited that there were separate races, that differences in behavior were tied to skin color, and that there were scientific ways to measure race. One way racial differences were defined was through craniometrics, which measured skull size to determine the intelligence of each racial group. As you can imagine, this flawed application of the scientific method resulted in race scientists developing a flawed system of racial classification that ranked the five races from most primitive (black and brown races), to more advanced (the Asian races), to the most advanced (the white, or Caucasian, races). Even though the five-race topology was later disproven, “Caucasian” still has currency in the U.S.

One reason we keep using the term “Caucasian” is that the U.S. legal system made use of Blumenbach’s taxonomy. As early as 1790 the first naturalization law was passed, preventing foreigners who were not white from becoming citizens. But according to Mukhopadhyay, Blumenbach’s category of “Caucasian” posed a problem because his classification of white also included some North Africans, Armenians, Persians, Arabs, and North Indians. The definition of Caucasian had to be reinvented to focus the ideological category of whiteness on northern and western Europe. The term, even though its exact definition changed over time, was used to shape legal policy and the nature of our society.

A second reason the term has had staying power is that, as new immigrants began to stream into the country in the 20th century, political leaders and scientists supported a new racial science called eugenics that built on 19th-century notions of race. Eugenicists divided Caucasians into four ranked subraces: Nordic, Alpine, Mediterranean, and Jew (Semitic). I’m sure you will not be surprised to learn that the Nordics were ranked highest intellectually and morally. These rankings were used by our government to design and execute discriminatory immigration laws that preserved the political dominance of Nordics, who were largely Protestant Christians.

Today, the word “Caucasian” is still used in many official government documents, and it continues to carry a kind of scientific weight. For example, it is found in social science and medical research, and is used by some colleges and universities in their data collection and distribution of student, staff, and faculty statistics. In Mukhopadhyay’s research, she sampled government websites and official documents and was surprised to learn how many government offices, including the U.S. Census Bureau, still use the word.

So “Caucasian” became entrenched in our legal, governmental, scientific, and social lives. And although the U.S. government reluctantly denounced or at least played down racial science after the atrocities of Adolf Hitler’s regime were fully exposed at the end of WWII, the term has not been discarded.

What can we do to change it? We need to acknowledge that the word “Caucasian” is still around and that its continued use is problematic. We should use terms that are more accurate, such as “European-American.” Doing so would at least be consistent with the use of descriptive terms like “African-American,” “Mexican-American,” and others that signify both a geographical and an American ancestry.

The bottom line is that it is time for a modern—and accurate—terminology. The use of an outdated and disproven term that falsely purports to describe a separate race of people has no place in the U.S.

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  • Jason Max

    “The bottom line is that it is time for a modern—and accurate—terminology.” Ok, so what should we be saying? What would be accurate? This is an interesting article, but at the end I’m not sure where you stand? Do you think we just need another term (white, European…?) or should we move past the notion that there are basic categories of humans, which we call races?

    It seems to me that most empirical science supports the latter view (there are no consistent, discreet traits or genetic sequences that exclusively and accurately identify ‘racial’ groups), but obviously there are also morphological differences between groups of people, which we seem to want to emphasize to and use for categorization.

    • Dev Bavenport

      Jason Max, I agree with you that there is no such category (sub-category?) of humans that can be called race, I think European-Americans makes good, if not perfect sense. The reason why I think so goes back to Emile Durkheim (I’m presuming you are an anthropologist or a sociologist and that I don’t have to explain durkheim to you. Here’s a link in case I’m making an inappropriate presumption: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_fact)

      “Race” is a social fact in America and other countries though the way each culture/society “does” race varies. Since it has long had hierarchical meaning (also false, but socially factual), it is important for social scientists to know what people consider their race to be, since that explains other aspects of their being, including health, life prospects, etc. This is all without reference to the present-day “white nationalists” who have much invested in maintaining the idea of racial “superiority.” That stinky fish can’t be fried, and just needs to be used as bait.

  • PondWrite

    As someone you checks the “Caucasian” box on the forms when it appears, I appreciate this reminder that it is mot the neutral term many of us assume it to be. However, I think we may have missed the moment in history when being “European” or “European-American” would also convey “whiteness.” Within a generation, if not already in places like France, we can no longer assume that being “from Europe” conveys skin color or ethnicity. Witness the growing migration from the eastern and southern Mediterranean, not to mention Anatolia or around the Arabian Sea, to Europe.

    Does “Marie” from Lyons descend from 10 generations of French farmers or a Christian sect from Syria?

    Is “Amy” from Southern California the great granddaughter of Okies who moved overland during the 1930s Dustbowl or of Chinese immigrants arriving across the Pacific. I’m thinking of Amt Tan, by the way, not Amy Adams or Amy Smart. (Hmmm, could have chosen Amy Schumer for some additional wrinkles, I guess.)

    Anyway, as anthropologists we agree these classifications are “meaningless” but until our society is truly “post-racial” [think of Starfleet?] I guess we have to keep stumbling along.

  • thefermiparadox

    We should do away with “Race” too. Better to say ancestral populations or ancestry.

    • brando82

      Wait, so if we “do away” with race, then that’s saying race is just a concept conjured by human imagination. It is a state of mind, and therefore racism is too. If racism doesn’t actually exist, there are no racists. But of course, the media and professors tell us we are all racist. But then they tell us there’s no such biological thing as race. But….but.

      Yeah, they just may be a bit scared about telling the truth regarding race. Human history has often been frought with tragedy when it comes to this matter. The Science community in the past was no timid house cat when it came to it’s share of the human suffering it caused.

      • deecee

        R-i-ght, @Brando. Science tells us (through genuine genetics research) that “race” is not a genetic reality but a human social concept. Which is to say that we humans BELIEVE in the concept of race. Humans believe a lot of things that are NOT true … and mostly that gets us into trouble.

  • JoseanFigueroa

    Ironic that an anthropologist wanting to reform nomenclature could equate “Mexican-American’ with “African-American or “European-American; Apart from the technicality of all Mexicans being American in continental terms, many Mexican-Americans are likewise “European-American”, others are mixed and others are indigenous…