Anthropology / Everything Human

Why Do We Keep Using the Word “Caucasian”?


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:

      “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.

    • Dan Sheehan

      I believe he answered the question by suggesting “European American” at the end, at least for those of us who are Americans. i think people think saying “caucasian” is more PC than saying “whte,” but white is more accurate if that’s what you’re talking about (ie, not talking about people from North India). Seems that white is in fact less offensive than caucasian. I think European American might be most PC, but also is lengthy so I’m not going to mind someone just saying “white.” Saying caucasian is going out of the way to attempt to be PC but not actually being PC if you know the terms’ origins.

  • 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.

    • mia kulper

      If it isn’t real, why does it matter?

  • 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.

        • 007Fusiion .

          ‘Perception’ is probably the key word in all of this.

      • drdanj

        Wow, did you miss the point (on purpose.) Race is not biological. Race is is a social construct used for the purpose of excluding some people from the benefits of society. Yes, science has been used for bad purposes in the past, and can still be used for evil, but people of conscience are also trying to keep moving it in a good direction, just as people of conscience are also trying to move religion in a positive direction.

      • Mark McKarrion

        “Everyone” did not invent race or fight to maintain the construct. Only one specific group did. This is not a problem that Humanity created. Only the small group of those who created it. And that group has used it to control everyone. You already know who they are.

  • 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…

    • Luis Carlos García Lozano

      I totally agree. Besides, one might ask, why people born in the United States keep on calling themselves “American” as if people from other countries in the continent were not Americans as well?

      • Amy Bean

        It’s just shortening our name. People from the United States of America have the distinction of being from a country that is the only one in North America, Central America and South America that actually has “America” in it’s name. Please don’t think we believe we think we are the ones ‘worthy’ of calling ourselves Americans. That is not the case. We have no imagination. What else would we call ourselves… USAians?

  • drdanj

    Why do we keep using the word “White?” I get paint chips from a hardware store and pass them out to students. I ask them to compare them to the color on the inside of their wrists (keep it clean!). You get all sorts of cool color names from the creativity of paint manufacturers. But you never get the white paint chips. We then deconstruct the words White and Black (words of opposition, built-in conflict, etc.).

    • mia kulper

      WOw – maybe you can make your students then attend their white guilt classes and we’ll all hug and sing Kumbaya…..this is gone to the point of disgusting many

    • 007Fusiion .

      White means; pure, hope, good. That’s why we use the term white.

  • Jimmy Kalash

    I was surprised that Dr. Moses, being a professor of anthropology, didn’t take the time in her article to debunk the Proto-Indo-European theory of origin, which relies solely and embarrassingly on linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, genetics, and other politically motivated pseudo-sciences to promote a belief in a shared geographical origin for people groups including Greeks, Celts, Germanic peoples, Romance peoples, Hittites, Persians, Northern Indians, and others (even an outlier group called the Tokharians in Bronze Age western China); the overwhelming evidence for which would make German anatomist Johann Blumenbach seem incredibly, even impossibly, prescient when he grouped together the same language and “racial” (that ugly, mere construct that so-called “scholars” and “scientists” of the benighted 19th century employed to mean, roughly, what modern enlightened peoples mean by “genetic”) family that—as Dr. Moses points out—included (roughly) the very families included the modern term “Proto-Indo-European,” though Blumenbach used, instead, the term “Caucasian”; and which further makes backward Johann Blumenbach, even being so easily “enchanted,” to use Dr. Moses’s word, seem impossibly prescient, indeed, given that the poor fellow believed the common geographical origin to be, as Dr. Moses points out, a region located between the Caspian and Black seas, while, meanwhile, modern scholarship indicates a geographical origin in the forest-steppe zone immediately to the north of the western end of the Pontic-Caspian steppe—a mere hair’s breadth away from where Johann Blumenbach claimed the place of origin to be; because while we owe Dr. Moses, and others like her, a great debt of gratitude for striving to free us from, as Dr. Moses words it, “an outdated and disproven term that falsely purports to describe a separate race of people,” we’re left, after her article, to wrestle alone with the still extant and rather mountainous body of modern scholarly and scientific evidence for the actual, true, and historical existence of Proto-Indo-Europeans…or what poor enchanted Blumenbach backwardly termed “Caucasians.” Every tool put into human hands ends up getting used to despicable and often false ends by *someone*—racists, eugenicists, Hitler, what have you. But isn’t there a saying somewhere about babies and bathwater? How does that go again?

  • bill gorrell

    The terms “Euro-American” and “European-American” have been severely coopted by white racists.

    • Kenneth Murphy

      But it doesn’t mean that we Euro-Americans that aren’t racists can’t adopt it for the progress of the country. The alt-right won’t want it once Euro/Democratic and egalitarian Americans adopt it.

    • Dan Sheehan

      Not in the part of the country where I live.

  • market apartments

    I am okay with being called a Euromutt. It’s what I am. We used to be Generic-Americans, but I think that’s over.

    My people are from just about every white-majority country that isn’t in the Caucasus, so I’m not Caucasian. Calling me a Franco-Netherlandish-English-Swiss-Polish-Portuguese-Norwegian-German-American won’t work for the same reason the Queen is a Windsor. And even a cursory glance will tell you I’m not actually White either, but Pinky-Blue doesn’t sound majestic enough for a race that includes both Neil Armstrong AND Pee-Wee Herman.

    Euromutt. It’s what I am.

  • Heidi Sitara Fjeldvig

    I didn´t know any of this, and therefore the term “Caucasian” is unproblematic to me.
    It only becomes racial if you know the context.

  • Eric Frame

    hey i am from the Caucasian Mountains I and don’t appreciate you trying to ‘getting rid of the word Caucasian” This article should be pulled immediately. it is an insult to my people. And an insult to our intelligence. Seriously

    • Jeroen Stobbe

      Eric Frame Have you read the article? The term caucasian was “invented” by two pre-NAZI pseudo-scientists that performed cranial measurements to define somebodies race. You can not seriously want to keep that in use… In the Netherlands where I live we do not use the word caucasian either. We use “Europeanen”, or “blanken”. As a white Dutch guy I consider the word Caucasian to describe my race as an insult.

      • Maria

        People from the Caucasus region are Caucasians…

  • SylviasDaddy

    Here is my comment.
    Jeer at it, as is your custom.

  • Kenneth Murphy

    Thank you! I’m an American of Northern European ancestry and I’m so tired of the term “white” for all that it implies and honestly, the only people who’ve called be “caucasian” have been people of other demographics that think it is the respectful way to address us. We should use terms like “Euro-, Asian-, Africa-American”.

  • Jeff Noel

    I’m American. I need no hyphens.

    • Dan Sheehan

      That’s fine for you, but if your family immigrated recently, your family’s culture of origin might make a difference in your life.

  • mia kulper

    Ya know, I don’t to have a hyphenated term. Let’s see, I’m Western European, European Jewish, Irish (though it’s the Northern part since it’s Scotland) . Then I have my Middle Eastern and some Asian and a smidge of Great Britain (I forgot to mention Scandinavian). Then we can get into my traces. But ya know, caucasian doesn’t bother me and frankly I do not care if it bothers you. If you look hard enough, you can find something that offends you about everything. The term African American is offensive to many people who wonder at what point you become just an American. Ditto for Mexican American. Go start a hyphenated country if you want to make this about nationality or continentality or whatever because frankly, no one was having a heart attack about there being three races. And if you want to talk about using dated offensive terms, goodness, what about NAACP? I thought Colored People was considered terribly racist years ago and yet no one has changed the name of the promotion of victimization organization. Spend your time raising whatever your ethnogroup is to love God and love their country and love their race and respect everyone else if they earn your respect and stop making something out of everything. Many Caucasians are sick to death of it all.

  • Steve G

    The socio-cultural application of these terms is very complex. As a species we categorize, classify, and identify others and ourselves in so many ways. As in many biological traits, that become incredibly complex in humans, it is very difficult to distill and these posts into a meaningful comment and too often they merely express personal frustrations. These terms do have extreme consequences in all cultures (or terms like them) and THAT surely needs to be informed. Not only do ‘others’ label using these terms, but we label ourselves – our identity – and that affects us in every culture. Perhaps in the future the genomic research will give a much better way of classifying humanity (by MHC?). Our ‘tribal’ need for power and influence amongst our fellow members of society will surely put it to harmful uses.

  • Miss Mellie

    Looking at Mrs. Moses, me thinks, she is not qualified to abort the term Caucasian; as she surely isn’t one.

    • Mark McKarrion

      You do realize that most Caucasians are dark skinned, right? Every Indian and Pakistani and Afghani and Iranian is a Caucasian. Real ones. They are Aryans too. Western and Nordic Europeans? Not so much.

  • Jared Palelei

    Words change meanings all the time. Pretty sure when I describe a Gay Caucasian you don’t think of a Happy Nordic Racist.

  • mememe123

    I tell people all the time that we are white not Caucasian, as we did not come from the Caucus mountains ! Whenever someone says Caucasian my skin crawls! I am white!!!

    • 007Fusiion .

      What is your ethnicity then?

      • mememe123

        European American- specifically English,Irish and German. And I am white

  • 007Fusiion .

    Fully agree with this. And the weird thing I don’t get about using the term ‘Caucasian’ is that it does not exclusively mean white; it applies to North Africans, Europeans, South Asians and Western Asians. On top of that, the ‘Asian’ part of the word is big part of it.

    It’s quite clear that ‘white people’ have either an inferiority complex or a supremacy with regards to race, needing to come up with these terms to separate ones self from everyone else. Every ‘race of people’ only need two descriptors: Their scientific term for ethnicity e.g Caucasian and their social construct eg white (though, again, that is not accurate).

  • Santiago Perez

    I think the racial question or classification in ANY application, form, etc is not accurate and totally out of reality. I’m an immigrant, the country that I coming from doesn’t have any racial classification in any form or administrative process unless involves a need to describe a person such as in a police report, etc. In that case the questions will be eye color, hair color, skin color, height, etc etc but not the race. It’s ridiculous for a person who comes from, as an example, Argentina, a friend of mine with German ancestors, blonde, blue eyes, white skin, be classified as Hispanic/Latino or another case who his parents where Chinese immigrants in Cuba, be classified as Hispanic/Latino.

  • Joanna Clark

    Sixty-five to 103,000 years ago a small group of dark-skinned HOMO Sapiens Sapiens made the long walk out of Africa to become 7.5 billion souls. Some shared their DNA with HOMO Neanderthal, while others shared their DNA with HOMO Denisovan. Both of these species subsequently went extinct, leaving only one species/race; the HUMAN race.

    Over 10s of thousands of years we adapted to new environments and our skin color lightened. Today we vary in skin color from white to black, with a thousand or more shades between the two extremes. We remain HOMO Sapiens Sapiens, or as a race: HUMAN. So my question is “How do we justify defining race by skin color. A black skinned person is still HOMO Sapiens Sapiens, are they not? An Asian person is still HOMO Sapiens Sapiens. Both are still members of the HUMAN Race, so how do we justify classifying them as separate races, other than to discriminate against them?

    • Ulysses Rubillos

      well said,good argument.