Saturday, 8 March 2014

Caucasian - Why Do We Use It to Mean 'White'?

A portrait of a young white (Caucasian) woman
A Caucasian woman
(photo by Chris Zerbes)

CAUCASIAN

Adjective & noun. Early 17th century.
[from Caucasus (see below), Caucasia.]

A1 adj. Of, pertaining to, or inhabiting the Caucasus, a mountainous region between the Black and Caspian seas;
of or pertaining to the non-Indo-European languages of this region, including Circassian and Georgian. E17

A2 adj. Of, relating to, or designating the white or light-skinned division of humankind,
formerly supposed to have originated in the Caucasus. E19

B noun. A white or light-skinned person.
Also, a native or inhabitant of the Caucasus;
the Caucasian languages collectively. M19

It's an old joke - a policeman asks a hobo if the man that nicked his bindle was Caucasian. "Nah," replies the hobo, "he was a white fella." The hobo, being either too uneducated or too dim to understand that's exactly what the policeman was asking, assumed an exotic-sounding word like Caucasian must refer to some distant, dark-skinned race of people - a people that could be anything, perhaps, anything except white.

When one thinks about it, however, the fictional hobo's assumption isn't that ridiculous - Caucasian is a really odd word to use to refer to white people generally (or at least white people of European extraction). It also has a faux political correctness about it - as if the speaker is doing anything to avoid uttering the word white, and a technical-sounding word like Caucasian carries some kind of official credibility or quasi-scientific gravitas that other terms don't. So, as a white person of European extraction, a person that would never have objected to being described or referred to as Caucasian, I was curious to know where this word came from and why its use raises so few questions.

John Connor's entry on the police database, listing his race as "Caucasian"
Terminator II taught me many things - the word Caucasian was one of them

The origin of the term Caucasian lies with the anthropological antics of the 18th century, as scientists and philosophers began to explore and attempt to categorise the different human races. It was the German philosopher Johann Friedrich Blumenbach that popularised the notion of a Caucasian race - his studies led him to believe in fives principle varieties of human: Caucasian (white), Mongolian (yellow), Malayan (brown), Ethiopian (black) and American (red). While the idea of distinct varieties had existed previously, and the term Caucasian race had already been coined by the German philosopher Christoph Meiners, the application of craniometry and other anthropometric studies by Blumenbach had given the idea a certain scientific credence.

Meiners had coined the term Caucasian (or Caucasoid) from the Caucasus in Eastern Europe, from where he believed "the most beautiful race of men" - white fellas - had originated. The aesthetics of race seemed to interest him more than anything else, and he was particularly gushing about Georgians for some reason, while considering black people ugly and inferior. Blumanbach, while retaining the term Caucasian, extended its scope to cover Europe, parts of North Africa, and India. Thus, Caucasian came to encompass a number of different racial groups and skin tones, and did not refer exclusively to white people.

The Caucasus Mountains
The Caucasus Mountains - from whence came all white people apparently (including Adam & Eve)
For posterity, I should also point out that Blumenbach was caustically critical of both Meiners' methodology and his conclusions, which even by 18th century standards were outrageously racist. Although many of his beliefs now seem bizarre and his terminology unpalatable, Blumanbach did not believe that black people are inferior to white people, in stark contrast to many anthropologists of his time. He also flatly rejected the theory of racial hierarchy - during a time when the likes of Meiners were putting white people (and specifically German white people) at the top and black people at the bottom.

Due to Blumenbach's academic work, Caucasian acquired a somewhat official status, and eventually became narrower in its definition as various ideas and theories of the time were superseded or discredited. Now, it's only used to refer to white people (or, y'know, people actually from the Caucasus), and as a term has become completely disconnected from the eponymous geographic region in Eastern Europe. Even then, its validity as a term of classification is questioned, and while it might not stimulate the same revulsion as some of its contemporary descriptors (Negroid, Mongoloid, etc), its continued use does seem oddly anachronistic considering the flawed theories that spawned it and the fact that most of us (and this is me speaking on behalf of all white people) would have difficulty picking the Caucasus out on a map, let alone having some revered ancestral connection to it.

Are you Caucasian?

Do you have a preference over the use of white, Caucasian, Caucasoid, or any other term?

Do please leave any comments in the box below.

5 comments:

  1. Well, it's fortunate the adjective and noun was found and "defined" at 17th Century. Since then the blood mixed so much that I doubt there are many "pure" causcasians available. Even in North Europe.

    I'm not causcasian. But I'm defined and tagged as one because I'm not black, I'm not red, I'm not yellow and I'm not brown - though I probably should the latter as I'm of African origin but through that origin I received so many mixing that I'm not sure which part I got and defined me. I went on having children and had a Caucasian with brown hair and eyes. And a Caucasian (to make that man, that tried to preserve the "race" intact, proud ;)) with blond hair and blue that turned into green eyes (I have a good delivery story to tell about my lovely daughter but you're a guy ;) ahahahah)
    Wishing you a wonderful weekend,
    Teresa

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    1. Even when the term was first used, when populations were less mobile than they are now, the term 'Caucasian' to refer to white Europeans didn't make a lot of sense. What's interesting to me is the fact that, despite it being coined on completely erroneous information. there really isn't much objection to the use of 'Caucasian', other than people kind of shrugging and pointing out that we didn't all originate from the Caucasus.

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  2. You ask some interesting questions ed. I don't think I'm comfortable with any description of race. I told you before (post on Black) that when I was a child I was rabbiting on about my friend at play-school when an adult asked me what colour he was, and I can remember not understanding the question. I still don't remember today what colour he was, and I'm quite proud of that.

    However if I ever get lost in a large shopping precinct again, I'm hoping my wife will be as descriptive as possible for the staff:

    Gender. : Idiot.

    Race : Caucasian.

    Age : Not too old to lose track of time in a toy department.

    Build : A pie of some sort.

    General disposition : Harmless and clueless in equal measure.

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    1. In a language class recently, I raised my hand to ask the question about how, in that culture, one describes people of other races and colours; in Britain, for example, there's no stigma in saying "a black man" or "a white man", particularly if there's some pertinent reason that you have to identify them as such. I didn't want to just assume that they use the same adjectives 'black' and 'white', however, and there's no point pretending that we don't see differences, that they don't exist, or that we never need to talk about them.

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  3. The differences obviously exist, and we obviously see them.

    However race isn't an issue for me and doesn't concern me, but unlike my similar disinterest in eye colour, height, weight, favorite soccer team, etc, I'm aware that my disinterest in race (my life being generally unaffected by issues of race) renders me fairly unqualified to about it, even to it bring it up, which I'm doing, so I'll shut up.

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