I read it on forms. I hear it conversation. And most annoying of all, people refer to me as such. I’m talking about the word Caucasian.
Sure we’re all trying to be PC when we invoke the formal racial title for a group of people we absolutely must designate. African American for blacks, Asian American for Asians, etc. But a history of struggle and racism called for such designators and more importantly, such designators as chosen by the people in question. It only follows that when making racial proclamations where you wish to include white folks, your brain will pause a moment to search for the nice formal self-designated word for whitey. Unfortunately, the word that comes up is Caucasian.
But where did that word come from and how did it rise to the lofty position of designated the white race as a whole? Some might be surprised to know, that like most racial designators, the history of the word Caucasian is racist, inaccurate and flawed. I’m writing this in order to bring light to this dirty word and hopefully work to remove it from our politically correct vocabulary.
Where is Caucasia?
I asked that same question when I was a wee lad first trying to divide my world into discrete boxes. Turns out, there really is a Caucasia. According to the mighty wikipedia this region is interesting for the following reasons:
- It’s considered the “border” between Europe and Asia
- Not surprisingly, the peoples and languages are extremely diverse
- Noah’s Arc mythically landed in the Caucasus Mountains
- Some human skulls were found there.
It’s that last point where we start. Popularized by a Joseph Friedrich Blumenbach, these Caucasian skulls were considered so modern (in the anthropological sense) and so well-formed that they must be the ancestors of the white race. Blumenbach goes on to compare them to the skulls of the pure and beautiful German race and even gives us an insight to his Georgian fetish:
[These skulls] produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones (birth place) of mankind.
By “mankind” Blumenbach of course meant white people who were tainted along the way to produce the other, inferior races. Please see the summary on wikipedia for Caucasian race for more hilarity.
White Chicks are Hot
There are several things working together to contribute to the racial designator Caucasian. First you obviously have the erroneous and egocentric claim that not only is the white race superior in beauty, intelligence and culture, but also that it’s the oldest. News flash: it’s not and I’ve seen plenty of ugly “pure” white people.
Second, since the cranial features defined as Caucasian happen to also be found in many dark-skinned and decidedly non-European peoples (North Africans, West Asians and Indians), the science of morphology had to be tempered with some good ol’ racist explanations of impurity and the added “fact” that Caucasians’ natural skin color is white. A fact that cannot possibly be construed from a naked skull, but who’s really paying attention, right?
Third, as it may already be clear, the racial designator of Caucasian has less to do with science as it does with European requirements to justify imperialism through racial superiority and stewardship. Recognizing this, the use of Caucasian to mean white people in Europe is no longer preferred. It does, however, live on in the United States through legal precedent.
The Story of Bhagat Singh Thind
Bhagat Singh Thind was a Punjabi immigrant working his way through school in an Oregon lumber yard in the early 20th century. He fought in WWI and after his discharge, Thind applied for U.S. citizenship in 1920. Turned out several Indians had been granted citizenship before, but in Thind’s case a disgruntled naturalization examiner appealed the decision.
After a long legal battle, it was decided that Indians are not considered white persons using the famous “they just look different” argument.
This decision was important in cementing the American notion that white and Caucasian are one and the same. Justice Sutherland rejected the historical and anthropological reasoning (as flawed as they be) that included South Asians into the Caucasian fold and Thind was not white because he didn’t look white. Ipso facto, Caucasian began to mean exclusively white in further legal and demographic instances.
Caucasian is a Dirty Word
No matter how you slice it, the word Caucasian to denote white people is racist and inaccurate. From a physical anthropology perspective, Caucasians are currently defined by a diverse range of people, most of whom are not European; and before that it was used to denote a perfect race of white people. From a sociological standpoint, Americans are really the only people who use the word to denote whites due to a particularly faulty legal precedent. Perhaps most important is that we do not need a formal word to denote white people.
African American, Asian American, Latino American and everything in between, came out of ethnic movements and struggle. The people in question — long given names by the controlling white population —decided it was time to give themselves a name. That history of struggle is not apparent with whites and in fact a history of assimilation and quite literally “white washing” makes up the culture of white America. Whether we can make claims to European ancestry is often rendered moot when considering the race politics of this country. Each European ethnic group had its period of struggle in America, this is true, but the ultimate goal was to be considered white. The Irish, Italians and Jews have all gained access by assimilation.
Why create another name in light of this peculiar history of whites in America ? The reason for this underlying need to be associated with a white race is the larger theme of this blog and it only starts here. But the fact of the matter is Caucasian is an improper and offensive word that shouldn’t be used to denote white people. White people, white folks and whites, are all accepted names for the people I identify with and while I find it charming and polite that some folks use the word Caucasian in formal speech on race topics, the dirtiness of the word irks me each and every time I hear it. Please strike it from your vocabulary.