Stop using the word "Caucasian" to mean white

By Razib Khan | January 22, 2011 10:34 am

About four years ago blogger emeritus RPM of evolgen brought into sharp relief an issue which has nagged me:

Caucasian, literally, refers to people native to the Caucasus, but it has become interchangeable with any number of ‘White’ populations, most of wh1om trace their ancestry to Europe. One gets the feeling that the term ‘White’ fell out of favor and was replaced by ‘Caucasian’ much like ‘Black’ was replaced by ‘African-American’. But the roots of such terminology are a bit disturbing; it was postulated that the natives of the Caucasus exhibited the idealized physical appearance so the Caucasus were believed to be the birthplace of mankind. The logic behind this idea — the assumption that Whites exhibit the best physical appearance — is implicitly racist. Additionally, we now know our species first appeared in Africa, so the biology isn’t any good either. The connotations of the term Caucasian along with the geographical absurdity of using that term to describe all Europeans or Whites are the two main reasons we should abandon the term.

Up until the late 1990s I had thought of people from the Caucasus mountains when I heard the term, but then I began to reorient my assumption because of its colloquial usage. But as it became more and more popular I got more irritated, because it became obvious that the type of people who now were using the term likely did not know where the Caucasus mountains were. With Ngram Viewer you can check the patterns of popularity over time:

While the older classical physical anthropology terms like “Negroid” and “Caucasoid” fell into disuse after 1960, as you’d expect, “Caucasian” went through a renaissance in the 1990s. I think RPM’s supposition is probably correct, people wanted a pretentious term somewhat less coarse than white, and since most people are geography-retardschallenged, “Caucasian” sounds good if you want to pose as the faux-sophisticate. But here’s the sort of thing that makes me want to tear my hair out, Nativity Story Delights Some, Disappoints Others:

Further enhancing the realism is doubtless the most non-Caucasian cast in Hollywood Bible movie history. Perhaps English in a Bible film will never quite sound the same after The Passion’s visionary use of ancient languages, but Middle-Eastern accents work better than the British or American English common in the past, and may set a new standard for such films.

This is in reference to The Nativity Story, a 2006 film which starred a half-Maori, half-white, actress, as Mary. The realism was presumably because the producers cast non-Europeans, and Palestinians are non-Europeans. Setting aside the fact that genetically the distance between Mary, a Middle Easterner, and a European, is far smaller than that between a European and a half-Maori actress, there’s a big geographical confusion. The Caucasus mountains bound the Middle East on the north, and the real Caucasians are to some extent a liminal Middle Eastern population. This gets really dumbfounding for the stupid people who ask and answer questions of the form “are Armenians white?” on the internet. After all, the Armenians are indubitably Caucasian, and Caucasian is white, right? Compare the subtly of a regular dictionary definition of Caucasian, to the straightforward acknowledgement of the idiocy of the common usage of the term in urban dictionary.


Katie Melua, a real Caucasian

This matters to me in a concrete manner. In my post on Assyrians below I avoided the term “Caucasian,” because I didn’t want to confuse people. But this is getting ridiculous. I now believe that a population movement from the trans-Caucasian region due to demographic expansion has probably had a major impact on both Europe and South Asia. But I’ve been avoiding terming these people “Caucasians,” lest I just muddy the waters because of the disjunction between colloquial usage and coherency. But that’s what people from the Caucasus are! So I’m changing my practice, and using the term as I really want to use it. If people get confused, and they show up in the comments, I will “correct” them as I’m wont to do. For those readers who have qualms about the coarseness of “white,” and the genericness of “European, how about the term “Aryanoids”? It will still make you sound smarter to the herd. And, it’s just as stupid and also derived from a scientific tradition which is in disrepute. But it has the convenience that it doesn’t correspond to anything real in this world.

Image Credit: Kirk Stauffer

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
  • http://thekleptosgtm.blogspot.com/ The Klepto

    Well now, learn something new every day. I’d like to call myself at least somewhat smart, reading all I can about science and the world (and my passion for music if you follow my link), but I never once thought – or had anyone try and explain – that were actually a people called Caucasians! I like geography and can piece together probably 75% of the world map from memory, but having never been anywhere close to The Middle East, other then the UK and France, I doubt the Caucasus Mountains would have ever come up in my day to day life.
    But as I say, I like to learn and so I commend you for opening my eyes. Alas my days of standardized testing are over, so I wont have the power to spread the good word as much as I could of while in school, but still I think it’s an interesting point, and a lesson worth learning.

  • BrianDH

    Thanks very much for posting this, Razib. I was “taught” some time ago that the “ancestors of the Europeans” (which as heard in my head now, sounds ridiculous on its face) were from the Caucasus mountains, hence justifying the term.

    I think (or hope) that the person(s) who imparted upon me this notion mistakenly “fused” the Caucasus mountains with Anatolia (wrt the “Anatolian hypothesis of the origin of the Indo-European language family) (not to suggest that such a misconception would not itself be riddled with holes).

  • http://diversityischaos.blogspot.com/ Joe Walker

    You honestly could not come up with a better term than “geography-retards”? How about “geographically-challenged” or “geographically-ignorant”?

  • http://mengbomin.wordpress.com/ Meng Bomin

    Hear, hear! I’ve always been annoyed that “Caucasian” was the chosen word for whites, because it made it really hard to talk about actual Caucasians and it was a really baffling term because as far as I knew, most whites weren’t from the mountain range and certainly none of my known ancestors have roots in lands once controlled by the Russian or Ottoman Empires.

    In my experience, people are more likely to consider “Caucasian” to be the formal, proper, or “scientific” word for whites than to know that the Caucasus Mountains exist, so I expect that this one’s not going away for a good time to come.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    In my experience, people are more likely to consider “Caucasian” to be the formal, proper, or “scientific” word for whites than to know that the Caucasus Mountains exist, so I expect that this one’s not going away for a good time to come.

    yes. the main issue is that i’ve been avoiding talking about caucasians as caucasians to not confuse people. but i don’t care, if people get confused, they’ll have to figure out the proper usage. it’s ridiculous that a real population has to have its own appellation co-opted in this way.

  • jeet

    I’ve seen ‘Europoid’ used. You might prefer that.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    jeet, from a taxonomical perspective i don’t think european/white is useful. it is only relevant in concert with cultural characters (e.g., christian). i use ‘west eurasian,’ as i think everyone from morocco to iran to scotland exhibit enough continuum (excepting recent subsaharan admixture on the fringes) to be interchangeable in the global context. ergo, ‘west eurasian.’

  • Paavo Ojala

    Caucasian seems to be used a lot in medicine. I remember an american spirometer software that asked about ethnicity( or origin or something). Other students (this happened in Finland) didn’t believe me when I told them to choose caucasian. They assumed that I didn’t know that there is a place called Caucasus or that I confused the term with scandinavia or something.

  • Steve

    Razib, whilst you are in your iconoclastic mode could you define exactly what you mean by race for me? I don’t think the term corresponds to anything in this real world.

  • Robert

    @Joe – That jumped out at me, too. The rest of the argument sounds valid and convincing enough, but one loses a little credibility when using a derogatory term to denounce other derogatory actions.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan
  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #8, yeah, part of it is american geographical ignorance. but 10-20% of moscow’s population is caucasian now. so you see it in russia related stuff all the time, and i think it confuses some people.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    That jumped out at me, too. The rest of the argument sounds valid and convincing enough, but one loses a little credibility when using a derogatory term to denounce other derogatory actions.

    oh, shut up. it’s not a “derogatory action,” it’s just stupid and confusing. fine, i should have used a more polite word. no more yapping about it, i’m tired of it.

  • deadpost

    I haven’t known that many people with actual Caucasian ancestry personally, but I’m curious what they usually think.

    Are say Armenian-Americans aware or annoyed by that kind of usage?

  • trajan23

    Great post, Razib. Some thoughts:

    1. The usurpation of Caucasoid by Caucasian has always annoyed me. I remember reading a piece by Steve Sailer and getting confused by his use of Caucasian. I was so accustomed to the popular usage of the term, that it took me a minute to figure out that he was talking about actual Caucasians .

    2. West Eurasian: Although this is a definite improvement, doesn’t it, by definition, exclude the North Africans? Wouldn’t it make more sense to revive Caucasoid? I think that most people have a sense that the term encompasses the inhabitants of North Africa, Europe, and West Asia.

    3.Does anyone really know why terms like Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid were dumped in favor of geographically derived substitutes: West Asian, East Asian, Sub-Saharan African? Is it just a case of politically correct squeamishness over terminology that is up front about race? I recall a seminar on Frantz Fanon where I referred to “Black Africans,” and the prof hurriedly corrected my usage, telling me that I should say Sub-Saharan Africans instead. I found this odd, as I was merely echoing Fanon, who, in the article that we were discussing, wrote about the divide between “White Africa” (I.E., North Africa) and “Black Africa.”

  • Aeolius

    Well lets next look at Mongoloid. Which can mean either mean an East Asian or a person with Downs syndrome. Thus perhaps as a parallel to a Caucasian Caucasian we could have a Mongoloid Mongoloid or Mongoloid Mongolian or etc.
    But again Mongols are in fact a rather mixed racial group. And of course they represent a billion and more Chinese and the Japanese etc, SE Asians etc.
    And what should we call the old peoples like the first Australians, New Guineans Dravidian(?) etc?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #15, good point about north africans

    #16, no one uses the term “mongoloid” in the USA for DS cuz of its racial connotations. also, hardly anyone uses the term “mongoloid” to describe east asians. and “mongolians” means people from mongolia.

  • Zora

    I live in Hawai’i, where I’m a haole. Which originally meant “foreigner” and now means “white”. Since I’m actually a pinkish-beige color (not white) I’m OK with being a haole.

    Haole is usually a descriptive term, but if you say it with a sneer, it’s not.

    What I’ve never understood is the association of yellow with East Asians, and red with Native Americans. All I see is humans with different percentages of melanin, dark to light.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    re: yellow, what i read was that around 1900 chinese modernizers influenced by european racial science had to pick a color term for the east asian race. traditionally chinese perceived themselves as white, but since europeans were white by self-definition, they went with yellow. for native americans the redness has to do with body painting i think.

  • deadpost

    I personally like West Eurasian as a term (I feel usage of the term Eurasia in general is becoming more common in intellectual/academic circles, if not in daily speech).

    The only thing is Eurasians in popular speech still implies specifically European-Asian mixed race people, rather than Asians and/or Europeans together.

    Another thing is, the white/non-white dichotomy split is so strong in popular conception that it’s hard to get people to think of say brown/Middle Eastern people being closer or forming a group with “whites”, to the exclusion of other “non-whites”.

    I’m still hoping West and East Eurasian gain wider currency as terms, even into daily speech (although I bet they won’t) because they sound kind of cool.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Another thing is, the white/non-white dichotomy split is so strong in popular conception that it’s hard to get people to think of say brown/Middle Eastern people being closer or forming a group with “whites”, to the exclusion of other “non-whites”.

    yeah, this is a real issue. though it is abating as whites are less and less the de facto master race for whom limpieza de sangre is of the essence.

  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

    Maybe it’s time to revive “occidental” and “oriental”.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #22, oriental is apparently alive & well in the UK.

  • onur

    As a person living close to the Caucasus (I live in Turkey) and probably genetically close to the people of the Caucasus (I am a Turk), using the term “Caucasian” instead of the term “Caucasoid” has always seemed not just confusing but also idiotic to me, and I have always preferred the terms “Caucasoid” and “White”.

    BTW, I see Armenians as a whole as Armenian Highlander rather than Caucasian (as always, by “Caucasian” I mean the people of the Caucasus), as the Armenian Highland(*), and not the Caucasus, is the ancestral homeland of the overwhelming majority of Armenians and is geographically and genetically closer to Anatolia than to the Caucasus.

    (*) Because of purely political reasons, the Armenian Highland is today erroneously referred to as “eastern Anatolia” (as if Armenians have never existed there in history for millennia!) and northern Mesopotamia/Kurdistan is today erroneously referred to as “southeastern Anatolia”. This was never the case 80 years ago and earlier. And lastly, I see the territory of the modern Republic of Armenia and surrounding territories as part of the Armenian Highland rather than the Caucasus or anything else.

  • http://www.futurepundit.com Randall Parker

    Razib, Glad to see you are putting your foot down about this. Maybe you’ll start a movement. I find it annoying as well.

    West Eurasian? Not sure if that’ll fly. But it makes sense.

    Another annoyance: The references to Asians as an ethnicity or race. Asia is a huge place. the idea that Han Chinese and south Asians are the same ethnicity is laughable.

    Occidental and Oriental: The nice thing about Oriental is that it only applies to East Asians. So it is a better term than Asians.

    So what do you think of Occidental?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    the main problem with ‘oriental’ is that in europe ‘orient’ has been used in a relative sense, so the middle east was the ‘orient’ (e.g., ‘orient expression’ and ‘orientalist’). the asian as race/ethnicity is annoying. a lot of these bizarre terms have to do with gov. paper pushes. asian, caucasian, hispanic, etc.

  • http://exhibitangst.wordpress.com Ben

    A little annoying to the inhanitants of the Caucasian region, I suppose, but it’s small potatoes compared to what the residents of Lesbos have to put up with.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    It’s a term that has been around a long time, and, while it’s origins are rather silly, so are the origins of most other such terms: e.g., American Indians are a compound of Amerigo Vespucci and a delusion of Columbus’s. What’s up with that? Calling Chinese and Japanese Asians after a collective term that traces back to Herodotus’s term for what’s now Turkey is also very silly.

    Moreover, what are the alternatives to “Caucasian?” “European” excludes a whole bunch of people in Africa and Asia who are closely related but are not from Europe itself. “White” puts too much emphasis on skin tone. For example, golfer Vijay Singh is very dark skinned, yet has obviously Caucasian features.

    The Caucasus mountains are pretty close to the center of the pre-1492 range of the Caucasoid people, so Caucasian seems as useful as anything else.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    American Indians are a compound of Amerigo Vespucci and a delusion of Columbus’s. What’s up with that? Calling Chinese and Japanese Asians after a collective term that traces back to Herodotus’s term for what’s now Turkey is also very silly.

    it’s not just semantics. you use the term american indian, lest confusion ensue (also, asian indian). the use of the term caucasian means that you have to relabel people from the caucasus something else, or just avoid using that term for them (which is what i basically did to not confuse american readers). there are plenty of substitutes for white people as a term. anyway, people in europe doesn’t seem to use the term. they can make it somehow.

    The Caucasus mountains are pretty close to the center of the pre-1492 range of the Caucasoid people, so Caucasian seems as useful as anything else.

    it’s not used like that. it’s used as white european.

  • Antonio

    “anyway, people in europe doesn’t seem to use the term. they can make it somehow.” from my experience this is not a question about the use of this specific term. European people just don’t classify people in racial terms as obsessively as in US. In Brazil “asian” people (the country is the biggest colony of Japanese outside Japan) are referred to as Orientals, again with no racialization.

    I also remember when I was teaching a class at UCLA, I was making fun of US racial classifications, and some (“white”) students use the term Caucasian to substitute for white, believing that are being more precise or scientific. But then when I asked them where the Caucasus is *not one* knew.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    “it’s not used like that. it’s used as white european.”

    There are a whole bunch of Caucasian people in America, especially in California, who aren’t from Europe — e.g., Armenians, Iranians, Israelis, Lebanese, Turks, Egyptians, etcetera etcetera — who are currently defined for the purposes of racial/ethnic preferences and discrimination law as nonminority. I want them to stay that way.

    When it comes to political issues like racial/ethnic preferences, I want the Armenians in the tent with me pissing out, not outside pissing in. The term “white European” is not conducive to that. The term “Caucasian” is.

  • PermieWriter

    Can we pitch “Anglo-Saxon” too? It only ever applied to a fairly small part of the European population, at that about 800 years ago.

    I prefer that, if someone is going to claim to be part of an ethnic group, that they have a pretty good genetic analysis done. All of our n-grandparents got around more than we think.

  • Georg

    @ 18
    What I’ve never understood is the association of yellow with East Asians, and red with Native Americans. All I see is humans with different percentages of melanin, dark to light
    A friend from Indonesia (partly chinese) told me that (south)east asia
    “Yellow” is caused by some colour in the upper skin, the callus.
    Georg

  • Diogenes

    How about “fertile crescentoid” for ancient variation absorbed by the ME neolithic expansion; and likewise “yellow riveroid”, “west africoid” etc? Seems to me that “race” is mostly due to polycentric “neolithic” expansion with minor absorbtion of hunther-gatherer pre-existing diversity…

    Thus prior to the neolithic (and after the current transition of the end of the “great neolithic” era) race is not a very useful distinction?

  • jb

    Many (most?) Americans have a sense that there are three major races in the world (roughly corresponding to Dienekes’ ADMIXTURE run with K=3), but we don’t really have good words for them. White, Black, & Yellow? Caucasian, Negro, & Oriental? What? If you press us we’ll acknowledge that the people of some parts of the world don’t fit neatly into that framework, but I think there is a general sense that most people fall into one of the Big Three, and I do think it would be useful to have clear words corresponding to those perceived races.

    The thing is though, some people really hate the idea of race, and deny that the term has any meaning at all. After all, except for some unimportant superficial differences, hasn’t science proved that we are all exactly the same under the skin? Those people don’t want us to have clear words for different races. “Negro” was a perfectly clear racial term for the people of Sub-Saharan Africa, but the word got taken away and replaced by “African-American”, which can’t be used as a racial term, unless you you don’t mind finding yourself talking about the African-American’s of Nigeria. ” Caucasian” is a perfectly clear racial term for the people of West Eurasia, provided you never have any reason talk about the people of the actual Caucasian mountains. And “Mongoloid” is a perfectly clear racial term for the people of East Eurasia, now that someone’s invented Down’s syndrome.

    Of the three, “Caucasian” is probably the least problematic, so I’m not that anxious to see it go away. But if you have better suggestions I’m listening! :-)

  • http://www.buildinghistory.org/distantpast/ Jean M

    I’m using Western Eurasian mainly in my online text, but the problem of the exclusion of North Africa has led to “Europe, Western Asia and North Africa” in places, to avoid Caucasoid (which upsets lots of people) or Caucasian (see Razib’s complaint).

    I confess to resorting to “Hairy People” on one occasion in forum debate, since White is so misleading as to be ridiculous.

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com/ Peter

    how about the term “Aryanoids”

    Not going to happen. “Aryan” is tainted beyond rehabilitation due to the Aryan = Nazi association. “Aryanoid” is too close for comfort.

    I confess to resorting to “Hairy People” on one occasion in forum debate

    Don’t get me started …

  • http://johnhawks.net/weblog John Hawks

    The ngram is really striking to me.

    I looked at the search results for Caucasian in the 1995-2000 interval:

    http://www.google.com/search?q=%22Caucasian%22&tbs=bks:1,cdr:1,cd_min:1995,cd_max:2000&lr=lang_en

    These are surprisingly dominated by references to the Caucasus as a region (e.g., Caucasian politics, Caucasian tapestry) and Caucasian languages. Around a third are U.S. race-specific. Definitely confirms the idea that the indiscriminate use of Caucasian as a race group has promoted confusion. Makes me wonder how much the ngrams are affected by the flood of social science publishing in the 1990′s, though.

  • http://www.buildinghistory.org/distantpast/ Jean M

    how about the term “Aryanoids”

    Not going to happen. “Aryan” is tainted beyond rehabilitation

    I assumed that Razib was jesting on that one. Aryan is another kettle of fishiness. Aryan rightly refers to the peoples who self-identified in that way long ago – the Iranians (whose name comes from Aryan) and Indo-Aryans, and no-one else.

  • Hemlock

    As someone who has used “Caucasian” to mean “white” my whole life, the argument over whether it is a historically accurate description or not is a bit pedantic. While I’m sure it’s difficult to refer to actual residents of the Caucuses without confusion, the same problem exists with referring to straight women from Lesbos, patriarchal women from the Amazon, Jew-hating Arabs, etc. Languages evolve words whose meaning and origins are often hazy or incorrect; once the word is in common usage though, the historical accuracy of the term is only mildly relevant.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    While I’m sure it’s difficult to refer to actual residents of the Caucuses without confusion, the same problem exists with referring to straight women from Lesbos, patriarchal women from the Amazon, Jew-hating Arabs, etc.

    this stuff has come up on reddit. it’s lawwerly. have you taken a math class?

    1) no offense to lesbos, but it doesn’t come up in the news. there isn’t a lesbian region, or a lesbian language family. it’s an isolated island.

    2) the term in other western languages seems to derive from lesbos too (i can check the latin script ones), so it’s cross-cultural. your pretentious use of ‘caucasian’ is not.

    3) amazons are mythological beings . my point is that caucasians aren’t just a historical/mythological entity, but real peoples and real nations.

    4) talk to me when “semite” is used on an official form for jews.

    and no, it’s not fucking pedantic. on this weblog i have avoided using the term caucasian not to confuse my less informed readers who are geographically challenged. i’m saying i’m not going to do that anymore. it’s not convenient, and the usage for caucasian for white is redundant. i don’t care if it makes you seem smarter to dumb people.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    and yes, i was joking with ‘aryanoid.’

  • Jason Malloy

    I don’t have any role in determining what kinds of language scientists use, but the term “Caucasoid” can be used just as easily as the word “Caucasian” to describe the physical type stretching from Europe and N. Africa to India, and won’t cause as much mischief.

    That said, context often permits the use of ambiguous language. There are circumstances where we can call Native Americans “Indians” without any confusion, and there are contexts where using this term can create a lot of confusion.

    I don’t really like terms like “Caucasoid” or “Mongoloid”, for aesthetic reasons, and don’t really need a term for “Caucasoids” very often, but when I do I will probably use end up using Caucasian.

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com/ Peter

    I see no reason why “European American” can’t be used to mean white, limited to the United States of course. Its usage would have established precedent in African American and more generally in the “hyphenated American” concept of past generations. What’s more, there would be no confusion in dealing with non-European Caucasian groups such as Turks, Iranians, Lebanese or North Africans, as they aren’t considered white in America.

  • AG

    Scientifically Caucasoid includes people from south Asia all the way to north Africa. White Europeans are only part of Caucasoid people.

  • Hemlock

    “4) talk to me when “semite” is used on an official form for jews.”

    That’s my point though. Semite is almost never used to mean “jew” even though anti-semite is generally understood to be a hatred of jews. Hence a “anti-semitic semite” sounds dumb when you break it down to its origin or constituent parts, but is an entirely logical thing to say. I can understand why “Caucasian” induces a cringe for someone not used to hearing it, but for those of us who have grown up seeing it on governmental forms, its historical accuracy is as irrelevant as if a peanut is really a pea or a nut. I understand your point that my examples are less common than geographical Caucasians, but the fact stands: trying to prescribe word usage to a commonly used word is a fool’s errand. The word now means what it is used to mean, not what it might make sense to have meant.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    That said, context often permits the use of ambiguous language. There are circumstances where we can call Native Americans “Indians” without any confusion, and there are contexts where using this term can create a lot of confusion.

    again, most people don’t know there are real caucasians. most people are aware that amerindian indians and asian indians are different.

  • Jason Malloy

    Steve: The Caucasus mountains are pretty close to the center of the pre-1492 range of the Caucasoid people, so Caucasian seems as useful as anything else.

    Zeeb: it’s not used like that. it’s used as white european.

    I’m surprised by this statement. Some Americans use it as a synonym for European descent (this is a case of synecdoche), mostly outside of scientific contexts, but the traditional scientific usage/understanding is to describe “the general physical type of some or all of the indigenous populations of Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia.”

  • Jason Malloy

    most people don’t know there are real caucasians

    Sure, and you are wise to disregard them in your writing. The context of your writing will (or should) generally make it clear what usage you are trying to convey.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    yes, most people are morons. they don’t understand/know that.

  • http://www.pithandsubstance.blogspot.com Pithlord

    Section 3 of Canada’s federal Employment Equity Act defines “members of visible minorities” as “persons, other than aboriginal peoples [official term for Indians, Metis and Inuit], who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour”. That implies an understanding that there are non-white Caucasoids, although police reports in Canada seem unaware of the possibility.

  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    @Peter (#44): African-American is a term with its own myriad issues and inaccuracies. I really don’t think the standard should be based on that.

  • anon

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurgan_hypothesis

    Granted, it’s north of the Caucasus, but it’s still reasonably close, so the term isn’t as horribly inaccurate as you might think, other than that it also ignores the non-Indo-European civilizations that existed in Europe prior to the migration (e.g., Basque, Iberians) and those that migrated afterward (e.g., Etruscans and maybe the Finns).

    Ironically enough, I suspect many people use the term “Caucasian” to *avoid* the appearance of being racist, despite its apparent racist origin. The dogma emanating from social science departments across the country is that race doesn’t exist and is a social construct, or that it does exist but is largely insignificant. This poses a problem to researchers in certain fields like epidemiology where race clearly does exist and is not insignificant; how do you describe the disparate impact of certain illnesses or nutritional choices on different populations without naming them explicitly, and if you are going to name them, how do you do so in the least controversial manner? For many researchers, the term “Caucasian” sounds somewhat arcane and exotic and is far less loaded with undesirable social and political connotations than the term “white,” simply because it isn’t used nearly as much in common discourse.

    It’s the same reason why the term “Indo-European” gets so over-used; to many ears, the mere question of “what is the origin of the white race” just sounds racist, so the term “Indo-European” is substituted, even though meanings of the two terms are not conterminous.

  • Gary B

    So, I’m guessing but by now there must be some scientific terminology for the particular sets of genes that typify the races of Europe, perhaps in some minimal set. How about coining a new word based on these arbitrary terms, that matches up with or describes the population demographics reasonably well?

    Perhaps an expanded acronym. Extra points if it’s a pun :)

  • Georges

    These are depictions o the world as described by some of the ancients maps. You can see that European definitely does have a meaning geographically never lying west of the Don or south of the Mediterranean straits.

    http://ancienthistory.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=ancienthistory&cdn=education&tm=136&f=00&tt=14&bt=0&bts=0&zu=http%3A//www.henry-davis.com/MAPS/Ancient%2520Web%2520Pages/106D.html

  • http://www.buildinghistory.org/distantpast/ Jean M

    So, I’m guessing but by now there must be some scientific terminology for the particular sets of genes that typify the races of Europe, perhaps in some minimal set.

    There is no such scientific terminology. If people want to talk about Europeans, then they can do so, but Europeans are not a breed apart. It is amazing that people expect Europeans to be a separate race from their geographical neighbours, when Europe isn’t even a separate continent. Yes “Europe” has had a meaning geographically at least since the time of the Ancient Greeks, for whom the border with Asia was the Don, but the border meant nothing in prehistory. Europeans are mainly a sub-set of people from the Near East genetically.

    Indo-European speakers spread from Portugal to India in prehistory. Before that farmers spread from Portugal to Pakistan and across North Africa from the Near East. Before that the first Modern Men spread into Europe from the Near East. (Then there was the big freeze, which seems to have had some of these early Europeans sensibly decamping to North Africa and the Near East, with probably some backflow in the Mesolithic after the glaciers melted.)

    I can’t off-hand think of any genetic marker that would infallibly distinguish between a European and a let’s say a Druze, even though Europeans have had millennia to develop their own peculiarities, and certainly have a high incidence of Cystic Fibrosis.
    http://dna-forums.org/index.php?/blog/2/entry-92-cystic-fibrosis-curse-or-mixed-blessing/

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    The widespread use of the term “Caucasian” no doubt is attributable to its official status in American government documents and census forms.

    The “oid” ending has become disfavored because it is associated with 19th century racist nationalism, notwithstanding use of the word ending in legitimate anthropological literature. It has suffered taint by subsequent association that has drowned the original meaning, a bit like the Swastika, which was a South Asian good luck symbol before it was a Nazi identifier.

    Apart from its official government status as a synonmyn with racially “white,” the term really has no value from its linkage with the region, simply because very few people have first hand knowledge of what the people of the Caucusus Mountains look like physically, so that linkage can’t help them by providing meaning to the term.

  • Arseny

    Very true! For a Russian all these “Caucasians” sound really strange, as recent ethnic clashes in Moscow, between locals and people from Caucasus, have been caused exactly by the fact that people from Caucasus are not perceived white by the majority of central Russians! They have a slightly brownish skin color, and bad nazi people basically call them “black” (although from sociological point of view they are probably closer to Latino people in the US: newcomers talking different language, having different culture, and of a slightly darker color).

    So even now when I read about “Caucasians” I have to take a conscious effort for internal re-formulation of the phrase before I can really understand it. When I read in wikipedia about some guy who, being black, had some problem with “dating a caucasian girl” my first association was “Conservative people from Caucasus, don’t want their girl to marry outside of their nation, presumably Armenian, Georgian or Dagestani”. And it took a second or two for me to realize that actually the girl was plain white, and that not about Ossetians looking for an Ossetian husband for their girl, but about a simple white-black opposition! =) That all is really confusing!

  • Matt B.

    I once heard a reporter call Nelson Mandela “the first African-American President of South Africa.”

    I had a friend who was from Egypt, and not black. Is he an African-American?

    Euphemisms just annoy me.

  • onur

    The most unambiguous and proper racial terms are clear: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid, Pygmoid (assuming it is a separate race from Negroid), Capoid, Dravidoid (for the race of the Indian subcontinent), Americanoid (or Americoid), Australoid and Negritoid (assuming it is a separate race from Australoid). Unlike “Caucasian”, the term “Caucasoid” is an unambiguous and internationally well-established racial term and not limited to the US.

  • Silver

    Moreover, what are the alternatives to “Caucasian?”

    The alternative is applying different terms for obviously different populations. The broad branch of humanity called here “Caucasian” is too variegated to shoehorn into one race.

    “European” excludes a whole bunch of people in Africa and Asia who are closely related but are not from Europe itself. “White” puts too much emphasis on skin tone. For example, golfer Vijay Singh is very dark skinned, yet has obviously Caucasian features.

    “European” includes a whole bunch of people who are from the European subcontinent but visibly diverge significantly from, pardon my use of the expression, “the White Race.”

    A workable alternative is “White” or “Northern European” or “Europid” for the basic European type that most people tend to associate with whiteness and “Mediterranean”or “Mediterranid” for people from Europe’s southern and southeastern stretches as well as the Levant, N. Africa, Turkey, the Caucasus, the Arabian peninsula and into Iraq and Iran. Just be sure to have sedatives on hand for those who reflexively freak out at the hints of romantic nationalism the -id suffixes might evoke.

    Furthermore, it’s my studied opinion that this classification system wouldn’t be fatal to keeping us “pissing in the same direction.” It’s both more honest and more reflective of the associations people naturally form.

    Two anecdotes to demonstrate this.

    (1) First housemate I moved in with arriving in America was Armenian. “Hey, what background are you?” I’m mixed Greek/Serb/other balkanoid. “That’s cool. We’re the same people, right? Come meet my parents.”

    (2) Australian (Anglo-Saxon) fellow at a gym in Thailand. I ask him how high he figures a ceiling fan was off the ground. “Three meters maybe.” I leaped and touched it. “Wow, so white men can jump.” I look rather like “the Karate Kid” (the original one) so what material has this guy been reading I wondered to myself? He and I the same race? Please. I decided to head it off with, “Heh, you know it’s true though that those blacks really can jump. They’ve got natural advantages.”

    Now it’s obviously true that in Thailand he and I have quite a bit in common with respect to the rest of the population. But a guy our generation and older would surely know that back home he’s the “effin’ aussie” and I’m the “bloody wog” and it’s just silly to pretend otherwise.

    As for Vijay Singh, you’re lurching from putting to much emphasis on pigmentation to not putting any at all. At some point pigmentation totally obscures racial relatedness, such that our brains classify even a person very closely facially morphologically matched as a “different race” when pigmentation diverges too greatly, as it certainly does in the case of Vijay Singh.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    “What’s more, there would be no confusion in dealing with non-European Caucasian groups such as Turks, Iranians, Lebanese or North Africans, as they aren’t considered white in America.”

    When George Deukmejian defeated Tom Bradley for governor of California in 1982 and 1986, the Armenian Republican was always referred to as the white guy in the race.

    It’s important to keep it that way. As a Southern Californian surrounded by affluent, intelligent Armenians, Israelis, and Iranians, I want them to be classified the same as me, as getting no legal benefits from their ethnicity. The use of the term “Caucasian” is highly conducive to that to maintaining that big tent, while terms like “European” encourage them to push for special treatment.

    I want the biggest tent possible in defining who, like me, doesn’t get special preferences in government contracting. I want the South Asians back in the Caucasian tent, not in the Asian beneficiaries of cheap SBA loan tent where they got shifted in 1982. From a physical anthropology point of view, it’s reasonable to call South Asians Caucasian, but not European or white.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    As for golfer Vijay Singh, you’ll notice that he didn’t get any publicity when he dethroned Tiger Woods in 2004 as #1 for being black or nonwhite or diverse. It just didn’t register on American sportswriters. They don’t know what to do with him and don’t care. There’s no pre-existing America prejudice about how to think about people like him. They aren’t really interested.

    It’s perfectly reasonable to put him back in a Big Tent Caucasian group who doesn’t qualify for special racial privileges from the U.S. government. From a scientific viewpoint, it makes a lot more sense to group Vijay Singh with the people who don’t get racial privileges than with East Asians, as happened in 1982.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    Look, ladies in India spend a fortune on skin products to make themselves look whiters. The same is true for Latin America.

    Politically, people in America who don’t get special racial privileges from the government are better off the bigger the tent is of people who don’t get privileges. I can afford to give privileges to African-Americans and to American Indians registered by their tribe. I and my children won’t be able to afford to give privileges to a whole bunch of people from West and South Asian and from Latin America who, personally, like being recognized as pretty white. Instead, tell them they can be in the big Caucasian tent.

    The word Caucasian is very good for maintaining and expanding that big tent of non-privileged. The other terms aren’t.

  • just a random guy

    Referring to the continental/regional origin (plus “native” or something to that effect) rather than finding an ideal label for some ideal holotype-like concept for somewhat blurry populational differences solves pretty much everything.

    If one is speaking of something regarding native Europeans and North Africans and some West Asians at the same time, to the exclusion of other people, just cite every one of these groups, or whatever is the one that the person is dealing specifically about, without generalizing even within all these regions, a generalization that might not even be true to begin with. “Latinos” are “caucasoids”, but in the medical literature they often split from “whites”/”caucasoids/caucasians” in epidemiological findings.

  • just a random guy

    I guess most people think Vijay Singh is/label him as “black”, even though he’s Fijian. But I don’t give a damn to him, Tiger Woods or golf to begin with, so I wouldn’t really know.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    The term Caucasian was popular with government agencies in part because it averted a dispute over whether Jews were European or West Asian in origin, a dispute of much interest to Zionists and Arabs. Fortunately, the Caucasus Mountains are on the borderline between the two continents, so, of course, Jews are Caucasian. No need to think about whether or not they are European.

    Legally, I definitely want Jews to be defined as in the tent with me. The political implications of legally defining Jews as outside the tent are frightening to contemplate.

  • onur

    I guess most people think Vijay Singh is/label him as “black”, even though he’s Fijian.

    Vijay Singh isn’t a Native Fijian (Native Fijians are Melanesian Australoids); he is a Fijian-born person who is fully descended from India (thus Dravidoid), that is why he has Caucasoid-like features. He is a Hindu and his name is a Hindu name BTW.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    I once looked for evidence that the media was celebrating Vijay Singh’s accomplishments as a breakthrough for blacks. There was zero in the U.S. “Black” doesn’t refer to skin color in the U.S.

  • onur

    I once looked for evidence that the media was celebrating Vijay Singh’s accomplishments as a breakthrough for blacks. There was zero in the U.S. “Black” doesn’t refer to skin color in the U.S.

    If Vijay Singh was Native Fijian thus Australoid, he could be labeled as “Black” by the media, as Australoids somewhat resemble Negroids (=actual Blacks) also in their features:

    http://i9.photobucket.com/albums/a83/PiAmoun/human%20being/Aboriginequ.jpg

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e4/Fijian_man.jpg

    But as Vijay Singh is Dravidoid and not Australoid, he isn’t labeled as “Black”. “Brown” would be a much more suitable term for him.

  • Insightful

    But as Vijay Singh is Dravidoid and not Australoid, he isn’t labeled as “Black”. “Brown” would be a much more suitable term for him.

    But ‘brown’ already refers to people with roots south of America’s border (Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua etc). Not all so called ‘blacks’ in America have negroid features and not all negroid features are solely black. Negroid almost always refers to the Bantu people and their descendants, which have come to represent the ‘ideal black race’. In America black is used as a catch-all term encompassing anybody with a drop of ‘black blood’ so long as they are visibly black in any kind of way and I mean any kind of way. Unlike Germany, Turks are considered white in the U.S., not anglo or northern euro white but white nonetheless over here. I have a question for you, Onur, I know you are Turkish but do you live in America?

  • onur

    Insightful, I have never lived in or visited America (or anywhere else outside Turkey), but I know (heard/read) that the term “Brown” is used to denote South Asians (=people of the Indian subcontinent) in the UK and some parts of the US (I don’t know how much officially and how much unofficially). And I know (heard/read) that “Brown” is mainly used to denote Hispanics (at least the ones with Amerindian traits) in the US.

  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    I have heard brown applied pretty equally to both hispanics and south asians around my university campus, but I can’t extend that to the rest of the USA.

  • Insightful

    Hi, EcoPhysioMichelle, If we are trying to distinguish different races it wouldn’t be right to lump south asians in with hispanics (unless you want to use brown as a catch-all term like black). But then ‘brown’ loses what little meaning it already had-even more so than ‘black’. This is because if there is one thing the black term does it trys to unite people who have any black blood under that banner but south asians and hispanics do not share the same ‘blood’ (if you get my drift). And Why is it, EcoPhysioMichelle, that some ‘blacks’ who are light-skinned are referred to as black and someone as dark as Vijay Singh as ‘brown’?

  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    Brown is just a descriptive word. I don’t see why it has to stand for just one race of people. And it is a term that is going to mean different things to different people anyway, just as black and white do in other countries. As I understand it, brown is something of a catch-all to describe people who don’t easily fall into the black/white categories, like many hispanic and asian people. I don’t see why it needs to be anything more than that.

  • onur

    brown is something of a catch-all to describe people who don’t easily fall into the black/white categories

    You should have said “black/white/yellow categories”, as, AFAIK, no one labels, say, Chinese as “brown”.

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com/ Peter

    Unlike Germany, Turks are considered white in the U.S.

    Turks may legally be white in the United States, as in being ineligible for affirmative action, but to the extent Americans think about Turks they wouldn’t think of them as white. In large part this may be attributable to religion more than physical appearance, as Islam is considered a religion of nonwhite people.* Americans generally don’t have any trouble calling Lebanese Christians and Israeli Jews white.

    * = Albanians and Bosnians are awkward exceptions we try to ignore

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    In large part this may be attributable to religion more than physical appearance, as Islam is considered a religion of nonwhite people.*

    the turkish rendering of arabic names, e.g., ‘mehmet,’ is sufficiently unfamiliar that i think the typical retard-off-the-street would not identify turks as non-white, which they would if their name was ‘muhammed’ or ‘ali.’ who thinks mehmet oz is non-white? OTOH, more sophisticated people would classify them as such based on religion. though sophisticated here is a low threshold using the average human as a baseline. at least that’s my personal experience with american turks who aren’t too religious, so they don’t dress or look like freaks.

  • Matt

    Insightful, I have never lived in or visited America (or anywhere else outside Turkey), but I know (heard/read) that the term “Brown” is used to denote South Asians (=people of the Indian subcontinent) in the UK

    In my experience this must be either extremely sporadic or subcultural if ever done by anyone in the UK. Generally Asians=South Asians, East Asians=Chinese (or “Chinesy”, “sort of Chinese”, &c.) until people know better or Oriental if there is a pressing need for an East Asia & South East Asia encompassing term (this all probably seems vaugely dysfunctional to an outside observer, but I guess that makes it appropriate for a comment on Caucasians=/”Caucasians”).

  • http://www.buildinghistory.org/distantpast/ Jean M

    “European” includes a whole bunch of people who are from the European subcontinent but visibly diverge significantly from, pardon my use of the expression, “the White Race.”

    There is no “White Race” as you are defining it. What you are expressing is the WASP-in-the-street’s view of the world. That started by labelling Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid as White, Yellow and Black respectively, creating the impression that race is a matter of skin colour. No geneticist or physical anthropologist would make that mistake. Pigmentation is superficial, and correlates strongly with latitude within continents.

    Having started from that basic error, the WASP-in-the-street went on to define “White” as “looks like me” i.e. Northern European. Anyone not exactly “like me” must therefore be a different race. Not the case folks. Northern European is just the (on average) palest pigmented Caucasoid.

    But a WASP prejudice against people “not exactly like me” means that the US in recent times has striven to counter prejudice against “Hispanics” and improve their position, in much the same way as it has aimed to improve the position of Afro-Americans and Native Americans, which rather creates the impression that the issue is racial.

    The scientific literature does s0metimes need to distinguish between northern and southern European for purely genetic (rather than socio-economic) reasons, for example in the incidence of thalassemia (more common around the Med). But such cases are rare and don’t require dreaming up pseudo-scientific labels.

  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    While I dislike anecdotal evidence, onur, I knew a middle-aged dark-skinned Chinese woman who called herself brown. She’d lived in the USA for the last 30 years so that likely influenced her word choice, but there you have it.

  • onur

    the turkish rendering of arabic names, e.g., ‘mehmet,’ is sufficiently unfamiliar that i think the typical retard-off-the-street would not identify turks as non-white, which they would if their name was ‘muhammed’ or ‘ali.’

    Turkish rendering of some Arabic names are unfamiliar to the American ear, but far from all of them. For instance, Turkish rendering of the name “Ali” is also “Ali”, thus same with the original Arabic rendering. The name “Muhammed” also exists among Turks, but it is less common than its more folkish Turkish rendering “Mehmet” (many Turks pronounce it as “Mehmed”, the older and more correct pronounciation; but it is today invariably written as “Mehmet” – thus making it seem less Arabic – because of the secularist policies of the Turkish Republic).

    OT, I think some North European women are beautiful, but North European men aren’t handsome at all; Mediterranean/West Asian men are the handsomest men in the world.

  • onur

    I knew a middle-aged dark-skinned Chinese woman who called herself brown.

    Some SE Asians may be labelled as “Brown” because of their dark skin tone, that Chinese woman probably looks like SE Asians.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    ok, ok, race popes need to chill ;-)

    Mediterranean/West Asian men are the handsomest men in the world.

    lol. u just passed the turing test!

  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    She spoke Cantonese so it is likely she was from southern China.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    There aren’t many famous Turks in American history other than record producer Ahmet Ertegun. There are a lot of famous Arab-Americans from even farther from Europe, such as Mitch Daniels, Danny Thomas, Casey Casem, Bobby Rahall, Tony Rezko, Ray Lahood, Frank Zappa, and so forth. They’ve all been considered Caucasians, and quite reasonably so.

    http://www.aaiusa.org/pages/famous-arab-americans/

    The term Caucasian has been around for a long, long time and it’s certainly no more confusing than “Indian.” By emphasizing a border between Europe and West Asia it has the useful trait of reminding Americans that this big racial group is not confined to Europe.

  • onur

    There are a lot of famous Arab-Americans from even farther from Europe, such as Mitch Daniels, Danny Thomas, Casey Casem, Bobby Rahall, Tony Rezko, Ray Lahood, Frank Zappa, and so forth.

    Steve, all these people you mention by name are of Arabic-speaking non-Muslim (one of them Druze, the rest all Christian) descent (at least partially) and not one of them is of Arabic-speaking Muslim (=Arab proper, technically speaking) descent. You have to take into account history and the Muslim/non-Muslim and Muslim/Christian dichotomies in the West and the rest of the world.

  • onur

    http://www.aaiusa.org/pages/famous-arab-americans/

    The vast majority of people mentioned in that site are of Arabic-speaking Christian descent and not of Muslim descent.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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