Much ado about “Caucasian”

By Razib Khan | July 12, 2013 11:14 am

The New York Times recently put up a piece, Has ‘Caucasian’ Lost Its Meaning? Much of the analysis in the article has too much of a feeling of ethnographic ‘close reading’, but I still am excited that the middle-brow journal of record has started to weigh in on the ridiculousness of the whole situation. I’ve been arguing that people should stop using “Caucasian” when they mean white or European for years, because the use of the term in this manner has led to farcical but common instances of semantic muddle such as the below exchange:

****Whate race do GEORGIAN people belong to***? – well if you are georgian or armenian and you go to other country, it is very hard for people to believe that you are white, everyone thinks either you are hispanic or mix so i was wondering what is the name of the race georgians.armenian are?

[One of the answers] As more and more people move around and settle in different locations, it’s becoming more and more difficult to ‘racially’ identify people by regions. Now if it were a few hundred years ago, I would have said Caucasian…but then as time has gone by Middle Eastern seems more appropriate…

Obviously, unlike a few hundred years ago, Georgians no longer reside in the Caucasus mountains. Nor are they any longer the archetype of West Eurasian populations. I am not going to have one of those inane discussions about whether Georgians really are white, though any reader who believes such a thing is invited to start referring to Stalin as the Soviet Union’s only head of state of color in the future. My primary issue with the modern American usage of the term is two-fold:

- Using the term Caucasian to refer to white Europeans and their descendants makes as much sense as referring to all East Asians as “Chinese.” There actually are real Caucasian people, who are no longer exotic people in an out-of-the-way corner of the world. It would be nice if we could spare the less intelligent from committing their common acts of assault against the fabric of reality by wondering whether Georgians were Caucasian or Middle Eastern (not or in the logical sense of either, but in the colloquial sense of one or the other in an exclusive manner) in the future.

- Substituting “Caucasian” for “white” is also for some reason a bizarre way to be politically correct and pretentious. The irony is that the pretentious people who use the term Caucasian only signal their banal conformity to substantively ludicrous mores which they lack the capacity or will to reflect upon. Looking through The New York Times archives it is clear that the term Caucasian has become more and more just a substitute for the term white, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and earlier the death of Stalin. Just another case I suppose of the paper exposing its substantive shallowness when moving beyond pure description and reportage.

Sure enough Google Ngrams also confirms my hunch that the usage of Caucasian is on the rise. While the old racial terms Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid have declined in frequency over the past generation, Caucasian has experienced a renaissance since the 1980s:

Finally, my personal experience is that human population geneticists do not use the term “Caucasian” except when they are talking about Armenians and Georgians and other Caucasian people, while biomedical geneticists do use the term “Caucasian” in its wrong-headed pretentious fashion. I don’t think this is because population geneticists are less pretentious than biomedical researchers (on the contrary!). Rather, population geneticists have a tendency toward thinking deeply about populations…so the superficiality of the term becomes clear. Second, in the United States biomedical research is encased in such a level of regulatory bureaucracy that I would not be surprised if the common usage of “Caucasian” on forms resulted in the spread of the term as a matter of course. I know, for example, that some biomedical research projects have used standard US Census race terms, and reported the unsurprising result that the “Asian” category is less than useful because it aggregates South and East Asians, who are not genetically very close. Considering what a big deal population stratification is in case-control genome-wide association projects whose aims are biomedical, the power of cultural constructs which are ridiculous to interpose themselves into scientific discourse strikes me as either depressing, or unfortunately, to be expected.

In any case, ire and excoriation seems the only long term solution to these sorts of reality obscuring memes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Race
MORE ABOUT: Caucasian, Caucasoid, Race
  • Karl Zimmerman

    So what is the ideal phrase (in terms of population genetics, not culture) to use to encompass the populations included in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and arguably South Asia? West Eurasian? Caucasioid?

    • razibkhan

      i use ‘west eurasian.’ though to be clear: i am not endorsing any replacement term. just emphasizing why it is important to dump this specific appellation. north africa actually belongs to the palearctic biogeographic zone last i checked, so it’s legit to include it as part of ‘greater eurasia.’

  • VegasLiz

    I prefer beige, or off white :)

  • zbecktx

    The problem with racial categories generally is that we often use one as a shiboleth for something else. If you’re trying to assess how well someone is doing, it’d probably be better to ask their income level then try to deduce one from their race. if you want to know about culture, it’s probably best to allow people to check off all that applies, especially with the level of racial and cultural intermarriage. What happens when a bi-racial (American Black & White) child marries another bi-racial (Central American Indian Hispanic & Chinese) child? The medical consequences are probably easier to sort out than the cultural and political implications.

    • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

      but don’t upper income blacks do about as well as lower income whites in school?

  • John Mark Hunter

    I use ‘Celtic Mongrel’ or ‘Cracker’. But, that’s just me.

  • aeolius

    In an upper middle class suburban High School near New York City, I was saddened to find out that the teens pretty sell segregated themselves socially by race. Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and Asians. The Asian social group, following the census definition included both South and East Asians.

    • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

      it’s been like that since way back. and why is that sad? do you hang out with a huge, mixed race group?

      • Sandgroper

        Groups which can be quite mutually antagonistic in one setting can huddle cooperatively and mutually supportively in a different setting – the Asian social group mentioned is a case in point: put that same group into an Asian geographical setting and they will fly apart. Even a group of Chinese will fly apart In the absence of a larger surrounding and antagonistic group like whites, or in a Chinese setting. Further, hybrids who might be regarded as ‘not really one of us’ may be eagerly claimed as ‘us’ in a different setting. My mischievous daughter has even passed herself off as a Uygur successfully (not as improbable as it sounds because she plots with Uygurs on a global PCA plot).

        But back on topic, biomed types in both Australia and Hong Kong use “European”. Only Australian police will use “Caucasian-looking”, although they are noticeably much more reluctant to use “Aboriginal looking.”

        My daughter took very quickly to West Eurasian, and was comfortable enough to adopt East Eurasian once she realized she plots with Central Eurasians. But she uses European in Biomed papers because West Eurasian does not seem to be widely understood/accepted yet.

  • Dmitry Pruss

    We don’t use Caucasian on medical genetics forms, and Armenians typically select the Middle Eastern Ancestry category. (Can’t recall what the Georgians do, but the Lesser Caucasus is where both nations are located). But there is a clear drawback of not having the Caucasian choice for the US whites. Many European-American patients reject the idea that they are “of European ancestry”, and end up selecting either Native American (as the only menu choice which says “American”) or “Other Ancestry” filling in “Caucasian”.

  • BeanSoupMagyar

    If you try, you can probably find many examples of derived words in the English language that either don’t match their original meaning or contradict it.
    “Caucasian” may not be accurate- but it is widely understood and in common usage. Replacing the term may cause extra confusion. Plus, with the alternative “white” offensive to certain demographics for historical reasons, it may be best to leave it as it is.
    Race is such a strange thing though. Where does “Caucasian” stop and “Middle Eastern” begin? Or Middle Eastern stop and South Asian begin?
    I’m sure someone can answer me an “accepted answer”- but truth is- if you look at some countries, such as Afghanistan, you can see Middle Eastern traits in many and South Asian traits in many. There are definitely blurry lines between races… and usually people decided race based on skin. You can have strong African ancestry and not have dark skin. Or have strong European ancestry and dark skin.
    Race, especially in our modern western society, seems to be becoming harder to define… at least without a DNA test kit.

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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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