Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror

Caucasian

What should white folks be called? Caucasian?

Posted Mar 09, 2010

What should white folks be called?

Well intentioned people, who want to avoid giving offence, or who want to appear erudite or scientific, often say Caucasian. It is a big word, which gets additional authority from being capitalized.

Caucasian is all over the internet. I came across the word in products to "dread Caucasian hair"; Caucasian, The New Minority T-shirts; and Caucasian flesh-tone paints. The largest category is children's toys. These include a Caucasian Barbie and a variety of other name brand and handmade dolls representing ages from infancy through adulthood with all kinds of shoes, brushes, purses, and other accessories for the Caucasian dolls, and even a dollhouse for a Caucasian family.

People seem to think that Caucasian is a modern scientific term. It was actually coined in the 18th century by the German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and published in his MD thesis in 1776. Blumenbach studied skulls from different parts of the world in an attempt to make geographic generalizations about what we now call culture. In much the same way, phrenology developed a few decades later to make psychological generalizations about individuals from bumps on their heads.

The Caucasus Mountains are in Georgia, southern Russia, and other southern parts of the former Soviet Union. Blumenbach chose the word Caucasian to refer to Europeans because he thought the skull of a woman from that region was the most beautiful. I am not making this up. As I imagine Blumenbach contemplating his Caucasian skull, I find my mind wandering to Hamlet contemplating another skull: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio," or Pygmalion falling in love with his statue of Galatea.

I met a woman who grew up in the former Soviet Union. She told me that Russians have a term they use to refer to Caucasians. It is black. You can imagine how perplexed she was, on coming to the United States to discover not only that Caucasian means white here, but that we think that by calling people Caucasian we are being scientifically correct.

Evolutionary biologists and biological anthropologists, the key scientific specialists, abandoned the term long ago. However, Caucasian still keeps popping up-not just in the mass media, but in less specialized scholarly and scientific journals as well. The scientists in the know have not managed to get the word out to colleagues in other fields, or to the general public.

This is the problem with race terms in general. We think that we are speaking about biological groups, when in reality we are referring to culturally defined groups. Instead of Caucasian, I would suggest that we use terms that don't sound scientific--like white--or that are explicitly cultural, like European American.

Image Source: American Gothic by Grant Wood

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