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Mind

Stop using the word "Caucasian" to mean white

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJanuary 22, 2011 6:34 PM

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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.

cauc2
cauc2

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-challenged, “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

cauc
cauc

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
Katie-Melua

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

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