The Sciences

Much ado about "Caucasian"

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJul 12, 2013 8:14 PM

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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.

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