The racist history of 'Caucasian'

A recent decision made by the US Supreme Court on affirmative action had the Justice Anthony M Kennedy describing the plaintiff as a Caucasian man. It was this recent case of the use of the innocuous word that led to Shaila Dewan in the New York Times to question – why do we continue to use this obsolete racial classification?

Of course, Caucasian may not immediately strike you as a racially offensive term. In its modern usage, Caucasian has become the PC word people use when they don’t want to say ‘white’. “If you want to show that you’re being dispassionate then you use the more scientific term Caucasian,” said Nell Irvin Painter, a historian who explored the term’s origins in her book The History of White People, as quoted in the New York Times.

But the word was never meant to be such a benevolent one – Caucasian has been, since its inception, a racially-charged word with implications of white supremacy and superiority deeply embedded into its history.

Attendees of a far-right wing summer festival near Berlin. The festival was attended by some 1000 neo-nazies from Germany and other European countries. Reuters

Attendees of a far-right wing summer festival near Berlin. The festival was attended by some 1000 neo-nazies from Germany and other European countries. Reuters

Caucasian didn’t always simply mean ‘white’, as it does now. Before the eighteenth century, it was exclusively a term for people from Caucasus, a country lying on the border on Europe and Asia. But in the eighteenth century, a German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach declared that the 245 skulls from the region that were in his possession were “the most beautiful race of men”. Adding to this erroneous idea that the Caucasian skulls were the most beautiful, was the idea that they were the oldest (they weren’t). He also expanded the definition of Caucasian to mean Europeans and the inhabitants of a region reaching from the ObiRiver in Russia to the Ganges to the Caspian Sea, plus northern Africans – a definition which technically even included Indians.

You would think that a term that included people of such varied origins wouldn’t be racist. But when you fast-forward to the early twentieth century in America, the racist connotations of this word began to reveal themselves, as it moved from being a purely anthropological term to a legal one.

Bhagat Singh Thind was a Punjabi immigrant to America in the early twentieth century. Thind aspired to become a spiritual leader. He lectured in universities, got his PhD and wrote several books. But besides these achievements, it is Thind’s struggle to become a naturalised American citizen that he is most remembered for.

After fighting in the US army in World War One, Thind applied for citizenship, following a legal ruling that Caucasians had access to that right. After a long legal battle, it was decided that Indians are not considered Caucasian. Thind was a ‘Hindoo’, not a ‘Caucasian’.

As Dewan says in her article, the use of the word in this case (and one other with a Japanese man who couldn’t become an American citizen) “revealed (the word’s) limitations.”

Some might argue that the word has lost its once-racist tinge. They should look towards the Boston bombings. The most recent conflation of the words ‘white’ and ‘Caucasian’ was in the case of the Boston bombing suspects. Despite the bombers being both white and quite literally Caucasian, some commentators clung to their religion as a way of establishing that these men were not ‘white Americans’. “The perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are not “white Americans”,” said The Commentary, an American magazine. “The accumulating evidence points to two young men who were radicalised and became jihadists.” So you could either be Caucasian or be a radicalized jihadist, but not both. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ of Caucasian as a racial descriptor couldn’t be more apparent. Besides this, Caucasian is at the very least a very inefficient and hazy way of (quite literally) white-washing entire populations with an identity that simply isn’t theirs.

Whether we realise it or not, Caucasian might be the last racist term to be considered largely acceptable in modern society – and it shouldn’t be.


Updated Date: Jul 10, 2013 17:50 PM

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