I have a strong opinion on the word “Caucasian.” Short version: If you’re white, stop using it immediately.
I simply don’t think it’s possible to claim to want to tear down racism while actively using one of its keystones. There is one reason alone why white people of European descent got to be called “Caucasian.” Scientific racists separated humans into groups.
Scientific racism emerged around the time that Carolus Linnaeus created the taxonomy that became what we all study in school: All living creatures can be grouped based on their similarities. Linnaeus identified humans as a type of primate, something that was scandalous at the time. Linnaeus’s Systema Naturæ (1735) well pre-dated Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859).
To understand his classifications, we need to step even farther back, to Classical Greece. In Classic Greek medical philosophy, there were two systems of four elements each: Humors and colors.
The Greeks believed that physical health was tied to the balance of four humors, or bodily fluids: Blood, yellow bile (urine), black bile (feces), and phlegm. Our moods and personality were tied to which of the humors were in abundance or absent.
For instance, blood came from the heart, which the Greeks believed was tied to intelligence. So deep thinkers had an abundance of blood. Even today, “sanguine” (bloody) refers to someone full of optimism.
The Greeks also identified four basic colors: Red, yellow, black, and white. However, according to J. L. Benson in Greek Color Theory and the Four Elements, the Greeks did not have a consistent correlation between the four colors and the four humors.
This left Linneaus to make his own correlation. And, most conveniently, he connected “white” with “blood” and “intelligence.” In Systema Naturae, he characterized the four kinds of humans thus:
- Europeans are white, inventive, and governed by laws
- Africans are black, shameless, and governed by caprice
- Asians are yellow, greedy, and governed by opinions
- Americans are red, stubborn, and governed by customs
To be sure, Linneaus did not invent all the descriptions of skin color. Characterizing Africans as black and Europeans as white came several centuries before him, for instance.
Linneaus was not the first person to suggest that there were multiple types of humans, but his contribution offered definite inertia to the idea that science could prove that white Europeans were genetically superior to others.
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and Johann Blumenbach were among those who posited that all humans came from a single source. This is still believed today by the consensus of researchers. However, they believed that the single source wasn’t Africa, but rather the base of the Caucasus mountains, not far from the Fertile Crescent of the Bible. They further argued that Adam and Eve were Caucasian, and that the other races of man were degenerations of this.
Blumenbach identified five races: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. These correlate roughly with Linnaeus’s grouping, with “yellow” being split into two groups.
This is the origin of “Caucasian” being used to characterize white Europeans as a whole. The word “Negroid” comes from the same era. Christoph Meiners (1747-1810), for instance, argued that intelligence and pain sensitivity were linked, and that the “Negro” lacked emotion, intelligence, pain sensitivity, and sexual inhibition.
Thomas Jefferson supported this theory of scientific racism, as did many other slave owners. While he wrote in 1776 that “all men are created equal,” he wrote in 1785 that black slaves have “a want of forethought,” that they’re “in reason much inferior,” and “that in imagination they are dull tasteless, and anomalous.” He concluded that black slaves are “inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
Scientific racism was thus used to defend slavery: Black people are genetically inferior, says the argument. They’re not due the same respect or liberties. When Jefferson spoke of “men” in 1776, he made it clear nine years later: That doesn’t mean black (or red) people.
Defining people by the color of their skin is problematic enough. I’m called white, but I’m darker than any of the white things on my desk. My skin is more of a light peach. People who are called black range from only slightly darker than me to not-quite-black. These are sloppy terms at best.
The goal is to grow as a culture beyond racism. Unfortunately, we can’t do that by simply ignoring the experiences of race that everyone in this country has experienced. For the time being, we need vocabulary to address those issues. White people can’t properly ameliorate the effects of their whiteness without acknowledging it.
But we don’t need vocabulary that is inexorably tied to scientific racism. We have mostly shed “negro” within my lifetime. It’s time to do the same with “Caucasian.”
I am not Caucasian. My ancestors did not come from the Caucasus mountains. I am not genetically superior to people who aren’t of white European ancestry.
I want to point out: This article is for white people. We need to stop casually using “Caucasian.” If you’re using it to describe yourself without any particular awareness of its history, because you happen to think it’s a harmless synonym for “white,” stop doing so. Own the history, and disavow your connection to it.
However, if you’re using it as a sneer or spear against racism, and especially if you’re a POC using it as a slur against white people, carry on. I’m particularly fond of “Caucasity,” and we completely deserve it.