Monday, August 2, 2010

On Terminology

I've seen the word "Caucasian" used to describe white people often enough that I feel compelled to do a post on it.

First off, here is the term as defined by
"Anthropology. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of one of the traditional racial divisions of humankind, marked by fair to dark skin, straight to tightly curled hair, and light to very dark eyes, and originally inhabiting Europe, parts of North Africa, western Asia, and India: no longer in technical use."

The above definition, and this one on wiki which corroborates it, would mean that I would, technically, be considered Caucasian. As would Morrocans, Algerians, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Indians, and many other peoples of colour. It's obvious to me that most of the references I've seen to "Caucasian" are not intended to include myself, or any other people of colour. My guess is that in these instances, the writer actually means to say "white folks". This seems to be a very North American usage of the term. If you read the above-linked wiki entry, and any other info on the topic, really, you'll get a sense for why the term "Caucasian" is problematic, and how it has been rooted in racist and racially-motivated designations (that have nothing to do with reality).

The term irks me, in particular, because I am always reminded of the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind case whenever I see/hear it. As anyone who has ever taken an Asian Studies class probably knows, this was the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, a Punjabi Sikh man, who argued with the US courts that, because he was technically Caucasian and Aryan, he was entitled to become a naturalized citizen of the US, according to the 1790 statute governing naturalization.*

As you might imagine, this threw the courts in a tizzy and all kinds of new findings were brought about, and stuff was re-worded to make it abundantly clear that when the word "Caucasian" was used in the 1790 statute, the writers WERE NOT referring to brown people. According to wiki, "The Court found that the authors of the 1790 statute probably ascribed to 'the Adamite theory of creation' and understood 'white people' in its popular, and not scientific, sense."

After the Thind decision, not only was he not allowed to become a naturalized citizen, all Indian-Americans who had become citizens before that point had their status retroactively revoked. They were stripped of their land, rights, and citizenship. More than half of the Indian-Americans, who had settled on US soil as land-owning citizens, at that point left the US.

So, the term is a loaded one, and dotted with racial/racist history. I know many folks use the term "Caucasian" to mean white people, particularly here in the US. I don't know if it's supposed to be more polite than saying "white" or if it somehow sounds more like a technical (therefore, more valid?) term, akin to "African-American" or "Asian-American" (but then why not "European-American"?), but it is one that I, personally, cringe at every single time I read it or hear it.

*The complexities of why he should choose to argue this at all is for another post.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to read this post. I'm a white person who has sometimes reluctantly used the term "Caucasian" to describe myself because "white," to me, sounds more loaded. But now that I'm aware of how it sounds to someone who isn't white, I'll definitely avoid using it. ("European-American" or even "European" is probably a better alternative.)

yuan said...


May possibly link this to others, if that is okay with you.

Neesha Meminger said...

@ Anon: Thank you for your comment and for reading :). I'm sure there are plenty of PoC out there who are fine with the term, or don't give it a second thought. This post is only my take on it. I have to wonder, however, how many folks actually know the history behind the word (particularly in the US), and some of the reasons such categories were developed to begin with. I think most folks here, in the US and Canada, use the term interchangeably with "white" without ever examining their terminology. But here, certain types of power and privilege aren't awarded to "Caucasians", they're awarded to white folks - the Thind decision is case in point.

@ Ah Yuah: Certainly feel free to link away. :)

Anonymous said...

I think Caucasian just sounds lame, so I never use it. "European-American" is a bit tricky as a term. What is Russian? European-American or Asian-American? Technically Russia is on the continent of Asian, right?

Neesha Meminger said...

@ Jon: Ha! They're all tricky terms, really. Russia actually falls into *both* Europe and Asia. Just goes to show how arbitrary this all is, doesn't it? Kinda like lines in the sand . . .

sarah mccarry said...

YAY THIS POST. I think 'caucasian' also implies that whiteness is an ethnicity, which is a little problematic, to say the least. White people who aren't okay with being referred to as white people are generally not on the side of the revolution, in my personal experience, and also use the phrase 'politically correct' a lot.

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