In the vocabulary of ethnicity, some designations are obvious. African Americans are of African descent; Latinos have Latin American roots. But what about Caucasians? If a Native American told a Caucasian to “go back where you came from,” where would that person go?
Geographically, Caucasia is a region of Russia, a place from which few white Americans come. Yet the term Caucasian remains in wide use as a synonym for a white person.
The classification dates back to 1795, when Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a respected German physician and anthropologist, conducted research in which he measured skulls, a then-common practice for comparing disparate human groups.
His views on race were complicated. While studying a female skull from the Caucasus region, he was struck by its symmetry and fine features, describing it as “handsome and becoming.” He believed the white race was the most beautiful human type — a common Enlightenment belief shared by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin — and he made a logical leap. If the white race was the most beautiful, and this was the most beautiful skull, then its place of origin — the Caucasus Mountains — must be the birthplace of the white race: hence, the term Caucasians.
Blumenbach’s ideas were a reflection of the unconscious bias and white racial pride of his era, and when he created the first racial schema of five races, he placed Caucasians at the apex. Yet in some ways he was surprisingly progressive. He believed in “the unity of humankind,” arguing that individual members of all groups had equal capacity for intelligence, creativity and organization. In fact, he was often mocked by his fellow scientists for his generous views of equality regarding nonwhite groups.
Blumenbach also correctly hypothesized that humans of all races descended from a common ancestor (monogeny) rather than from multiple origins (polygeny), a key debate of his time. The geography of human origin, of course, he got wrong. The overwhelming majority of scientific findings since Blumenbach’s time — DNA, the fossil record, the human genome — point to humankind emerging from Africa.
In the years following Blumenbach’s suppositions, they came to be widely cited as proof of white racial superiority, especially in the young republic of the United States. Over the next century, scholars gave scientific cover to the idea that racial groups had distinctive genetic character traits. The new American nation absorbed Blumenbach’s racial theories, and they remain ingrained in our legal history, racial ideology and national identity.
Europeans today rarely invoke Caucasian as an ethnic identity, so why do Americans? Here’s my simple theory: Being Caucasian provides white Americans with an origin myth. Since there is no official “White Land,” to say “I’m Caucasian” has the mystical ring of geography to it. The word “Caucasian” functions as an almost magical word referring to a distant, unknown land from whence white people come. The myth also had a key historical function for white ethnics: During the heavy immigration through Ellis Island, groups then considered racially distinctive — Jews, Italians, Syrians — could invoke Caucasian as a racial identity and thereby downplay ethnic differences.
The story of our current usage of Caucasian is one of myth living on in defiance of science. Using the term Caucasian is no more scientific than, say, calling people of short stature Hobbits — another fictional race with European origins.
Language matters: To stop using the word Caucasian would be a first step toward undoing our attachment to color-coding humankind, something that has been at the root of at least 300 years of identity and ideology. As the U.S. continues to grapple with race and racism, it’s time for the nation, its police officers and its media to stop being complicit in using a term based on a discredited 18th century theory rooted in false notions of white racial superiority.
Joel Dinerstein is an English professor at Tulane University and the author of two books on race, music and culture.