Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Has The Term 'Caucasian' Lost Its Usefulness?

Photo Credit: MyTudut
In a recent article, Shaila Dewan of The New York Times raises an intriguing question about whether the term 'Caucasian' is still a useful way to describe those of us of European descent. Personally, I'm not that fond of the term so I appreciate this dialogue.

Dewan offers the following background on the term:
"The use of Caucasian to mean white was popularized in the late 18th century by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German anthropologist, who decreed that it encompassed Europeans and the inhabitants of a region reaching from the Obi River in Russia to the Ganges to the Caspian Sea, plus northern Africans. He chose it because the Caucasus was home to “the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgians,” and because among his collection of 245 human skulls, the Georgian one was his favorite wrote Nell Irvin Painter, a historian who explored the term’s origins in her book “The History of White People.” 
 In 1889, the editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary noted that the term Caucasian had been “practically discarded.” But they spoke too soon. Blumenbach’s authority had given the word a pseudoscientific sheen that preserved its appeal. Even now, the word gives discussions of race a weird technocratic gravitas, as when the police insist that you step out of your “vehicle” instead of your car. 
“If you want to show that you’re being dispassionate then you use the more scientific term Caucasian,” Ms. Painter said. 
Susan Glisson, who as the executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation in Oxford, Miss., regularly witnesses Southerners sorting through their racial vocabulary, said she rarely hears “Caucasian.” “Most of the folks who work in this field know that it’s a completely ridiculous term to assign to whites,” she said. “I think it’s a term of last resort for people who are really uncomfortable talking about race. They use the term that’s going to make them be as distant from it as possible.” 
There is another reason to use it, said Jennifer L. Hochschild, a professor of government and African-American studies at Harvard. “The court, or some clever clerk, doesn’t really want to use the word white in part because roughly half of Hispanics consider themselves white.” She added, “White turns out to be a much more ambiguous term now than we used to think it was.”"
Many of us feel uncomfortable talking about issues of race and the continued use of the term Caucasian may just be one example. Due to our historical legacy within the United States, most of us have an uneasy relationship with the topic of racial identity. We're often not certain of how to refer to one another when describing the racial or ethnic background of others and, truth be told, many of us are unsure how to describe ourselves. We stumble over our words because we don't give much thought to it outside of situations when race is being expressly addressed.

Understanding the historical context for the terms we use when it comes to race is a good thing and provides a foundation for the language we use now and in the future.

To read the rest of the article please click here.

(h/t to for the link.)

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