It's Time to Stop Saying 'Caucasian'


by Justin E. H. Smith

I don’t know why all these racists are worried about Caucasians being reduced to a minority in Georgia as a result of demographic shifts. In fact it’s logically certain that Caucasians will always be the majority in Georgia: if one is Georgian, ipso facto one is Caucasian.

Oh wait. I thought we were talking about that other Georgia. Because when I say ‘Caucasian’, I intend it as an adjective that refers to the land and peoples between the Black and Caspian Seas.

The origins of the use of this adjective as an umbrella term for so-called white people are rooted, it seems, in the Ottoman slave trade. Thus in 1684 François Bernier reports having been to a slave market in Constantinople. He is spellbound by the ivory beauty of a Circassian (presumably Georgian) slave girl. He notes that women from the Caucasus region have been praised since antiquity as the palest and most beautiful slave girls in all the world, and he regrets not having enough money to buy her.

Phenotypically, the girl Bernier desired was most likely very similar to, say, the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov: blonde-haired, blue-eyed, yet for all that something altogether different from what, say, an Atlanta Republican maven has in mind when she imagines of herself that she is a ‘Caucasian’.

A century later, Christoph Meiners would attempt to transform the designation into a natural kind: now Caucasians constituted, alongside ‘Mongolians’ and ‘Negroes’, one of the basic subtypes of humanity. The mountain region and its peoples came to stand in metonymically for a third or so of humanity. Who makes the cut has been a matter of much dispute over the centuries. For Blumenbach, Slavs were Mongolian, while Tatars (presumably because of their long presence in the extensive Caucasus region) were included as Caucasians.

The designation long served, as one of its principal raisons d’être, to ensure that Jews remained excluded from the fold, and any self-described member of the Caucasian race, if projected from the early 20th century to the early 21st and shown, say, an online dating profile that reads ‘Race: Caucasian; Religion: Jewish’, would take this as a straightforward contradiction. They would have been dead wrong, but that does not make us dead right. The sad fact is that the term, to the extent that it refers to anything other than the noble people of Georgia, Chechnya, and so on, functions simply as a way of dividing us off from them. For now, the us includes Slavs and Ashkenazi Jews but not, generally, Arabs and (most) Latin Americans. It is, in other words, as racist as the day it was coined. Though it excludes different groups in different eras, it exists for the sole purpose of exclusion.

Most Americans who describe themselves as Caucasians would likely be reluctant to include Kadyrov as one of their own, even if they were to learn that, on strictly technical grounds, he must count as Caucasian if anyone does. He is a Muslim, after all; he is bearded, wears a fez-like hat, is usually seen draped in ammunition, and would appear entirely out of place at your local Bed, Bath, & Beyond. But the original association of whiteness with the Caucasus appears to have been a sort of pre-racial Orientalism, which valued the beauty of the Caucasian slave girl in view of its exoticness. In other words, its object was a white person, but it was objectifying in exactly the same way the later fascination with, e.g., the Hottentot Venus would be.

So when the know-nothing North Carolina State Senator’s wife, Jodie Brunstetter, says that gay marriage should be prohibited as a measure against the eventual elimination of the ‘Caucasian’ race, she should not just be condemned for homophobia, for the logical fallaciousness of supposing that if they weren’t getting married gay people would be reproducing, and for the retrograde idea that races in themselves are anything worth conserving, as one might conserve Sumatran rhinoceroses. She should also be condemned for supposing that there is such a thing as the Caucasian race. There is not, and never has been.

Yet the reaction from progressive circles is to denounce Brunstetter for her homophobia and her sentimental attachment to the white race, while letting pass without notice, and even with explicit support, her identification of whiteness with Caucasianness. Or, alternatively, we find what appears to be utter confusion about the meaning of the latter term. Thus Erin Gloria Ryan asks in a post in Jezebel: “Does Jodie Brunstetter know that ‘Caucasian’ isn’t synonymous with ‘white people’?” And thus far I found myself thinking: yes! But then came the disappointment of reading on: “Caucasians,” Ryan writes, “live in India, on the horn of Africa, the Middle East, and in South America. They’re brown and white and black. What Mrs. Brunstetter means is ‘Aryan’. You know, like what Hitler meant, but in America.”

Here I confess I just don’t know what Ryan means by ‘Caucasian’ (a complaint that cannot be made, at least, about what Brunstetter means). I suppose there might be some scattered Chechens and the like in the Horn of Africa, and they might show a variety of complexions. But if the term is not taken to refer to someone from that mountain region, then I really don’t know what it could be referring to except to that folk-category often described, alternatively, as ‘white people’.

Invoking that other sinister and so-flexible-as-to-be-meaningless category of ‘Aryans’ only confuses matters; it too was once a non-racial category, referring to a certain caste in a certain region that we don’t think of today as having much to do with whiteness, which became racialized principally in Germany as a result of certain rather ungrounded philological and linguistic speculations (by contrast with the physical-anthropological speculations of Blumenbach et al. in which the parallel notion of ‘Caucasians’ developed).

Neither ‘Aryan’ (except in the case of ancient North India) nor ‘Caucasian’ (except in the case of the southern Urals) ever had any serious application to human biological or social reality, yet Ryan happily goes along with Brunstetter in speaking as if there really are such things. It’s time to scrap this bit of 18th-century racial mythology.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website