But these facts about the word “Caucasian” aren’t surprising at all!

Yeah, that word is an ugly remnant of 18th century racist classification schemes, and Franchesca Ramsey is describing it accurately.

But doesn’t everyone already know all this? Why…oh. I just read the youtube comments. OMG. “Cultural marxist” and Milo and Sargon and hate everywhere. I’ve been ignoring the youtube commentariat for so long it is shocking how flamingly racist they are. Apparently there are large numbers of horrible people who have targeted Ramsey specifically for focused bigotry.

I thought she was very good, and I’ll have to watch more of her work.


  1. cartomancer says

    I thought it was a good video – apart from the “oh my goodness, human skulls!” bit. I mean, yeah, you’re not supposed to do racism with them, but comparative physiology is a fine science for an 18th century gentleman to engage in… in theory.

    I didn’t realise that the term was so popular in the US because of its legal history though. That certainly explains a lot. Come to think of it, I never actually encountered the term “caucasian” before I started watching colonials on the internet – over here in Britain we tend more towards thinking of racial groups as national groups, and talk about the Chinese, Nigerians, Pakistanis or Polish for example. I suppose it’s a relic of the fact that, historically, our local racism has mainly been against the Irish and French Hugenots, and the mindset of our shady colonial past.

    Though I do have online dating profiles from global sites that use the term. I might change it to “rather not say” now.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    synchronicity (partial) derail.
    “Caucasion” was amusingly used as a substitution for the name of the cocktail, “White Russian”, by the character Lebowski (played by Jeff Daniels), in the movie “The Big Lebowski”.
    Mentioned only because I just caught this movie while surfing the tube pointlessly
    I just like to note these odd coincidences.

  3. Akira MacKenzie says

    But doesn’t everyone already know all this?

    Ummmm… I actually didn’t. :(

    Now I know!

  4. says

    …Milo and Sargon…

    They’ve logically logicked the logic of their hatefulness with their logical minds so it’s logically okay.

  5. Ed Seedhouse says

    My only quibble is about the term “white”

    I am supposed to be a “white man”, but whatever colour my skin is it is definitely not “white”. White is the colour of bleached paper, or some clouds, or even the white background of this site on my particular monitor. My skin looks nothing like that. It’s got pink, some brown, some yellow and these days rather blotchy because of age.

    Given what the sun does to my skin upon exposure I think I should perhaps be classified as “melanin disadvantaged”.

  6. chigau (違う) says

    I knew all that about ‘caucasian’.
    but Franchesca Ramsey is going on my list of “must be watching”.

  7. andyo says

    the character Lebowski (played by Jeff Daniels), in the movie “The Big Lebowski”.

    I think you’re confusing The Big Lebowski with that other classic of modern cinema, Dumb and Dumber To. It usually happens, don’t feel bad.

  8. Arnie says

    These facts aren’t surprising at all, but interesting – I had noticed that “caucasian” is a word used by racists and Americans, and had wondered why.

  9. Nick Gotts says

    My only quibble is about the term “white” – Ed Seedhouse@6

    And a very silly quibble it is.

  10. Infophile says

    @6 Ed Seedhouse: And I have a friend who hates to be called “black,” because that isn’t the exact color of her skin, and she was born in Jamaica, so “African American” doesn’t describe her any better. I abide by her preference, as “dark-skinned” or “Jamaican” are sufficient to get the meaning across when needed.

    But she lives in the US now, in Florida to be specific, and has since she was around five years old, so she has a lot of shared experience with the black community. When people look at her, they see a black woman, and act as such. And when people see you, I’m guessing they see a white person and act as such. So, go ahead and define yourself as you will, but it’s not going to change the language everyone else uses, no matter how much you point out that it doesn’t make perfect sense.

    It would be like deciding that since peanuts aren’t nuts, you’re going to call them by their scientific name, “arachis hypogaea.” All you’re going to accomplish is that no one else is going to know what you’re talking about.

  11. wjts says

    Even apart from the “ha-ha creepy weirdo with his skull collection” business, the video badly misrepresents Blumenbach and his work. She’s right (so far as I know – I haven’t read him, only about him) about Christoph Meiners and his views and about Blumenbach’s claim that the Georgian Caucasians had the most beautiful skulls, but to present Blumenbach as extending and elaborating on Meiners’ work is profoundly wrong. Blumenbach and Meiners agreed on almost nothing. Meiners was a polygenist, Blumenbach a monogenist. Meieners wrote extensively on the supposed superiority of Western Europeans, denigrating the moral and intellectual capacities of other peoples, while Blumenbach, in a chapter of Contributions to Natural History entitled “Of the Negro in particular”, wrote:

    “God’s image he too,” as Fuller says, “although made out of ebony.” This has been doubted sometimes, and, on the contrary, it has been asserted that the negroes are specifically different in their bodily structure from other men [‘specifically’ here meaning that they belong to a separate and distinct species], and must also be placed considerably in the rear, from the condition of their obtuse mental capacities. Personal observation, combined with the accounts of trustworthy and unprejudiced witnesses, has, however, long since convinced me of the want of foundation in both these asssertions…. Finally, I am of the opinion that after all these numerous instances I have brought together of negroes of capacity, it would not be difficult to mention entire well-known provinces of Europe, from out of which you would not easily expect to obtain off-hand such good authors, poets, philosophers, and correspondents of the Paris Academy; and on the other hand, there is no so-called savage nation known under the sun which has so much distinguished itself by such examples of perfectibility and original capacity for scientific culture, and thereby attached itself so closely to the most civilized nations of the earth, as the Negro.

    Additionally, while Meiners and other polygenists viewed races as absolute and discretely bounded, Blumenbach noted that human variation is clinal and admitted that drawing boundaries between races is something of an arbitrary exercise.
    As for the quoted line, “Degenerate forms of god’s original creation”, it’s important to note that in Blumenbach’s work, the idea of “degeneration” does not necessarily carry a negative connotation. In his On the Natural Variety of Mankind, “degeneration” refers to the collection of processes by which organisms come to differ in various ways from their ancestors. Section II of the Third Edition is entitled “Of the Causes and Ways By Which the Species of Animals Degenerate in General” and examines the ways in which both domestic and wild are observed to “degenerate” from a relatively uniform original stock into subpopulations with different physical appearances under the influence of climate, diet, behavior, and hybridization. Just as cows have “degenerated” from their original stock into Holsteins, Jerseys, Herefords, etc., so, Blumenbach argued, have humans “degenerated” from their original stock (which he did, incorrectly, believe looked like Georgians) into their modern varieties.
    Of course, none of this is to say that Blumenbach was a saint. He was an 18th/19th century European, and could and did have some messed up ideas about race. But his ideas were miles away from those of Meiners, and the video does not represent them well.

  12. Intaglio says

    I had always wondered US programs use “Caucasian” especially the cop shows. As far as I can see it is just a simplistic way of dividing people into “Us” and “Them.” That is it describes nothing except a preferred group.

    Preferred groups can be further subdivided. In Britain a common overt prejudice (until about as late as the 1980s) subdivided “Caucasian” Britons into English, Welsh, Scots, Irish, Romany and even Cornish. I used common overt prejudice because there is still a minority overtly prejudiced against such “not me” types and, of course, covert prejudice still exists.

  13. Zeppelin says

    @cartomancer British forms that ask about race/ethnicity also use “Caucasian”, or at least did when I went to study in England…about 10 years ago? I just wrote “German” under “Other” because I had no idea what they wanted from me…

  14. says

    I naively (and ignorantly) thought caucasian meant people westward from the Caucasus mountains, the same way Europe is west of the Ural mountains. I know the etymology of some obscure words, but should have known an obvious one like this.

    Things like this are why I stick to the words person and people to describe others, or colour and style of clothes if I want to specify someone.

  15. John Phillips, FCD says

    Zeppelin, I haven’t seen a form with Caucasian on it in a long time in England. Nowadays they usually ask for nationality and ethnicity, and, depending on the end user of the form, languages used.

    Intaglio, it wasn’t overt prejudice but simply the countries making up the UK and each not wanting to be lumped in with the others. The United part of the United Kingdom label has rarely been actually true. Even today, some people object to being labelled simply British instead of what they consider their actual nationality and will tick the British box while explicitly entering what they consider their main nationality in the Other box. Though I generally find this less true of the non-English unless they are nationalists. Being Welsh I sometimes do it for fun and if I’m feeling really awkward I’ll ask for the form in Welsh as well, being it’s my mother tongue. But I’m not really serious about it and only tend to do it when the person dealing with me is being an arsehole.

  16. malta says

    I knew that most people outside the US used “Caucasian” to refer to people from the Caucasus, but I wasn’t aware of its other history. That said, I think she missed another possible reason why it’s still used today. Many people in the U.S. consider the term “African American” more polite than “black,” and if “black” isn’t polite, than presumably “white” isn’t polite either. Which means that you need a replacement for “white.” Caucasian appears to fit that need, and, unlike European American, also avoids the complaints made about hyphenated Americans.

    “Anglo” rubs me the wrong way for the same reason as Caucasian. I feel like Anglo should refer specifically to Anglo-Saxons, and many white people in the US don’t fit that description. Of course, that’s the whole point. White is a political power group that expands as necessary to maintain majority power, not an ethnicity. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Latin@s are re-categorized as white within the next few decades to maintain white political power.

    It’s a good video and props to her for the research. Sadly, I feel like a series called The Surprisingly Racist History of ________ is never going to lack for subject matter!

  17. says

    Ed Seedhouse:

    I am supposed to be a “white man”, but whatever colour my skin is it is definitely not “white”.

    Most “black” people aren’t black, but a wide variety of shades of brown. Are you equally concerned about that misnomer? As for your complaint, allow me to suggest pasty.

  18. says

    I made the mistake of reading some of the comments under the youtube video and refreshed my loathing for humanity – regardless of where they come from, but especially youtube commenters.

    Actually, that’s not fair. There are a bunch of commenters trying to stem augean stables-like tide of awful

  19. says

    The whole bit about the skull collection is covered very well in SJ Gould’s “The mismeasure of man” – which I highly recommend. I believe the collection in question is on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. I highly recommend the Mutter Museum as a great first date – or, wait, no, that didn’t work out so well for me; maybe it will work for you.

    Scientific racism is some strange shit. There are still people working that angle, which is even more amazing. Hey, it’s pigment which has something to do with evolution and adaptation to local conditions. That’s it. Under the chassis we’re all compatible humans, component-wise. Science has figured that shit out.

    What I’ve been waiting for (surprised it hasn’t happened, really) is for racists to re-brand and claim that their hatred breaks along cultural lines. I.e.: “I’m not a racist, I just don’t like people who like a lot of pedal steel guitar in their country music, pickup trucks, and confederate flag bumper stickers!” Then it becomes an aesthetic argument and a matter of opinion. But you can still hate people based on that. After all, that’s what racists really have been doing all along: hating based on opinions about culture.

  20. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 17:
    yes. note that the bigots are desperately clutching at any straw they can think of. such of the recent proliferation of “ginger” as an ethnicity to be shunned, as being a sort of “mutant-strain” of humanity, not worth associating with. As “orientals” have become “asians” and “N~~~” became “black”, the bigots are losing the labels they like to throw at the groups they are bigoted about. So they will invent one to replace them.
    **mumbling to my self: ‘people come in many variations, what is wrong with accepting that, and enjoying the variation itself?’ **

  21. Karen Locke says

    I figured out early on that “Caucasian” ought to mean “Of the Caucasus Mountains”, which are far, far away from where my parents’ families came from (Norway, Germany, Ireland). So the use of the term in modern USian parlance has always puzzled me. Now I understand!

    I also find broad labels like white, black, Hispanic, etc. to be not much use beyond giving a general description to the cops of the guy who stole a car. People’s back stories are much, much richer than that. A white USian who grew up in Detroit, like a good friend of mine, had far different growing-up experiences than I did in coastal California, which were light-years different than my cousins’ experiences in rural Norway. My friends whose parents immigrated from Mexico have a very different background than my parents’ next-door-neighbor who was descended from Californios (Mexicans who came to California before white people). The woman in hijab ahead of me in line in Costco might be a recent immigrant, or she might be from a family who came to the US before I was born — and maybe she’s the first woman in her family to wear hijab in three generations. You never know. Best never to make assumptions about people, but to get to know them.

  22. JohnnieCanuck says

    slithey tove @ 21.
    The ginger phenomenon has always mystified me. Redheads, as we call them here in North America, are much admired. My grade school first crush had lovely coppery tresses. It’s also my impression that red hair dye is more popular even than blonde. Admittedly many of the red dye results are decidedly not natural.

    My best guess, from too far away to actually be familiar with it, is that ginger prejudice is an expression of prejudice against the Scots and Irish.

  23. Intaglio says

    @slithy tove #21 Ginger prejudice has been round for many years. Even in my youth (1950s and 60s) they were regarded as short tempered, curmudgeonly and, physically, slightly effeminate.

  24. Ed Seedhouse says

    Caine@18 “Most “black” people aren’t black, but a wide variety of shades of brown. Are you equally concerned about that misnomer? As for your complaint, allow me to suggest pasty.”

    I can’t argue with you about that. I can live with “pasty” come to that, especially my vast belly which I have kept well shielded from the sun for many years except that it is slightly pink which “pasty” doesn’t seem to fit. However I like “Paleface” even better. My arms are slightly brown, mostly because I wear short sleeves.

    And of course “white” is what pale racists call themselves because white symbolizes purity to them don’t you know. But that doesn’t make them actually white.

    “Coloured” is another racist epithet, too, but since white is a colour and so is black and we are all somewhere on the spectrum I think we might think about reclaiming it from the racists. Of course you won’t change anyone’s mind.

    And while someone above thinks this is silly, and he or she is entitled to that , opinion, I beg to differ. I think it is extremely important, but of course that’s just my opinion.

  25. ponta says

    I don’t think we retained the name because of any appeal to power or superiority. I think it was retained—or, more accurately, it just remained—simply because it was not considered demeaning or insulting—the reason the other terms were eventually discarded.

  26. rietpluim says

    Why are Spanish people called Caucasian, and American people from Spanish origin called Hispanic? It makes no sense, not even from a racist point of view.

  27. rietpluim says

    Re: “white” and “black”. In The Netherlands, calling white people “wit” (instead of “blank” which is more usual) is a sign of ant-racist activism. A white racist would never refer to him- or herself as “wit”. To my Dutch ears, “white” and “black” sound just fine, but maybe in English they have connotations that I’m unfamiliar with.

  28. says

    malta @17
    “I wouldn’t be surprised if Latin@s are re-categorized as white…”

    You mean they’re not? Could have fooled me.

    slithey tove @21

    “people come in many variations, what is wrong with accepting that, and enjoying the variation itself?”

    Ahh. IDIC It’s a sensible philosophy.