Sunday, February 28, 2010
Can Somebody Please Kill the Word Caucasian?
The Census is coming soon, so I think it's a good time to talk about racial identity. On forms I have filled out in the past, I have often seen this as the category I think they want me to check:
White, Caucasian (Of European, Middle Eastern or North Africa heritage)
First, I think that is too a large geographic region to lump under one category. What is race? Is it the way we look? Where we are from? Is it something under the skin that we can't even see that makes us different? If what these forms want to know is our ethnicity, our culture, asking about our race isn't going to capture it anyway. I've posted about this before: here.
So, ok, let's accept that Europeans, Middle Easterners and North Africans have something in common, that people from as far apart as Ireland, Morocco and Iran make up one "race" and that it is the one we commonly call "white." Where does Caucasian come in?
The Caucasus Mountains are located in the area between the Black and Caspian Seas, which includes Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and a southern tip of Russia. The use of Caucasian as a racial term, as opposed to a geographic one, is largely attributed to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German anthropologist from the early 1800s. Based on the discovery of a certain skull in the Caucasus region, he falsely concluded that humanity began there. In his definition, peoples from Europe to India could all be considered Caucasian, all belonging to a single race. He came up with other racial terms for Africans and Asian as well, all equally as archaic.
The United States seems to be the only country that still uses this term to mean anything other than "from the Caucasus region." And somehow it has come to mean something synonymous with "white person." Indians have officially been left out of this definition, see the United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind.
I don't know a single white American who would self-identify as Caucasian. Most Americans, notorious for our poor geography skills, have no idea where the Caucasus region is. Most white Americans know that at some point in their family history have ancestors from Europe. Many white Americans have NO IDEA where in Europe their family really comes from (myself included). But I know that I do not have any recent ancestry from between the Black and Caspian Seas.
Caucasian is meaningless as a racial category.
So, why the picture of Kim Kardashian? I am not a fan of hers, though I do think she is remarkably beautiful and an interesting topic of racial conversation. I posted her picture because of all recent celebrities she is probably the most recognizable Caucasian. And not because she is white. Is she white? That's a whole other question, but her father, famous attorney Robert Kardashian, was Armenian American. This means her family heritage is from the Caucasus region. Would Kim identify as Caucasian? Why would she, when she could claim Armenian heritage, which is much more specific.
While Kim is truly Caucasian, more so than Gwyneth Paltrow or Angelina Jolie or Reese Witherspoon, does she meet the American construction of Caucasian (i.e. white)? Is Kim Kardashian white? Phenotypically, most Americans would probably say no. I'm more interested in how she self-identifies. We can debate her race all day, but it doesn't really matter what anyone says but the girl herself. Her mother is white American, her father was Armenian American. Geographically, Armenia further east than even Turkey, which is currently trying to prove how European it can be to the European Union. Is Armenia Europe? Or is it part of the Middle East, or part of Asia? Are Armenians Europeans or Asians? Are they white? How do they identify?
Does any of it matter? I tend to say that yes, it matters. In America, race matters. Should it matter is another question altogether.
The label Caucasian was defined when humans were even more confused about race than we are today. It's time to let it go. If what we really want to measure is the percentage of the population with roots in Europe, make a definition that means just that. Or just say white. That's what white people call themselves anyway.