race names 2: caucasian

I just went along with a major report that uses the word Caucasian throughout (along with African American). I personally hate the word Caucasian, I associate it with scientific racism*, it seems smarmy to me, it makes my skin crawl. But I know a lot of people use it if they think the color names (Black, White) are wrong, and I don’t want to get into dissing people about using a word in good faith just because I hate it. The proper parallel to African American is European American, which I also call myself, along with White. I did not say anything because we had way too many other things to worry about to bother with my dislike of this race name. So anyway, does anybody else care about this?

*Its origins are scientific racism, in the distinction between Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid as the three main races. I’m not saying the people who use it today are racists, scientific or otherwise. They are just grasping for some word to use in uncertain terrain where the colors names are stigmatized and the continent names have not caught on for Whites. Why the name European American has not caught on tells you a lot about US race culture, but that is another story.

PS . This would be an example of why using a pseudonym is good, as I don’t want to hurt the feelings of the people who worked hard on the report using the race name I hate.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

24 thoughts on “race names 2: caucasian”

  1. I really don’t like Caucasian either, but mostly because…well…I’m not from Georgia, Azerbaijan or Armenia. European-American is marginally better, I suppose, but there are plenty of black Europeans, too.


  2. I’ve never been able to use “European American” because the first time I personally saw it was on a white supremacist website in the early days of the web.


  3. I came up against this recently in my public work also — things also went in the direction of Caucasian (the least pleasing alternative to me). I was most interested in your last post on the Black/African American distinction and dismayed that the comments didn’t seem to fall one way or the other convincingly.


  4. Re Black vs AfAm, people are split roughly evenly with pockets of support that vary regionally. You just are not going to get unanimity. But I concluded that there is no significant Black/AfAm view that “Black” is pejorative, even among those who don’t prefer it.

    You can see already from these comments that there is the same problem with what to call Whites — Whites don’t agree. Lots of people don’t like EurAm. Except many Whites want to not be called anything which, if you are into race studies, is part of the problem.

    Maybe it is because I spend a lot of time labeling columns in tables with race names, but I personally prefer Black, White, Native, Asian, Hispanic [or Latino — equally short]. All these hyphenated names get really impossible in tables.


  5. That’s helpful to know… I’ve leaned toward Black/White in my academic writing, having some sense that it perhaps aroused the fewest problems but having no real sense of what a survey or something on the topic would suggest. I also go with Hispanic but recently that drew some ire from a student (from Southern California), who argued that Latino was preferable.

    At the very least, the what fits in a table decision-maker sounds good to me.


  6. Re Hispanic/Latino, there you really can’t win. As you saw from that student, there are some people who get really upset about Hispanic vs Latino, and there is much more acrimony within the “group” about who is a what or what the names mean. Whereas with Black vs AfAm, some prefer one, some the other, but they really don’t get mad at each other about it. This is partly, I think, because Black/AfAm people see themselves as one group* in a way that the different Hispanic/Latino ethnicities do not.
    *Excepting of course the African vs African-American split discussed in the comments in the earlier post.


  7. it seems that the race name with the most consensus is “Asian,” and yet a couple of years ago i had a maintenance guy complimenting my race by saying how hardworking “orientals” are. i mean, we’re in california, the silicon valley to be exact, and “Asian” is not an infrequent word to hear or see. and, of course, his comparison group was “Americans” — there are as many ways this was wrong as there are permutations of race_x_nativity, plus: isn’t the opposite of “orientals” “occidentals.”


  8. I don’t like Caucasian much either. But I really don’t like European American. This is mainly, because people often tend to forget to add “American” and suddenly the conversation is about Europeans, except that it’s not.

    As someone who was born and raised in a European country, I’m probably more sensitive to this than many others. It’s just that generalizations about Europeans are pretty annoying on their own even when they’re not due to confusion about race in the US context. (Seriously, few things generalize from Norwegians to Irish, Portuguese, Italian, Swiss, Turkish, Polish and Estonian people. How many of the dozens of European countries can you name?) Of course, many people only think of a handful of EU countries when they say Europe, but let’s not even go there…

    Wow, I’ve taken this completely off topic. I apologize! But you said European American and as you can see, it sends me in all sorts of directions.


  9. yli: I’ve mostly been referring to what people call their own group, not the mis-naming others give to groups. But, yeah. Whites who call Asians Oriental are mostly older, as this was the common term through the mid-1960s. I remember a Chinese-American boss I had around 1968 saying that he used to think the O box was for oriental. (In those days, race was W B O — White, Black, Other.) It was not meant or used as an insult term in those days, although today it is heard as an insult or at least as off-putting by Asian-Americans, as you point out. However, many of my students from Asia (e.g. China, Korea, Japan) say they use the term themselves, in exactly the sense you mean: it is just Latin for “eastern,” and they use it as the opposite of occidental or western. It is very common overseas to refer to European-descent people as westerners and, in that context, to Asians as easterners. But I don’t know any Asian American who uses or likes “oriental.” As one student said: “Oriental is a kind of rug. Asian is a kind of person.”

    e: yeah. Asians & Latin Americans feel the same way, fyi.


  10. yeah. Asians & Latin Americans feel the same way, fyi.

    Oh yes, I was going to mention that I suspect it’s the same for Asians/Asian Americans. What am I forgetting here regarding Latin Americans though? What’s the term whose confusion results in the same type of mix-up?


  11. Seriously, few things generalize from Norwegians to Irish, Portuguese, Italian, Swiss, Turkish, Polish and Estonian people

    An irrational love of the Eurovision Song Contest.


  12. Hmm — I use Af-Am and White. SO that means I am not using parallel race labels. Interesting. I will have to mull this over but I hate the word Caucasian too.

    Jay: I use my baby picture (well, I am about 6) because I am so DAMN cute! Don’t you agree? I mean look at my little pony tails.


  13. what’s with the widespread use of baby pictures by bloggers?

    I’m too shy to put up a current photo.

    (And I thought my earlier comment on this thread was off topic. Sorry.)


  14. Hi Eszter – I’ll go all the way off topic and say I can’t walk today because leaving this building might kill me. It is too cold to even get to the gym!


  15. Ooh, opportunity to answer the original question and get back on topic: I use White and African American (although when speaking I will say Black as well).

    LBN – The plan for the walk was tomorrow, I thought. And there’s always the gym.:) (I’ll shift this to an email convo with apologies to the many of you who wanted to know more about our walk.;-)


  16. Ok, but what about the time I got called out by a prof for writing “White” and “Black” in a paper. The comment was that “White” should not be capitalized, only “Black.” I say–both or neither. Is it actually important?

    I won’t use “European American” because I’ve also seen it in white-supremacist context. I also object to Caucasian (I’m not from that part of Russia) and Anglo (I’m of no Anglo extraction at all).

    In terms of categories, is White, the way we use it, actually meaningful? If so, then it’s fine. If not, then we should think about figuring out if we can capture the groupings that are.


  17. jamybarab: Ah, now we enter the politcs of race. Negro was not capitalized in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, and there was an ultimately successful campaign to capitalize it in the mid-20th Century. Many (not all) Black people have been capitalizing Black since the 1970s. Most majority style manuals leave it lower case. What is at stake in English usage is whether the term is a proper noun (a name) or not, i.e. whether it refers to a specific group, in which case it is capitalized (e.g. Methodist, Catholic, Religious Right) or a demographic category (e.g. two-year-olds, teenagers, religious conservatives). If you think through the examples, you will realize there is a lot of indeterminacy about this (e.g. Baby Boomers is generally capitalized; Hispanic and Latino are capitalized in English, although hispano and latino are never capitalized in Spanish). I made a conscious political decision to start capitalizing both Black and White a few years ago. I decided to capitalize Black because this is the preference of a lot of Black people and it makes sense. But both parallelism and recognition of the politics of race makes capitalizing White reasonable on the same grounds.

    Bottom line: I agree with you. Logically capitalize neither or both. But you can’t please everyone, this is contested territory. In choosing language, you are staking out a position in a political space. I don’t know whether your prof knew s/he was staking out a political position in asserting that Black is capitalized and not White, but s/he was.

    re EurAm, I’m interested in the responses, as I’ve not encountered the term in overtly racist contexts. But even if I had, the term White surely has just as many racist associations. But you have to call yourself something.


  18. On capitalization: I emailed Dorothy Roberts about this at one point to ask her why she capitalizes Black but not white in her work. Below is her reply.

    Dear Shamus,

    Thanks for your question and for using my book in your class. You are right that I capitalized Black because used it as an ethnic category. I don’t capitalize white because it a political category. White identifies the people in our society who are entitled to privilege and power and has included various ethnic groups during different historical periods (e.g., Jews and the Irish were not considered white in the past). I hope your course goes well!



  19. I tend to use White and Black, because if I say AfAm then I feel the need to say EurAm as well. It doesn’t make sense to me to use AfAm and White. Then you can go even further and get Italian-American, Irish-American, etc. So when does it stop?

    In New Mexico, if you’re not Hispanic or Indian/NatAm then you’re Anglo. That really upsets one of my Jewish friends who claims that she’s not White, she’s Jewish (European heritage).


  20. Re:”Asian”, there is some problem using that word to apply to people with ethnic origins in east Asia because it is also used in the UK to refer from people with ethnic origins from the Indian subcontinent. Personally I’d say “East Asian” but many people say “Oriental”.

    Whereas I find Americans use “Indian” to refer to people from the Indian subcontinent but many British people would try and limit it to people from India itself, using Pakistani etc for other groups.

    I imagine it is all to do with immigration patterns.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.