It’s time to stop saying Caucasian for White, Justin Erik Halldór Smith says:
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.
François Bernier left his native province of Anjou and became the personal physician of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in India:
His 1684 publication Nouvelle division de la terre par les différentes espèces ou races qui l’habitent is considered the first published post-Classical classification of humans into distinct races. He also wrote Travels in the Mughal Empire, which is mainly about the reigns of Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb. It is based on his own extensive journeys and observations, and on information from eminent Mughal courtiers who had witnessed the events at first hand.
François Bernier developed a racial classification system in his New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it. He declared in this paper that Native Americans, North Africans and South Asians have little physical dissimilarities from Europeans other than their dark skin. He is counted as one of the first anthropologists to specify race using physical characteristics.
The Wikipedia entry on the Caucasian race makes no mention of Bernier but skips ahead to Meiners:
The term “Caucasian race” was coined by the German philosopher Christoph Meiners in his The Outline of History of Mankind (1785). In Meiners’ unique racial classification, there were only two racial divisions (Racen): Caucasians (“white and beautiful”) and Mongolians (“brown and ugly”). These terms were used as a collective representative of what Meiners personally regarded as good looking and far less attractive, based solely on the appearance of the skin of the face, for example the Germans and the Tartars he considered Caucasian, and the best looking, while Jews, Slavs and Native Americans as Mongolian, and ugly in the face.
This racial classification did not receive much support. However, in 1795, a colleague of Meiners from the University of Göttingen, Blumenbach, one of the earliest anthropologists, adopted the term Varietas Caucasia (“Caucasian Variety”), for a new major hypothetical racial division. Blumenbach named it after the Caucasian peoples (from the Southern Caucasus region), whom he considered to be the archetype for the grouping. Unlike Meiners, Blumenbach based his classification of the Caucasian race primarily on craniology after coming to realise that there was more to racial difference than skin pigmentation.
In his earlier racial typology, Meiners maintained that Caucasians had the “whitest, most blooming and most delicate skin”. Europeans with darker skin he considered to be “dirty whites”, admixed with Mongolian. Such views were typical of pre-anthropological attempts at racial classification, where skin pigmentation was regarded as the main difference between races. Meiners’s view was shared by the French naturalist Julien-Joseph Virey, who believed that the Caucasians were only the palest-skinned Europeans.
The earliest anthropologists, such as Blumenbach however came to recognize that skin pigmentation within European populations differed, without explaining it with the obsolete idea of admixture with another race. Thus Blumenbach, in the 3rd edition of his On the Natural Variety of Mankind, recognized that poorer European people (such as peasants) whom he observed generally worked outside, often became darker skinned (“browner”) through sun exposure. He also came to realize that darker skin of an “olive-tinge” was a natural feature of some European populations closer to the Mediterranean Sea. Alongside the anthropologist Georges Cuvier, Blumenbach classified the Caucasian race by cranial measurements and bone morphology rather than prioritizing skin pigmentation, and thus considered more than just the palest Europeans (“white, cheeks rosy”) as archetypes for the Caucasian race.
Blumenbach owned the greatest contemporary collection of human skulls, 245 whole skulls and fragments and two mummies. Drawing from Petrus Camper’s theory of facial angle, Blumenbach and Cuvier classified races, through their skull collections based on their cranial features and anthropometric measurements. Caucasian traits were recognised as: thin nasal aperture (“nose narrow”), a small mouth, facial angle of 100°-90°, and orthognathism, exemplified by what Blumenbach saw in most ancient Greek crania and statues. Later anthropologists of the 19th and early 20th century such as Pritchard, Pickering, Broca, Topinard, Morton, Peschel, Seligman, Bean, Ripley, Haddon and Dixon came to recognise other Caucasian morphological features, such as prominent supraorbital ridges and a sharp nasal sill. Some anthropologists in the latter half of the 20th century, used the term “Caucasoid” in their literature, such as Boyd, Gates, Coon, Cole, Brues and Krantz replacing the earlier term “Caucasian” as it had fallen out of usage.
The physical traits of Caucasoid crania are still recognised as distinct (in contrast to Mongoloid and Negroid races) within modern forensic anthropology. A Caucasoid skull is identified, with an accuracy of up to 95%, by the following features:
- Little or no prognathism exhibited—an orthognathic profile, with minimal protrusion of the lower face.
- Retreating zygomatic bones (cheekbones), making the face look more “pointed”.
- Narrow nasal aperture, with a tear-shaped nasal cavity.
Other physical characteristics of Caucasoids include hair texture that varies from straight to curly, with wavy (cymotrichous) hair most typical on average according to Coon (1962), in contrast to the Negroid and Mongoloid races. Individual hairs are also rarely as sparsely distributed and coarse as found in Mongoloids.
Skin color amongst Caucasoids ranges greatly from pale, reddish-white to dark brown tones.
Orthognathism, retreating zygomatic bones, and narrow nasal apertures are social constructs, of course.