Much has been made about how to refer to members of racial and ethnic groups of color in the United States — even how to refer to people in color in general. I myself have researched and written quite a bit on what to “call” Hispanics/Latinos and why. Yet very little is said about what to call white people.
I’ve noticed discomfort among white people with saying “white” or “white people” out loud. Perhaps this is because we don’t typically hear ourselves saying the word, but others (people of color) saying it about us — often when we’ve done something “wrong.” “Caucasian” seems to be considered a “more polite” term for whites, which is ironic because there really are no deeply offensive, racially traumatizing terms for white people anywhere comparable to those we use in great quantities for people of color. Really? “White” is an impolite term?
It’s this penchant for politeness that is whites’ Achilles’ heel when it comes to confronting racial issues. Beliefs about politeness get in the way of telling the truth, or talking at all. The history of race in the U.S., and its current reality, is anything but polite. Yet even young people have the sense that just making an observation about the race of a person or group of people is “racist.” This is dangerously superficial and borderline ridiculous. If recent events across the nation are any indication, our — and by “our” I mean white people — silence and overemphasis on politeness is stifling. Our discomfort with messiness, anger and guilt are major barriers to getting down to business and solving our deep problems of racial tension, mistrust and inequities. These are not going away, and in some ways they’re getting worse. Not naming them or not talking about them isn’t working.
In the interest of adding depth, clarity and frankness to our much-needed national dialogue on race, we should refer to white people as such, and not as Caucasian. Here are six reasons why:
1. Most white people in the U.S. today have no significant cultural or linguistic connection to their European countries of origin. I’m half German biologically — also French, Scots-Irish, English and Dutch. While I know a decent amount about these nations, resonate with the Scots-Irish heritage and know a lot about my family history, to call myself German American would not only be incomplete, it would diminish the more legitimate claims to that identity by Americans of recent German descent with meaningful cultural ties to that homeland.
2. Physical whiteness plays a much bigger role in white Americans’ lives than our European-ness, just like blackness determines African Americans’ lives and experiences more than their African-ness. Compare how a white African is perceived and treated with how a black African is, or how a black African immigrant’s experience differs from an African American’s. Culture does play a role, but much evidence indicates skin color (and its historical context) affects how others perceive and treat us — and then how we perceive ourselves and behave. Even though we share DNA, grew up in the same family and are “white,” my two darker-skinned siblings have experienced negative treatment and attitudes that I never have. Like us, people from mixed-race families or multiracial ethnicities like Hispanics/Latinos and African Americans have many stories to tell about how looking white, despite one’s actual DNA, cultural identity, or primary language eliminates barriers and brings advantages darker relatives don’t enjoy.
3. “Caucasian” is an outdated term that refers back to three limited, subjective anthropological categories created in the late 1700s. No person of color I know would find it more “polite” to be called “Negroid” or “Mongoloid” — the historical companions to “Caucasoid.”
4. “Caucasian” is geographically inaccurate. Most white people in the U.S. aren’t descended from the Caucasus region between Europe and Asia (touching Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) but from western and northern Europe. This was part of the confusion in identifying the Boston Marathoner bombers — they were Muslims from the Caucasus and therefore technically Caucasians, but few would identify them as white.
5. “White” is the racial option used in all federal data collection methods, not “Caucasian.” To be consistent is to communicate more effectively and reduce confusion and stress.
6. At its root, “Caucasian” is a pseudo scientific term used to create distance from race discussion or racial identification, often indicating discomfort with the topic. We do not need more distance or “polite” euphemisms to keep an awkward but increasingly necessary conversation at arm’s length.
There is some leeway. “European American” may work well for some, as “African American” does. In my part of the U.S. (New Mexico and parts of Texas), we prefer “Anglo.” But in general, let’s call ourselves what we are — white people — and phase “Caucasian,” along with its attitude of distancing and discomfort, out of our vocabulary.