Why Do We Keep Using the Word “Caucasian”?
The word “Caucasian” is used in the U.S. to describe white people, but it doesn’t indicate anything real. It’s the wrong term to use! My colleague and one of my longtime writing partners, Carol Mukhopadhyay, has written a wonderful article, “Getting Rid of the Word ‘Caucasian,’” that is still relevant today for how it challenges us to critically examine the language that we use. It’s obvious that language shapes how we perceive and see the world. And we know how powerful the concept of race is and how the use of words related to the notion of race has shaped what we call the U.S. racial worldview. So why do we continue using the word “Caucasian”?
To answer that question, it is helpful to understand where the term came from and its impact on our society. The term “Caucasian” originated from a growing 18th-century European science of racial classification. German anatomist Johann Blumenbach visited the Caucasus Mountains, located between the Caspian and Black seas, and he must have been enchanted because he labeled the people there “Caucasians” and proposed that they were created in God’s image as an ideal form of humanity.
Johann Blumenbach’s five-race taxonomy placed “Caucasians” at the top as representing an ideal type of human. The other four races were viewed as “degenerate” forms of this original creation.
And the label has stuck to this day. According to Mukhopadhyay, Blumenbach went on to name four other “races,” each considered “physically and morally ‘degenerate’ forms of ‘God’s original creation.’” He categorized Africans, excluding light-skinned North Africans, as “Ethiopians” or “black.” He divided non-Caucasian Asians into two separate races: the “Mongolian” or “yellow” race of Japan and China, and the “Malayan” or “brown” race, which included Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders. And he called Native Americans the “red” race.
Blumenbach’s system of racial classification was adopted in the United States to justify racial discrimination—particularly slavery. Popular race science and evolutionary theories generally posited that there were separate races, that differences in behavior were tied to skin color, and that there were scientific ways to measure race. One way racial differences were defined was through craniometrics, which measured skull size to determine the intelligence of each racial group. As you can imagine, this flawed application of the scientific method resulted in race scientists developing a flawed system of racial classification that ranked the five races from most primitive (black and brown races), to more advanced (the Asian races), to the most advanced (the white, or Caucasian, races). Even though the five-race topology was later disproven, “Caucasian” still has currency in the U.S.
One reason we keep using the term “Caucasian” is that the U.S. legal system made use of Blumenbach’s taxonomy. As early as 1790 the first naturalization law was passed, preventing foreigners who were not white from becoming citizens. But according to Mukhopadhyay, Blumenbach’s category of “Caucasian” posed a problem because his classification of white also included some North Africans, Armenians, Persians, Arabs, and North Indians. The definition of Caucasian had to be reinvented to focus the ideological category of whiteness on northern and western Europe. The term, even though its exact definition changed over time, was used to shape legal policy and the nature of our society.
A second reason the term has had staying power is that, as new immigrants began to stream into the country in the 20th century, political leaders and scientists supported a new racial science called eugenics that built on 19th-century notions of race. Eugenicists divided Caucasians into four ranked subraces: Nordic, Alpine, Mediterranean, and Jew (Semitic). I’m sure you will not be surprised to learn that the Nordics were ranked highest intellectually and morally. These rankings were used by our government to design and execute discriminatory immigration laws that preserved the political dominance of Nordics, who were largely Protestant Christians.
Today, the word “Caucasian” is still used in many official government documents, and it continues to carry a kind of scientific weight. For example, it is found in social science and medical research, and is used by some colleges and universities in their data collection and distribution of student, staff, and faculty statistics. In Mukhopadhyay’s research, she sampled government websites and official documents and was surprised to learn how many government offices, including the U.S. Census Bureau, still use the word.
So “Caucasian” became entrenched in our legal, governmental, scientific, and social lives. And although the U.S. government reluctantly denounced or at least played down racial science after the atrocities of Adolf Hitler’s regime were fully exposed at the end of WWII, the term has not been discarded.
What can we do to change it? We need to acknowledge that the word “Caucasian” is still around and that its continued use is problematic. We should use terms that are more accurate, such as “European-American.” Doing so would at least be consistent with the use of descriptive terms like “African-American,” “Mexican-American,” and others that signify both a geographical and an American ancestry.
The bottom line is that it is time for a modern—and accurate—terminology. The use of an outdated and disproven term that falsely purports to describe a separate race of people has no place in the U.S. (By Yolanda Moses).
Our Sex Trafficking Laws Hurt Sexually Exploited Girls.
I am a survivor of the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), specifically family-controlled child sex trafficking and child pornography. I am now a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, utilizing my experience to conduct gender-based, data-driven research on state-level CSEC legislation—specifically factors associated with states that decriminalize versus criminalize sex-trafficked children.
29 states currently retain the right to arrest and prosecute a child for prostitution. Even though the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) mandates that all children who are sexually exploited for commercial purposes are human trafficking victims, the majority of states criminalize them. Understanding this tension is important, because local police interact with sex-trafficked minors more often than federal officials—and they determine if sex-trafficked children are treated as criminals or victims.
State prosecutors and law enforcement often cite the need to be able to control “non-compliant” sexually exploited minors as justification for threats of arrest and prosecution, and criminal justice officials also argue that putting CSEC victims in detention “protects them” from traffickers and sex buyers. These policies ignore the likelihood that incarceration may re-traumatize sex-trafficked children, since up to 90 percent of sexually exploited minors have prior histories of child sexual abuse and neglect, and that those with histories of violence often have difficulties trusting others, especially authority figures such as police. These policies also fail to consider that sex-trafficked children may be under the psychological control of their traffickers, due to trauma bonding.
Refusing to acknowledge the numerous ways criminalization can trigger a traumatic response by CSEC victims undermines their legitimacy as victims. Legal authorities claim that they are working with “uncooperative” victims, but their policies drive those same victims—who see these procedures as an attempt to control, not protect, them—toward stress responses. I invite criminal justice agents to join with CSEC advocates and demand more resources such as safe housing and funding for support programs so that jail is not seen as the only option for “protecting” sex trafficked children. In addition to re-traumatizing victims, arresting and prosecuting them disregards the long-term implications of having a criminal record—such as impeding future housing, employment or educational opportunities.
Sex-trafficked minors are expected to make a “rational choice” of protection by authorities or cooperate with prosecutors; otherwise, they remain suspect of deviance or complicit in their exploitation. Exploited minors begin to be seen as criminals, not victims of a violent crime, if they do not choose to be “rescued” by law enforcement. For female victims, the implications are compounding: Being perceived as “out of control” is particularly problematic for sexually exploited girls, especially girls of color, for whom acting outside of racialized, feminine ideals such as purity and obedience increases their risk of being labeled “deviant.”
Historically, sexually exploited children have been labeled “bad kids” who do not deserve non-criminal protection and services. It is argued this bias occurs because they do not fit our current cultural narrative of childhood being a time of innocence. This model of purity requires that children be white and heterosexual, with little or no sexual knowledge (even if sexual knowledge has been obtained through violence). They should have access to quality education and adequate healthcare. They must live in secure housing within a heterosexual nuclear family. Sex-trafficked youth with experiences far outside of this model can be seen as “willing participants” in their exploitation who need to be controlled, not victims in need of services and support.
I was sexually abused and trafficked by an immediate family member from infancy until early adolescence; my exploiter used a CB radio to advertise me to truckers traveling along the interstate near our house. The exploitation ended once I hit puberty—my exploiters’ clientele only liked very young girls—and going to college was my ticket away from my exploiter and my family. I often wonder if I would still be getting my Ph.D. if I had been arrested or prosecuted for prostitution while being exploited. I am doubtful, because I would not have qualified for student financial aid. Therefore, I hope my research and decriminalization advocacy will “pay it forward” for fellow CSEC victims and survivors—especially those with academic dreams.
By Kate Price, who is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston with a master’s degree in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College. Her work has informed CSEC policy throughout the U.S.; most notably, her working paper Longing to Belong: Relational Risks and Resilience of Commercially Sexually Exploited Children in the U.S. helped anti-trafficking advocates in Florida block state legislation that would have placed CSEC victims in locked facilities while receiving services. She recently received the International Center for Research on Women’s Mariam K. Chamberlain Dissertation Award.