Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Caucasian Myth

In general, awareness concerning the usage of certain words and their effects seems to have risen. Terms such as "Negroid", "Red Man" or "Yellow Race" have been replaced ... with one "striking exception" "Caucasian". The term "Caucasian" originated in the eighteenth century and was coined by Johann Blumenbach (1752-1840) (Mukhopadhyay, 2008) whose "insights and errors provide important lessons for us today" (Bhopal, 2007). The real (dis-)honour, however, belongs to Christoph Meiners (Baum, 2006) who Blumenbach borrowed the term from (Painter, 2003).



When travelling to the Caspian and Black seas, the German anthropologist, physiologist and comparative anatomist Blumenbach declared the people there the most beautiful people in the world who were created in "God’s image" and the region as the area where humans most likely originated (Mukhopadhyay, 2008). According to him, Adam and Eve had been Caucasian and other "races" developed as a reaction to environmental factors, mainly climate, who in a "proper" environmental control could revert to "the orginial Caucasian race" (via). In 1775, he published four geographically defined varieties (people from Europe, Asia, Africa, North America), in his second edition (1781) he outlined five varieties and in his third (1795) he provided generic instead of geographical labels (Caucasians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans, Malays) (Bhopal, 2007). Caucasian became a synonyme for white.



Although biased, Blumenbach’s attitude to Africans was "out of tune with that of the times". He wrote favourably about them, did not regard them as inferior (Bhopal, 2007), criticised Meiners and von Sömmerring, both practitioners of "scientific racialism" (via) and was "more in line with that seen during the movements for civil rights and equality in the 1960s" (Bhopal, 2007). Nevertheless, his legacy is highly influenced by biases and errors such as his subjective notion of beauty. Beauty played a crucial role in the definition of Caucasian: "I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighbourhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian." The beauty of the "Caucasian skull" somehow became an obsession of his (Painter, 2003).



The Caucasus covers an area of 440.000 square kilometers and comprises fifty Caucasian ethnic groups (Painter, 2003). The "Caucasian race" as a synonyme for white was invented more than 200 years ago. The foundations for this arbitrarily chosen term were laid in 1775 ... when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his five violin concertos, when James Cook claimed the South Sandwich Island for Britain, when the first engines were built under the patent of James Watt, when executions for witchcraft took place, when King George III reigned Britain, when Louis XVI was King of France, when Marie Antoinette still had her head and before George Washington became the first president of the US. Times have changed. The label has persisted. As Mukhopadhyay says it is high time we got rid of it.



"I am African": The 2005 (controversially discussed) campaign aimed to raise money for antiretroviral drugs for Africa. Its basic idea is that each "and every one of us contains DNA that can be traced back to our African ancestors." David Bowie, Elijah Wood, Alicia Keys, Sarah Jessica Parker, Gwyneth Paltrow, Liv Tyler, Sting, Elizabeth Hurley, Heidi Klum, Seal, Tyson Beckford, Lenny Kravitz, Mischa Barton, Alan Cumming, Iman, Richard Gere, Gisele Bündchen and Lucy Liu were photographed (via).



Baum, B. (2006) The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity. New York: New York University Press
Bhopal, R. (2007) The beautiful skull and Blumenbach’s errors: the birth of the scientific concept of race. BMJ, 335:1308
Mukhopadhyay, C. C. (2008) Getting Rid of the Word "Caucasian", 12-16, in Pollock, M. (ed.) Everyday Anti-Racism. The New Press
Painter, N. I. (2003) Collective Degradation: Slavery and the Construction of Race. Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference at Yale University.
photos via and via and via and via and via

14 comments:

  1. I have wanted this question to be answered for a very long time! Thank you!!

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    1. I'm glad I could give an answer. Thank you, Derek.

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  2. This blog is my church.

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    1. You make me blush ;-)
      Thank you so much, Karen!

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  3. Hahahahaha, those stupid labels. Thanks for this!!

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  4. Truth be told, we're all from Milky Way. :-)

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  5. I cannot stress enough how f***ing frustrating all those stupid made-up categories are for me. They're like pen-and-paper role-playing game names. Caucasian, Dwarf, Elf, Astro-American, North-European Snow-Maker, Cownfish Watcher, Coffee-Drinker.

    Thanks, Laura! Great posting.

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    1. Abbie Winterburn6 May 2014 at 09:15

      You forgot Electric-Englishman. :-)

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    2. Eccentric-Englishman ;-)

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    3. Abbie Winterburn6 May 2014 at 09:20

      Eccentric-Englishwomen! Don't plagiarize! ;-)

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    4. I would like to add the category "fabulous commenters" ;-)
      Thank you, Tim, thank you, Abbie!

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  6. I'm not African, but, I may be an Elf.

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