It is about time

Have you ever wondered how our American English Language has so many racialized meanings embedded within its structure?  This isn’t actually a hard question–it’s simple if you understand that our nation, from its start, created a white-structured-model of the world; this isn’t a judgment; this isn’t part of the blame game–this is simply the way things were and are, and this includes our language of course.

Weren’t whites the leaders of all of the sub-systems we call the United States when it was founded?  Didn’t they establish much of academic and scientific knowledge systems, and popular cultural characteristics?  Of course they did.  Any type of ism must function with channels of power and influence to continue perpetuating its own system, its own privilege, and its own dominance. 

Language is one of the most powerful tools–both in a positive and negative way–and is used by oppressive power structures.  American racism was always about getting others who came here (with different cultures, skin tones, languages and customs) to assimilate and acculturate themselves into a white-centered culture; our brand of racism has always had the enrichment, privilege and power of whites as its supreme values.  In this way, the language used had to reflect the values we did and often now do live by.

Language, however, is part of a subset of all the systems that comprise our national culture. A nation’s character may often be displayed by its language.  I’ve written about this before in other blogs, but there is a General Semantics (GS) principal that often engenders much conflict around the meaning of words.  Words don’t mean—people mean is the GS principle I’m writing about.  Words have no inherent life of their own that scream out to us, “Hey, I’m Caucasian! You know that just means white, right?”  No, different people mean different things by this archaic-sounding, some say very outdated, word.  If two people have very opposing views about a word, it can lead to conflict and confabulation.  This is why it’s important to discuss language issues in a blog on Conflict Resolution.

The Supreme Court, which can be more colloquial, has used the term in only 64 cases, including a pair from the 1920s that reveal its limitations. In one, the court ruled that a Japanese man could not become a citizen because, although he may have been light-skinned, he was not Caucasian. In the other, a man from India was told that he could not become a citizen because, although he may have been technically Caucasian, he was certainly not white. (A similar debate erupted more recently when the Tsarnaev brothers, believed to be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, were revealed to be Muslims from the Caucasus.)

One time, in one of these earlier cases cited above, when one of the Justices was asked how they settled on a definition of Caucasian, he replied that their definition came from the average white person’s definition in the streets.  The use of popular culture to determine the definition of caucasian as a legal term is preposterous, double-binding, and clearly very ignorant.  It is without scientific or factual basis (even though scientific racism created the term “Caucasian” based on mythological theories of skull shapes, etc.). 

I make this point because our white racialized systemic structures have made their way from Institutional Racism to the everyday, casual, family-and-peer-conditioned environments where we all work and play.

And yet, there it was again–the word Caucasian–in the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. The plaintiff, noted Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in his majority opinion, was Caucasian.  For me, this isn’t a good sign, because it clearly shows how much racism and Negativity Bias is still hidden in our language.  If a Supreme Court Justice uses the term, it must be the one to use, right?

Isn’t it time, in the year 2013, to discard the word Caucasian?  Subsets of the various systems of our institutions can begin discarding it and using other terms.  Often when one subset changes its functioning, there may be a kind of domino effect that may, in the case of Caucasian, take away its power and prominence. 

Writing in an article headlined Has the term Caucasian lost its meaning? (New York Times, July 6, 2013), Shaila Dewan notes, 

The use of Caucasian to mean white was popularized in the late 18th century by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German anthropologist, who decreed that it encompassed Europeans and the inhabitants of a region reaching from the Obi River in Russia to the Ganges to the Caspian Sea, plus northern Africa. He chose it because the Caucasus was home to “the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgians,” and because among his collection of 245 human skulls, the Georgian one was his favorite (my emphasis) wrote Nell Irvin Painter, a historian who explored the term’s origins in her book “The History of White People.”

In 1889, the editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary noted that the term Caucasian had been “practically discarded.” But they spoke too soon. Blumenbach’s authority had given the word a pseudoscientific sheen that preserved its appeal. Even now, the word gives discussions of race a weird technocratic gravitas, as when the police insist that you step out of your “vehicle” instead of your car.

To me, having covered the South for many years, the term seems like one of those polite euphemisms that hides more than it reveals. There is no legal reason to use it. It rarely appears in federal statutes, and the Census Bureau has never put a checkbox by the word Caucasian. (White is an option.)

So, to my way of thinking, it’s about time that we put the Caucasian to rest with a suitable burial.  Remember that words or phrases act like gears, keeping a mechanism rolling.  All of us need to be alert to interrupt racism wherever we see it, and use of the word Caucasian is one of the gears that perpetuate racism so it needs to be phased out.

© Christopher Bear-Beam July 14, 2013

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