As my senior paper revolves around data I collected at my college, I wrote a profile for the college to lend background context to my informants and my argument. In the process, I realized that over 80% of Luther’s students identify as “white/Caucasian.” Remembering classes that asked us to identify our cultural heritage, I remember only one or two instances where that label didn’t mean, “Western European immigrants settled down in the United States and reproduced with partners solely from people whose families also came from Western Europe.” (Both individuals have ancestors who identified as Lakota.) I specify the label’s use because “Caucasian” is an adjective describing people from a specific region in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that is currently in the news again because of turmoil with Russia.

Before Easter Break, I attended a lecture about Indonesia’s female Qur’anic reciters by a well-respected researcher of Arabic music. She said that the mainstream distinction in the music of the US is between Anglo or African (think Usher vs Taylor Swift), but really, there are other kinds of music, such as the musical heritage of the Norwegian immigrants that started Luther as a college. She elaborated to point out that often, generalizations conflate things that simply look similar – Scandinavian immigrants lumped into the “Anglo” category because their phenotypes are closer to British immigrants than African immigrants.

Similarly, the survey category “white/Caucasian” serves as a generalized conflation of people with similar phenotypes. Scandinavians, Brits, Anglos, northern French, northern Italians, Germans, etc. – people who can trace their lineages to these regions are not Caucasian because they’re not from the Caucasus Mountains. Yet in the US I’m considered Caucasian simply because I only have white-skinned ancestors. Are there motives behind the conflation other than American laziness? Why include cultural heritage from the Caucasus Mountains into an ethnic marker used (in the Midwest) by people whose immigrant ancestors came from Western Europe?


About landje03

A passionate outdoor educator, I hold a degree in anthropology. While not a salaried academic, I pursue various thoughts stemming from my experiences and their intersections with others' experiences. I also love to start conversations, so comment if anything tickles your fancy.
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1 Response to Caucasian

  1. Jenny Rustad says:

    This reminds me of something that came up in a video we watched in Christian Theology (I think it was called “The Color of Fear”?). The video recorded a retreat where a group of men from a variety of ethnic backgrounds sat together and talked about racial issues. One of the white men in the group had a hard time believing that racial issues were as bad as people said they were or that the men of other ethnic heritages weren’t making a big deal about little things or making things hard for themselves. One comment that came out of this discussion was that “being white means not knowing what that means,” ie not seeing the impact of race on one’s own life, not gaining any particular sense of identity from being “white/Caucasian.” So yeah, in our society, if a person has a white phenotype, and especially if ze spends most of zer time with whites, then whiteness doesn’t figure much in identity development, and can all get lumped together. In a sense it’s a white privilege, but it’s also unfortunate to some extent, because there is richness in the various “white” ethnic traditions – I’d be a very different person were I not brought up in a predominantly Scandinavian family. I don’t know how the term Caucasian came to mean white.

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