Some Questions about Human Populations

First of all, do you consider the terms “Caucasian” and “of European ancestry” synonyms? How about the use of those terms in the popular press? If the two terms are equivalent in the common vernacular, which one do you prefer?

What about the words “race” and “ethnicity”? Are they equivalent in the common vernacular? Should they be?

This one was about human races — unlike the last one.


  1. #1 Michael
    January 10, 2007

    I see “Caucasian” and “of European ancestry” as synonyms in the press, but I’ve always thought Caucasian is inappropriate and I would like see “European ancestry” used as the norm. I’m Caucasian when checking off a box in a form, but so far as I know I don’t have any ancestors who came from Eurasia and thus I’m not Caucasian by any rational standard.

    I don’t see “race” and “ethnicity” as the same at all, to me the first term describes a genetic profile and the second a cultural heritage.

  2. #2 Jonathan Vause
    January 10, 2007

    Well I’ve never seen the term ‘of European ancestry’ used to describe anyone, though ‘white Caucasian’ sounds like a synonym of (don’t mention the war) ‘Aryan’. Talking about ‘race’ seems like a good way to start an argument, so I always say ‘ethnicity’ instead – IMO the two are completely interchangeable.

  3. #3 razib
    January 10, 2007

    First of all, do you consider the terms “Caucasian” and “of European ancestry” synonyms? How about the use of those terms in the popular press? If the two terms are equivalent in the common vernacular, which one do you prefer?

    1) i don’t think of the terms much, but, i know from physical anthropology they aren’t. the term “caucasian” derives from the idea of using people from the caucasus, i believe georgians, as exemplars of the idealized “caucasoid.” the caucasus are, of course, marginally european, and middle eastern peoples exhibit just as much caucasianness (more than europeans since they are often phenotypically closer to caucasians from the caucasus). are large proportion of the population of south asia are also “caucasoid” because of morphological considerations, and so “caucasian.”

    2) which brings me to the fact that in the american press the term “caucasian” is just a more PC synonym for european white. there was a story in newsweek about the new mary movie and how the actors “looked middle eastern” instead of “caucasian.” this is technically pretty dumb since middle easterners are pretty caucasian, and genetically closer to the exemplar than northern europeans.

    3) i prefer “European ancestry.” it’s more precise.

    4) race and ethnicity are not equivalent. someone can be “ethnic” (e.g., italian, jewish) but still white. the problem in the american discourse is that groups like latinos, who range from amerindian to black to white to all sorts of shades in between are catchall ethnicities with a non-white identity, are muddling the picture. i’ve met white-skinned (whiter than swarthy italians) cuban americans who talk about how they are “brown” to me as if i will feel solidarity. i get tired of it cuz i’m pretty sure no one’s ever called them a “sand n*igger” cuz of their pale ass face. they get to have their white skin privilege as well as their identity politics.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    January 15, 2007

    OK, I’ll bite. (But be careful, I have a PhD in this)

    Caucasian is a physical anthro term for one of the races, chosen more or less arbitrarily a long time ago and totally out of disuse in physical anthropology for anybody but those who actually work with human skeletal materail (they still use it all the time). It really means falling statistically into a set of parameters that are derived from some particular museum collections where all the bones in one part of the room are labeled “caucasian” or “white.”

    There is no fair way to ask the questions if “Caucasian” or “European ancestry” are the same or different without it being a trick questions. Most physical anthropologists or forensic experts would probably say “yea, they mean the same thing, but neither one is very useful” … mainly to avoid the question.

    Both of these terms are the same in that they are signifiers of race, no matter what kind of “ethnic” spin someone would like to try to put on them. They are part of a racial model of how humanity should be viewed physically and genetically.

    While there is a small number of scientists who will jump into the frey whenever they get a chance to defend this racial model, the vast majority of researchers understand that it is not valid (no, not just for PC reasons …. for scientific reasons) so in the end, “Caucasian” and “European ancestry” are socially malleable and politically tricky words that no longer have much of a useful meaning, and are mainly used to create trick questions.

    By the way, Georgia (republic of) is in Asia. The Caucasus mountains are the boundary. The Georgians try to sometimes claim that about half of their country is in Europe but this is not widely recognized.

    Race means, in biology, subspecies. Ethnicity means, in anthropology, identidy. In the vernacular who cares, really, but they probably hardly ever mean the same thing.

    However, I find people VERY OFTEN mean a “race” term but spit out an “ethnic” term so they can pretend that they are not steeped in the racial model (even though they are).

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    January 15, 2007

    By the way, I love your blog. Great work.

  6. #6 dougjnn
    January 15, 2007

    First of all, do you consider the terms “Caucasian” and “of European ancestry” synonyms? How about the use of those terms in the popular press?

    They are absolutely NOT the same. People of “European ancestry” is a subset of “Caucasian”.

    To the surprise of most Americans, the population of the Middle East, and as well the Indian subcontinent (both Muslim and Hindu), are also Caucasians. At rather the far corner of the Caucasian room so to speak, but Caucasian.

    As is said in other comments above, Caucasian is a racial term, a scientific racial term, originating among physical anthropologists in the 19th century. It remains cogent and a scientifically valid category, although among the race denier set somewhat out of favor. (They’re in a somewhat conflicted position because while they wish to deny the biologic reality of race (which is scientifically wrong), they want to keep emphasizing discrimination along socially perceived racial lines.)

    WRT “European ancestry”, who your ancestors are also makes reference to race of course – which is true even if you are bi-racial (or more than that).

    BTW the claim that “race is only skin deep” or that “race is only a social construct” are both simply scientifically wrong.

    Those scientists who have supported this claim have only done so by adopting a straw man definition of race – which admittedly used to be a common popular misconception. That is, it’s perfectly true that there are absolutely no hard and sharp boundaries between races. The human species can be accurately (but with loss of detail) be considered a singularity, or divided into two races (s.S. Africans and everyone else), or into five (Africans; Caucasians – Euros and W.Asians; East Asians; Pacific Islanders; and American (N&S) Indians). Sometimes the Oceanians and Amerindians are merged with East Asians to give the traditional big three – Caucasian, African (Negro), and Mongoloid.

    Somewhat finer, and much finer, subdivisions are also possible using the genetic data.

    Geneticists can classify blind DNA samples into these five principal racial clusters with a very high degree of reliability. Disease risks and medicine effects are often significantly different between racial groups. So are some abilities. These things are nearly always statistical overlaps however. Overlapping statistical bell curves for each racial group on the prevalence of a particular genetically derived trait (phenotype). It’s like the height difference between men and women. Men are of course taller on average. But many women are taller than many men.

  7. #7 RPM
    January 15, 2007

    Before you comment in this post, please read this post.

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