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There’s a small strip of land between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. This mountainous area which includes Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan is known as the Caucasus region and it’s where our story begins. In 1795 a German scientist named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was working on a theory about the races. He concluded that that there were five races including the red American race, the yellow Mongolian race, the brown Malayan race, the black Ethiopian race, and, finally, the white Caucasian race which he named for the inhabitants of Caucasus. Blumenbach published his findings under the title On the Natural Varieties of Mankind. Little did he know at the time that most of his findings would fade away into history but the word “Caucasian” most definitely stuck.
I suspect you’re wondering how anyone could consider the inhabitants of Caucasus to be “white” given their location in the world. It wasn’t so much that Georgians, who Blumenbach was particularly obsessed with, were excessively pale though many Georgian people are lighter in skin tone. Blumenbach was a scientist who continued the trend of using random physical characteristics to make sweeping scientific declarations. It’s reminiscent of the Ancient Greeks and their insane and completely unscientific theory about balancing the humors (the body’s fluids) which correlated to emotional characteristics. The theory was wack but back then people thought this made sense:
Classical medicine was all about balancing these humors, by changing diet, lifestyle, occupation, climate, or by administering medicine. A cold and wet cucumber might help to redress the balance in a feverish individual, as might bloodletting. This was as true for mental illness as it was for somatic diseases. So, if someone was melancholic, they suffered from an excess of black bile; if they were manic, it was either too much blood or yellow bile that was the problem. –Psychology Today.
It was 1500 years after Hippocrates and Galen professed the power of balancing the humors when Blumenbach made his claims about the physical characteristics of Georgians. He analyzed their skulls and determined that their characteristics were similar to his own white race. Although it’s widely known that Blumenbach strongly opposed the idea of his findings being used to rank the races, he still opened the door for the idea of Caucasian folks as the ideal given that this was a term he created for those that he felt were the best examples of the white race. Blumenbach claimed that his system for categorizing the races was about unity, to show the similarities between folks as opposed to their differences. That didn’t stop other people from creating racial hierarchies using his ideas.
Understanding the origin of the word “Caucasian” is important if one really thinks about the region where this word came from. Despite the fact that it’s been known for centuries that humans originated in Africa and the Arab world, folks have managed to convince themselves that early humankind was white. Allow me to give you a few examples:
I’m an agnostic and I don’t buy any of the Bible stuff anyway but let’s say that I did for the sake of the argument. Why is it that Mary and Jesus are always depicted as whiter than white? They were Arab if they existed. Any why is it that our characterizations of “cavemen” are always just a white guy with a beard? If early civilizations began in this region of the world, then early humans were not white. So it isn’t surprising that Blumenbach would look at a group of people whom he thought had ideal physical characteristics and consider them white. It’s that impulse to whitewash everything…or not depending on your definition of white.
The question of whether or not folks from Caucasus are truly “white” continued to be a hot button issue which reached a peak in 1922 when Armenians petitioned the American courts to be allowed to immigrate to the US which they were unable to do under the 1790 Naturalization Act which specified that only white people could become American citizens. With the help of an anthropologist, Franz Boas, who testified as an expert witness, Armenians were legally designated white and thus were able to become US citizens.
I may not be able to speak to this issue because I’m not from Caucasus but it feels to me like it’s just more of the same erasure of people of color that is inherent in anything related to the origin of humanity. The first humans must have been white. Jesus must have been white and, not only that, birthed by a white virgin.
The Bible has often been used as a historical document as though there is any shred of verifiable truth within. When you combine the historical tendency to whitewash history and the former practice of scientists using the Bible to validate their theories instead of using science to analyse the Bible, you can see how inaccurate beliefs were perpetuated, beliefs that shaped our understanding of the origin of humanity and what ultimately led to the continued use of a term like “Caucasian” hundreds of years later. Exhibit A:
He [Blumenbach] considered the Caucasians to be the first race on Earth, consistent with the common conception of the Caucasus as a place of human origin. The Bible describes Noah landing his ark at a place called Mount Ararat, which was thought by Europeans of Blumenbach’s time to be on the modern Turkish-Armenian border.--Slate
So follow these links: Blumenbach thinks Georgians are as pretty as his white German face so he gives them a special pet name, Caucasian. He also believes that this is the cradle of humankind, our birthplace, and that miraculous events like an old man on a mission from God to save the human race and all living things crashed his magic boat there. Is it any wonder that Caucasian, which later became synonymous with white, stuck around?
Intentional or not, Blumenbach gave us the tools to build the racial hierarchy, one that has played out here in America, thousands of miles away from Caucasus. I’ll leave you with a quote from Blumenbach’s book:
Caucasian variety—I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones (original members) of mankind.
What a way to link the origin of humankind and white superiority and beauty.
I won’t be saying Caucasian anymore. Unless I’m referring to people from Caucasus who are, you know, actually Caucasian.