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Anthropology
Human Origins

When and where did Caucasians first start being known as the White race?

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April 28, 2014 1:19AM

Let's start with two fundamental assertions in your question and correct them first.

1. Race is defined as: "a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same [genetic] stock." This means that Arabs, Moors, Italians, Germans, Chinese, Japaneses, Vietnamese, Swahili, Zulu, Irish, Jewish, and so on are races. Color is not cause to be a race; and is not a race. There is no such thing as a "white race", scientifically or historically.

2. White-skinned and/or light-skinned people were classified first and the phrase "Caucasian" came along later.

With those misconceptions corrected, we can look at how the use of both terms started. Neil Irvin Painter is an associate History professor at Princeton University. This is what he has to say about "white" people, "Caucasians" and racism (in part.) It is a lovely and simple answer to your question:

"Yeah, there are two ways of talking about it. One is just to notice that there are some people who are kind of light skinned and other people who are kind of brownish and other people who are kind of darkish. Since there wasn't a lot of motion around from one's town or one's village [skin color] didn't come up very much. So, somebody like Herodotus for instance, who did travel, he could say that the Scythians, who made quivers out of the skinned arms of the people they vanquished, that such a man's skin is very showy and white. It was clear that people were light skinned, but to make it into something called a race or a variety, and then to endow that with certain characteristics, racial temperament for instance, that that's an invention of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

When we think of science, science is a truth that is true--no matter what, no matter when and for all time-- and science as the kind of gospel truth replaces the gospel, which was religion. Carolus Linnaeus, (in the 1700s) is the father of taxonomy, that is of categorizing things and so that science of categorizing things comes out of the eighteenth century, comes out of the Enlightenment and counts up everything and gives it a name, including people.

Race hadn't been invented yet. The big differences were religious--on the one hand the Catholics and Protestants, on the other hand Christians, Jews and Muslims. Religion was the big defining factor before race. In fact, our own world religion still plays a very important part in a way that race does. You can say that somebody has a particular religion and then that conjures up all sorts of other ideas about what is in that person, how that person thinks, how that person goes through his or her everyday life, what it means to be a man or women, so there is a lot that we pack into these categories."