Home Education Kennedy Center Lecture features discussion about “Caucasian”

Kennedy Center Lecture features discussion about “Caucasian”

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On Monday evening, students and community members gathered in the Templeton-Blackburn Memorial Auditorium to hear Dr. Nell Irvin Painter talk about the history of the word ‘Caucasian’ as a part of the Kennedy Lecture Series.

Dr. Irvin Painter is a professor emerita at Princeton University and has earned degrees in anthropology, history and fine arts from schools like Rutgers, University of California Berkeley, UCLA and Harvard.

She spoke both at a private reception before her lecture, answering questions from students and faculty about her work and her art. She spoke about her struggles in art and in life — to her, Harvard was a “piece of cake” compared to her time in art school — and gave advice to those pursuing art themselves.

Following the reception and a short break, Dr. Irvin Painter was introduced by Dr. Geoffrey Dabelko, chairman of the Kennedy Lecture series committee, and then started her lecture with a vote.

“I could actually do this really quickly and answer [why white people are called Caucasian],” said Irvin Painter. “Or I can take you through a longer time with more information.”

The audience voted almost unanimously for the longer version, and she began by discussing one of her books, “The History of White People,” and how, in the book, she analyzed the meaning of the word ‘Caucasian’.

“How many of you know why white people are called Caucasian?” asked Irvin Painter. When met with silence, she posed more questions.

“How many of you knew you didn’t know, but were afraid to ask? How many of you, it never crossed your mind?”

Irvin Painter went on to explain that the Caucasus are actually very location-specific, and the term ‘Caucasian’ actually comes from an 18th century German scholar.

Since science wasn’t always as factually based as it is today, scholars ranked skulls of various ethnic groups based on subjective beauty standards, and they found that the skull of a young Caucasian woman was the most beautiful. Following this study, scientists noted that travellers also found these women to be beautiful, even if they had questionable morals.

She went on to explain that while this idea wasn’t scientifically sound, it influenced many parts of society. From influencing various historical slave trades to impacting future beauty standards, the ideas that Caucasians are the most desirable people has lasted for a long time.

Using the word to describe race, however, originated in English and is actually a product of the American slave trade. Its distinction came from the Supreme Court when an Indian immigrant wanted to get naturalized, and again when a Japanese man wanted to become a citizen. The Indian man couldn’t be naturalized because while he was from the Caucasus region, he wasn’t aesthetically white-skinned, and the Japanese man couldn’t be naturalized because while he was white-skinned, he was not from the Caucasus region.

Audience reaction to the lecture was strong. Catherine Euler, an audience member, came because she is interested in the intersection of race and gender.

“I learned a lot about the history of science tonight,” Euler said. “What we think is common sense about the origin of white people is actually nonsensical and random. This talk changed my thinking. In the future, I’ll be reluctant to use the term Caucasian.”

Another audience member, Dr. Ayesha Hardison, an associate professor of English at Ohio University, took away more about the history of the word.

“I didn’t know the extent of its connections to slavery — or at least the Black Sea slave trade — and beauty​,” Hardison said in regards to how the word ‘Caucasian’ came about.

She also said that the presentation was informative, provocative and really challenged the audience to think about language and it’s political implications.

“We have to be more critical about how the historical legacy of this still manifests itself today.”


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