Chapter 6: Johann Friedrich Blumenbach Names White People “Caucasian”

by Prof. Felicia Steele

Editor’s note: Prof. Felicia Steele revives the Beyond Black and White Discussion group discussion of Dr. Nell Painter’s History of White People with this helpful introduction to this pivotal chapter which not only explains the origin of the term Caucasian as a synonym for European ancestry. Here is our overview of the Beyond Black and White Discussion Group Book Club.

Chapter 6 marks a turning point in Nell Painter’s narrative, because she emphasizes the personal responsibility of individual scholars and their social networks in the development of racial ideologies. Since many of us have likely never heard of Blumenbach, it may be difficult to process how this chapter helps us to understand the history of constructions of race.

As I read the chapter, I was reminded of a couple of things: the Matter Museum in Philadelphia and discourses around beauty that talk about physiognomy and skeletal structure, even in situations as mundane as orthodontia. How does this chapter help us to understand the development of physical beauty ideals and how they relate to racial identity?