Color terminology for race

1851 map of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's five races, labeled "Caucasian or White", "Mongolian or Yellow", "Aethiopian or Black", "American or Copper-colored" and "Malayn or Olive-colored".

Identifying human races in terms of skin color, at least as one among several physiological characteristics, has been common since antiquity. Via rabbinical literature, the division is received in early modern scholarship, mostly in four to five categories. It was long recognized that the number of categories is arbitrary and subjective. François Bernier (1684) doubted the validity of using skin color as a racial characteristic, and Charles Darwin emphasized the gradual differences between categories.[1]

The modern categorization was coined by the Göttingen School of History in the late 18th century – in parallel with the Biblical terminology for race (Semitic, Hamitic and Japhetic) – dividing mankind into five colored races: "Aethiopian or Black", "Caucasian or White", "Mongolian or Yellow", "American or Red" and "Malayan or Brown" subgroups.



Categorization of racial groups by reference to skin color is common in classical antiquity.[2] It is found in e.g. Physiognomica, a Greek treatise dated to c. 300 BC.

The transmission of the "color terminology" for race from antiquity to early anthropology in 17th century Europe took place via rabbinical literature. Specifically, Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (a medieval rabbinical text dated roughly to between the 7th to 12th centuries) contains the division of mankind into three groups based on the three sons of Noah, viz. Shem, Ham and Japheth:

"He [Noah] especially blessed Shem and his sons, (making them) dark but comely [שחורים ונאים], and he gave them the habitable earth. He blessed Ham and his sons, (making them) dark like the raven [שחורים כעורב], and he gave them as an inheritance the coast of the sea. He blessed Japheth and his sons, (making) them entirely white [כלם לבני], and he gave them for an inheritance the desert and its fields" (trans. Gerald Friedlander 1916, p. 172f.)

This division in Rabbi Eliezer and other rabbinical texts is received by Georgius Hornius (1666). In Hornius' scheme, the Japhetites (identified as Scythians, an Iranic ethnic group and Celts) are "white" (albos), the Aethiopians and Chamae are "black" (nigros), and the Indians and Semites are "brownish-yellow" (flavos), while the Jews, following Mishnah Sanhedrin, are exempt from the classification being neither black nor white but "light brown" (buxus, the color of boxwood).[3]

François Bernier in a short article published anonymously in 1684 moves away from the "Noahide" classification, proposes to consider large subgroups of mankind based not on geographical distribution but on physiological differences. Writing in French, Bernier uses the term race, or synonymously espece "kind, species", where Hornius had used tribus "tribe" or populus "people". Bernier explicitly rejects a categorization based on skin colour, arguing that the dark skin of Indians is due to exposure to the Sun only, and that the yellowish colour of some Asians, while a genuine feature, is not sufficient to establish a separate category. Instead his first category comprises most of Europe, the Near East and North Africa, including populations in the Nile Valley and the Indian peninsula he describes as being of a near "black" skin tone due to the effect of the sun. His second category includes most of Sub-Saharan Africa, again not exclusively based on skin colour but on physiological features such as the shape of nose and lips. His third category includes Southeast Asia, China and Japan as well as part of Tatarstan (Central Asia and eastern Muscovy). Members of this category are described as white, the categorization being based on facial features rather than skin colour. His fourth category are the Lapps (Lappons), described as a savage race with faces reminiscent of bears (but for which the author admits to rely on hearsay). Finally, the natives of the Americas are considered as a fifth category, described as of "olive" (olivastre) skin tone. The author furthermore considers the possible addition of more categories, specifically the "blacks of the Cape of Good Hope", which seemed to him to be of significantly different build from most other populations below the Sahara.[4]

Modern physical anthropology

In the 1730s, Carl Linnaeus in his introduction of systematic taxonomy recognized four main human subspecies, termed Americanus (Americans), Europaeus (Europeans), Asiaticus (Asians) and Afer (Africans). The physical appearance of each type is briefly described, including colour adjectives referring to skin and hair colour: rufus "red" and pilis nigris "black hair" for Americans, albus "white" and pilis flavescentibus "yellowish hair" for Europeans, luridus "yellowish, sallow", pilis nigricantibus "swarthy hair" for Asians, and niger "black", pilis atris "coal-black hair" for Africans.[5]

The old flag of Suriname (1954–1975) symbolized unity between the five "races" in the country: red (Amerind), white (European), black (Afro-Surinamese), brown (Indian and Javanese) and yellow (East Asians).

The views of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach on the categorization of the major races of mankind developed over the course of the 1770s to 1820s. He introduced a four-fold division in 1775, extended to five in 1779, later borne out in his work on craniology (Decas craniorum, published during 1790–1828). He also used color as the name or main label of the races but as part of the description of their physiology. Blumenbach does not name his five groups in 1779 but gives their geographic distribution. The color adjectives used in 1779 are weiss "white" (Caucasian race), gelbbraun "yellow-brown" (Mongolian race), schwarz "black" (Aethiopian race), kupferroth "copper-red" (American race) and schwarzbraun "black-brown" (Malayan race).[6] According to D'Souza (1995), it was "Blumenbach's classification" which had a lasting influence, being memorable because it "neatly broke down into familiar tones and colors".[7] However, according to Barkhaus (2006)[8] it was the adoption of both the colour terminology and the French term race by Immanuel Kant in 1775 which proved influential. Kant published an essay Von den verschiedenen Racen der Menschen "On the diverse races of mankind" in 1775, based on the system proposed by Buffon, Histoire Naturelle, in which he recognized four groups, a "white" European race (Race der Weißen), a "black" Negroid race (Negerrace), a copper-red Kalmyk race (kalmuckishe Race) and an olive-yellow Indian race (Hinduische Race).[9]

Blumenbach's division and choice of color-adjectives remained influential, with variation depending on author, throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century. René Lesson in 1847 presented a division into six groups based on simple color adjectives: White (Caucasian), Dusky (Indian), Orange-colored (Malay), Yellow (Mongoloid), Red (Carib and American), Black (Negroid).[10]

Two historical anthropologists favored a binary racial classification system that divided people into a light skin and dark skin categories. 18th-century anthropologist Christoph Meiners, who first defined the Caucasian race, posited a "binary racial scheme" of two races with the Caucasian whose racial purity was exemplified by the "venerated... ancient Germans", although he considered some Europeans as impure "dirty whites"; and "Mongolians", who consisted of everyone else.[11] Meiners did not include the Jews as Caucasians and ascribed them a "permanently degenerate nature".[12] Hannah Franzieka identified 19th-century writers who believed in the "Caucasian hypothesis" and noted that "Jean-Julien Virey and Louis Antoine Desmoulines were well-known supports of the idea that Europeans came from Mount Caucasus."[13] In his political history of racial identity, Bruce Baum wrote,"Jean-Joseph Virey (1774-1847), a follower of Chistoph Meiners, claimed that "the human races... may divided... into those who are fair and white and those who are dark or black."[14]

Stoddard's map of the distribution of the five primary races of the world (1920).

Lothrop Stoddard in The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920) considered five races, White, Black, Yellow, Brown and Amerindian. In this explicitly "white supremacist" exposition of racial categorization, the "white" category is much more limited than in Blumenbach's scheme, essentially restricted to Europeans, while the separate "brown" category is introduced for non-European Caucasoid subgroups in North Africa, Western, Central and South Asia.

Racial categories after 1945

Following World War II, more and more biologists and anthropologists began to discontinue use of the term "race" due to its association with political ideologies of racism. Thus, The Race Question statement by the UNESCO, in the 1950s, proposed to substitute the term "ethnic groups" to the concept of "race". Categories such as Europid, Mongoloid, Negroid, Australoid remain in use in fields such as forensic anthropology[15] while colour terminology remains in use in some countries with multiracial populations for the purpose of their official census, as in the United States, where the official categories are "Black", "White", "Asian", "Native American and Alaska Natives" and "Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders" and in the United Kingdom (since 1991) with official categories "White", "Asian" and "Black".

Symbolism and uses of color terminology

The Martinique-born French Frantz Fanon and African-American writers Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Ralph Ellison, among others, wrote that negative symbolisms surrounding the word "black" outnumber positive ones. They argued that the good vs. bad dualism associated with white and black unconsciously frame prejudiced colloquialisms. In the 1970s the term black replaced Negro in the United States.[16]

Tone gradations

In some societies people can be sensitive to gradations of skin tone, which may be due to intermarriage or to albinism and which can affect power and prestige. In 1930s Harlem Slang such gradations were described by a tonescale of "high yaller [yellow], yaller, high brown, vaseline brown, seal brown, low brown, dark brown".[17] These terms were sometimes referred to in blues music, both in the words of songs and in the names of performers. In 1920s Georgia, Willie Perryman followed his older brother Rufus in becoming a blues piano player: both were albino Negroes with pale skin, reddish hair and poor eyesight. Rufus was already well established as "Speckled Red", Willie became "Piano Red".[18] The piano player and guitarist Tampa Red from the same state developed his career in Chicago, Illinois, at that time: his name may have come from his light skin tone, or possibly reddish hair.

More recently such categorization has been noted in the Caribbean. It is reported that skin tones play an important role in defining how Barbadians view one another, and they use terms such as "brown skin, light skin, fair skin, high brown, red, and mulatto".[19] An assessment of racism in Trinidad notes people often being described by their skin tone, with the gradations being "HIGH RED – part White, part Black but ‘clearer’ than Brown-skin: HIGH BROWN – More white than Black, light skinned: DOUGLA –part Indian and part Black: LIGHT SKINNED, or CLEAR SKINNED Some Black, but more White: TRINI WHITE – Perhaps not all White, behaves like others but skin White".[20] In Jamaica albinism has been stigmatized, but the albino dancehall singer Yellowman took his stage name in protest against such prejudice and has helped to end this stereotype. The West Indian region uses the term "coolie" for all people of east Indian descent. In Trinidad, however, use of the term is considered extremely offensive.


In Russia, persons of Caucasus descent are often referred to as White[citation needed] (not because of skin color). "White", apart from its racial meaning, is also a term denoting opponents of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War and "Red", apart from its racial meaning, symbolizes communism (or communists), or refers to the Bolsheviks, while "Green" often refers to ecologists.

East Asia


National Flag of the Republic of China, used between 1912–1928, period known as Five Races Under One Union. Flag also known as "Five-colored flag".

Huang (yellow) is a common surname, but does not refer to the East Asian race as was popular in western languages until recently. However, the Yellow Emperor was a legendary founder of China. Yellow is also identified with the "center" cardinal direction (blue-east, red-south, white-west, black-north) while China is known as Zhongguo "middle kingdom".

White (白 bai) means "plain" or "free of charge" in many common expressions and was not traditionally used to refer to Europeans or descendants, who were usually identified as "洋人" (yáng rén, "people from [across the] ocean") or based on their hair color (e.g. Minnan ang mo, "red-haired"). They were also given derogatory names like the Cantonese gwei lo, which translates to "ghost man". However Contemporary Chinese has adopted Western usage to some extent. Black (黑 hei) is typically applied to those of African race today. However, the term "black resident" (黑户) also refers to unregistered rural migrants in cities (as in black market). The word 白 (white), when used under certain contexts, is offensive, taking on a meaning extended from "plain" to "uneducated" and "uncultured".

Names of ethnic minorities sometimes contain colors, not to indicate skin color, but simply for identification, possibly based on traditional clothing or geographical direction.

  • Red, Black, Blue/Green, White, Flowery (multicolored) Miao (Hmong)
  • the Bai (literally White) are a lowland people of Yunnan
  • Black Bone and White Bone Yi
  • The Qing dynasty Manchu military were divided into Eight Banners identified by color and with ethnic associations

The Five Races Under One Union theory of national unity can be visualized through an old ROC flag: Red - Han, Yellow - Manchu, Blue - Mongol, White - Hui and Black - Tibetan.


The word "인종" (injong) is used when describing a person's race, which also incorporates his or her skin color. "백" (baek; White), used with "인" (in; person) to make "백인" (baegin), literally means "white person" in Korean. "흑" (heuk) is used to describe persons of African descent, it literally means "black" in hanja. "흑인" (heugin) thus means "black person".


The on'yomi reading of "人" (jin) is often used as a suffix to describe a person's nationality, amongst other things. It is also not uncommonly used with the on'yomi readings of "白" (haku; white) and "黒" (koku; black) to form "白人" (hakujin; white person) and 黒人 (kokujin; black person).

Central Asia

The five cardinal directions were historically identified with colors. This was common to the Central Asian cultural area and was carried west by the westward migration of the Turks. These directional color terms were applied both to geographic features and sometimes to populations as well.

United States

Racial segregation in the United States was based on a binary classification, white vs. non-white, in which "white" was held to imply "purity" so that anyone with even the slightest amount of non-white ancestry was excluded from white privileges, and there could be no category of racially mixed people. In 1896 this doctrine was upheld in the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case. Traditionally the main distinction was between "white" and "black", but Japanese Americans could be accepted on both sides of the divide. As further racial groups were categorized, "white" became narrowly construed, and everyone else was categorised as a "person of color", suggesting that "white" people have no race, while racial subdivision of those "of color" was unimportant.[21]

At college campus protests during the 1960s, a "Flag of the Races" was in use, with five stripes comprising red, black, brown, yellow, and white tones.[22][unreliable source?]

In the 2000 United States Census, two of the five self-designated races are labeled by a color.[23] In the 2000 US Census, "White" refers to "person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa."[23] In the 2000 US Census, "Black or African American" refers to a "person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa."[23] The other three self-designated races are not labeled by color.[23]

See also


  1. ^ The Descent of Man p225,
  2. ^ "Among the Greeks and Romans who have provided the fullest description of blacks, the Africans' color was regarded as their most characteristic and most unusual feature. In this respect the ancients were not unlike whites of later generations who used color terms as a kind of shorthand to denote Africans and those of African descent." Frank M. Snowden, Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks, Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 7.
  3. ^ Arca Noae, sive historia imperiorum et regnorum ̀condito orbe ad nostra tempora. Officina Hackiana, Leiden 1666, p. 37. Alias pro colorum diversitate commode quoque distinxeris posteros Noachi in albos, qui sunt Scythae & Japhetaei, nigros, qui sunt Aethiopes & Chamae, flavos, qui sunt Indi & Semaei. Ita Iudaei in Glossea Misnae tractatu Sanhedrin. fol. 18. dicuntur ut buxus, nec nigri nec albi, quales fere sunt omnes a Semo orti.
  4. ^ Anonymous [F. Bernier], "Nouvelle division de la terre par les différentes espèces ou races qui l'habitent", Journal des Sçavants, 24 April 1684, p. 133–140. See also Charles Frankel, La science face au racisme (1986), 41f.
  5. ^ Linnaeus, Syst. Nat. ed. 10 Vol. 1. p. 21.
  6. ^ Blumenbach, J. F. 1779. Handbuch der Naturgeschichte vol. 1, pp. 63f. The names of Blumenbach's five groups are introduced in his 1795 revision of De generis humani varietate nativa (pp. 23f.) as Caucasiae, Mongolicae, Aethiopicae, Americanae, Malaicae. Kowner and Skott in: R. Kowner, W. Demel (eds.), Race and Racism in Modern East Asia: Interactions, Nationalism, Gender and Lineage (2015), p. 51.
  7. ^ The End of Racism by Dinesh D'Souza, p. 124, 1995.
  8. ^ A. Barkhaus, "Rassen" in: Hansjörg Bay, Kai Merten (eds.) Die Ordnung der Kulturen: zur Konstruktion ethnischer, nationaler und zivilisatorischer Differenzen 1750-1850 (2006), p. 39–44.
  9. ^ Kant (1775:432), cited after Barkhaus (2006:44).
  10. ^ Charles Hamilton Smith, Samuel Kneeland, The Natural History of the Human Species (1851), p. 47.
  11. ^ Painter, Nell Irvin. Yale University. "Why White People are Called Caucasian?" 2003. September 27, 2007. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-10-20. Retrieved 2014-05-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link); Keevak, Michael. Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking. Princeton University Press, 2011. ISBN 0-6911-4031-6.
  12. ^ Eigen, Sara. The German Invention of Race. Suny Press:New York, 2006. ISBN 0-7914-6677-9 p.205
  13. ^ Franzieka, Hannah. Berghahn Books: 2004. ISBN 1-57181-857-X James Cowles Prichard's Anthropology: Remaking the Science of Man in Early
  14. ^ Baum, Bruce David. The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity. New York University: 2006. ISBN 0-8147-9892-6
  15. ^ Adams, Bradley J. (2007). Forensic Anthropology. USA: Chelsea House. Page 44. ISBN 978-0-7910-9198-2 Retrieved June 12, 2017, from link.
  16. ^ Black, black, or African American? Archived 2009-04-13 at the Wayback Machine, Aly Colón
  17. ^ Zora Neale Hurston's - Glossary of Harlem Slang "Tonescale"
  18. ^ The Blues Collection issue 68, Piano Red, Contribution by Tony Russell, 1996
  19. ^ Barbados - Post Report - eDiplomat
  20. ^ RACISM IN TRINIDAD (pdf)
  21. ^ Zack, Naomi (1995). American Mixed Race: The Culture of Microdiversity. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 53–56. ISBN 978-0-8476-8013-9.
  22. ^ "Symbols of Pride of the LGBTQ Community". Carleton College. Archived from the original on 2008-09-07. Retrieved 2018-03-17.
  23. ^ a b c d US Census Bureau. Race. 2000. Accessed July 14, 2008 Archived August 31, 2009, at the Wayback Machine

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