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Whites (or White) is a broad term used to describe people of ethnic European, Middle Eastern and North African descent, especially those with fair skin. The term Caucasian is sometimes used with much the same meaning in the USA although people elsewhere would more likely understand the use of the word Caucasian to refer to people from the Caucasus.
The term White is often used in contrast with other racial color terms, such as Black or, rarely, Yellow or Brown. These terms were in more common usage in the beginning of the 20th century as ethno-historians attempted to trace humanity's history through linguistics, a process that has been largely discredited with the advent of DNA analysis. At the turn of the 20th century, scholars typically thought of whites as being Indo-European and divided whites into two categories: Semitic and Aryan. Although the most prevalent term in casual conversation, the term white is increasingly rare in academic and formal discussions of racial demographics, however it is still often used in discussions of racial attitudes, particularly in the humanities, and in fields such as Black studies, critical race theory and Whiteness studies.
The scope of the term white has changed over time, and varies from place to place. For example, in the USA and Canada, Ashkenazi Jews and Slavs were often considered separate from the white race for many years, but have generally been considered "white" since World War II. Similarly, in Haiti, Cuba and Brazil, light-skinned people of mixed (African and European) descent are considered "white"; in the United States or Canada, those same people would be considered "black". Some Americans view all Turks, Arabs and Iranians as non-white, even though these groups are believed to be close genetically to Southern Europeans. In this case, being considered "non-white" is tied more to social and cultural factors, such as membership in Islam, than genotype or phenotype. However, it could also be argued that much of North Africa's and Arabia's population is black or "mulatto" due both to the trans-Saharan African slave trade during the Middle Ages and afterwards, as well as to more recent immigration from sub-Saharan Africa; the population of Libya is estimated to be nearly one-fifth black. It is undeniable that many people in North Africa and Arabia, such as alleged Moroccan-French terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, have enough sub-Saharan African ancestry to be considered "black" in the United States.
Additionally, the popular definition of white in the United States often excludes all Hispanic and Latino peoples, sometimes including peoples of European Spanish descent. The Latin American countries that it can be said are of primarily European descent are Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay. (Other countries such as Peru are of almost exclusively Amerindian descent and others, such as Guyana and Surinam have significant South Asian populations.) In the United States decenial census, Latin American is not seen as a racial category and the term 'more than one race' is used instead. However, the census also takes note of whether or not one is hispanic. Relatively few Hispanics in the U.S. are of primarily Spanish descent; the majority of U.S. Hispanics are mestizo (mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry). The overwhelming majority of Americans are, in fact, racially mixed, both as individuals and as a population. Whites whose families have lived in the United States and Canada for several generations will typically have ancestors from a variety of nationalities and even races.
This usage is sometimes criticized by those who argue that it de-ethnicizes various groups. During the era of Jim Crow Laws in the U.S. Southern states, facilities were commonly divided into separate sections for "White" and "Colored" people. These terms were defined by law, with people of northern and western European being labeled "White" and African-Americans labeled as "Colored". The categorization of people of other ethnicities and mixed ancestries varied from state to state and in different municipalities.
Countries with a majority of white Europeans include all the nations of Europe, as well as countries colonized by them in the 15th century-19th century such as the United States, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Cuba,Nicaragua, the Asiatic territories of Russia, Australia and New Zealand. In these nations, the relatively small indigenous populations were overwhelmed by white colonists from one or more European "mother countries".
Significant minorities of whites live in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, New Caledonia, and in the various Latin American and Caribbean countries. Many of these nations have experienced considerable political conflict between the white minority (descended from settlers from the former colonial power) and a non-European majority, heightening the sense of white racial identity.
- Whites is also the common name for the Pieris genus of butterflies.
- Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America, Rutgers, 1999, ISBN 081352590X.
- Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, Routledge, 1996, ISBN 0415918251.
- Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, Harvard, 1999, ISBN 0674951913.
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