AskDefine | Define whites

The Collaborative Dictionary

Whites \Whites\, n. pl. [1913 Webster]
(Med.) Leucorrh?a. [1913 Webster]
The finest flour made from white wheat. [1913 Webster]
Cloth or garments of a plain white color. [1913 Webster]



  1. Plural of white
  2. Clothing or linens, especially laundry, that is white.


Usage notes

  • Distinguished from other classes of cloth products because they could be bleached.
White people (also known as whites or collectively as the white race) have been defined as a racial group of human beings with light pigmentation of their skin often relating to people of especially of European ancestry. People from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia may also be considered "white", depending on which concept is used, and especially when "white" is used as a synonym for Caucasian.
Rather than a straightforward description of skin color, the term white functions as a color terminology for race; one that emerged from a racialized, European historical context that assumes the concept of race is not merely a social construct. Various conceptions of whiteness have had implications in terms of national identity, consanguinity, public policy, religion, population statistics, racial segregation, affirmative action, eugenics, racial marginalization and racial quotas. The concept has been applied with varying degrees of formality and consistency in disciplines including: sociology, politics, genetics, biology, medicine, biomedicine, language, culture, and law.
Raj Bhopal, M.D., and Liam Donaldson M.D., of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, have criticized the broad inclusion of white in contemporary classifications such as those used by the U.S. Census and British Census. They state that white "in practice, refers to people of European origin with pale complexions". The authors concluded that white people are a heterogeneous group for the purpose of many studies. They also recommended that white as an epidemiological classification (for purposes of health research) be abandoned primarily because of its heterogeneity.

Physical appearance

There is no universal definition of "whiteness" as a human physical characteristic. The most notable trait describing people who identify as white is light skin, although even this trait is not universal amongst people identifying as white, for example there is an: "influence of social class to the fluidity of color/race identification in Brazil. Wealthier people with darker phenotypes tend to classify themselves and be classified by others in lighter categories".

Light skin

White people are archetypically distinguished by pale skin. In Jablonski and Chaplin's (2000) study, The evolution of human skin coloration, Europeans have lighter skin (as measured by population average skin reflectance read by spectrophotometer at A685) than any other group that was measured. On the other hand, women have lighter skin than men in all human groups. Southern Europeans (measures taken from Spaniards) show a skin pigmentation in parts of the body not exposed to the sun similar to that of Northern Europeans and, in some cases, even lighter. While all mean values of skin reflectance of non-European populations are lower than Europeans for the groups represented in this study, there is significant overlap between populations. This observation has been noted by the Supreme Court of the United States, which stated in a 1923 lawsuit over whiteness that the "swarthy brunette[s] ... are darker than some of the lighter hued persons of the brown or yellow races".
The epidermis of light skinned people is not actually white. The underlying layers of collagen and adipose tissue are white in people of all races. In lightly pigmented people, the epidermis is an almost transparent layer of film. Consequently the epidermis allows the underlying white tissues to become visible. Blood vessels interlaced between the adipose tissue produce the pale pink color associated with light skin. Pigments known as carotenes found in the fat produce a more yellow effect. In darker skinned people the epidermis is filled with melanosomes that obscure the underlying layers. Most mammals have a thick layer of body hair that protects the skin from the sun's rays and also keeps the body warm at night. Chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to humans. Since they have light skin covered by hair, it is likely that our shared common ancestor would also have lacked pigmentation and been covered by hair. As human brain size increased the increase in its energy requirements would have required finer thermoregulation to avoid overheating. Since melanin protects the skin from UV radiation, albinos have no natural protection and their skin is vulnerable to sunlight that can be tolerated by other light-skinned peoples. Furthermore in the presence of more intense levels of UV radiation from the sun, the skin cells of white and East Asian people are able to produce additional amounts of melanin to tan the skin to a darker complexion, providing extra protection, while albinos lack the ability to tan. Albinism is very rare. For example, one person in 17,000 in the United States has some type of albinism.

Origins of light skin

Any mutation that produced lighter skin color would have been a severe disadvantage to those living under the bright African sun. Lighter skin colors may have been advantageous at higher latitudes since they allow greater penetration of the sun's UV radiation, a requirement for vitamin D synthesis. This may have led to selection for lightly pigmented skin.
A 2006 study provides evidence that the light skin pigmentation observed in Europeans and East Asians arose independently. They concluded that light pigmentation in Europeans is at least partially due to the effects of positive directional and/or sexual selection.

Molecular biology of light skin

Skin color is a quantitative trait that varies continuously on a gradient from dark to light, as it is a polygenic trait, under the influence of several genes. Many of these genes have yet to be identified, however two genes are known that do contribute to skin color, they are the MC1R and the SLC24A5 genes.
Mixed ancestry people of African-European descent who possess one or two copies of the European allele of the SLC24A5 gene have skin color that is significantly lighter than mixed ancestry people who possess only the African allele. It is estimated, based on this observation, that the SLC24A5 locus "explains between 25-38% of the European-African difference in skin melanin index".

Census and social definitions in different regions

further Whiteness studies
Definitions of white have changed over the years, including the official definitions used in many countries, such as the United States and Brazil. Some defied official regulations through the phenomenon of "passing", many of them becoming white people, either temporarily or permanently. Through the mid- to late 20th century, numerous countries had formal legal standards or procedures defining racial categories (see cleanliness of blood, apartheid in South Africa, hypodescent). However, as critiques of racism and scientific arguments against the existence of race arose, a trend towards self-identification of racial status arose. Below are some census definitions of white, which may differ from the social definition of white within the same country. The social definition has also been added where possible.


see Europeans in Oceania From 1788, when the first British colony in Australia was founded, until the early 19th century, most immigrants to Australia were British and Irish convicts. These were augmented by small numbers of free settlers from Britain, Ireland and other European countries. However, until the mid-19th century, there were few restrictions on immigration, although members of ethnic minorities tended to be assimilated into the Anglo-Celtic populations.
People of many nationalties, including many non-white people, emigrated to Australia during the goldrushes of the 1850s. However, the vast majority was still white and the goldrushes inspired the first racist activism and policy, directed mainly at Chinese people.
From the late 19th century, the Colonial/State and later federal governments of Australia restricted all permanent immigration to the country by non-Europeans. These policies became known as the "White Australia policy", which was consolidated and enabled by the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, but was never universally applied. Immigration inspectors were empowered to ask immigrants to take dictation from any European language as a test for admittance, a test used in practice to exclude people from Asia, Africa, and some European and South American countries, depending on the political climate.
Although they were not the prime targets of the policy, it was not until after World War II that large numbers of southern European and eastern European immigrants were admitted for the first time. Following this, the White Australia Policy was relaxed in stages: non-European nationals who could demonstrate European descent were admitted (e.g. descendants of European colonizers and settlers from Latin American or Africa), as were autochthonous inhabitants of various nations from the Middle East, most significantly from Lebanon. In 1973, all immigration restrictions based on race and/or geographic origin were officially terminated.


Argentina, along with other areas of new settlement like Canada, Australia or New Zealand, has one of the greatest percentage of white people outside of Europe. White Argentines make up to 95% of Argentina's population, or around 39 million people.
White Argentines are mainly descendants of immigrants who came from Europe in the late 19th century. Most of these immigrants came from Spain and Italy, as well as France, the United Kingdom and people from other European countries, among them European Jews. Others counted among the White population of Argentina came from countries of the Middle East, primarily Lebanon and Syria. Censuses are conducted on the basis of self-identification. According to the last census, 95% of Argentines are classified as white. More conservative estimates put this figure as low as 85%.


Brazil's definition of whiteness is premised on racial mixture rather than hypodescent, producing a range of historical categories for race. As a term, white is more broadly applied than in North America.
Recent censuses in Brazil are conducted on the basis of self-identification. In the 2000 census, 53% of Brazilians (approximately 93 million people in 2000; around 100 million as of 2006) were white and 39% pardo or multiracial Brazilians. White is applied as a term to people of European descent (including European Jews), and Middle Easterners of all faiths. The census shows a trend of fewer Brazilians of African descent (blacks and pardos) identifying as white people as their social status increases.


In the results of Statistics Canada's 2001 Canadian Census, white is one category in the population groups data variable, derived from data collected in question 19 (the results of this question are also used to derive the visible minority groups variable).
In the 1995 Employment Equity Act, '"members of visible minorities" means persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour'. In the 2001 Census, persons who marked-in Chinese, South Asian, African, Filipino, Latin American, Southeast Asian, Arab, West Asian, Middle Eastern, Japanese or Korean were included in the visible minority population. A separate census question on "cultural or ethnic origin" (question 17) does not refer to skin colour.


According to the Norwegian Social Science Data Service, white is a possible answer to ethnic/people group category question. After Norwegians, Sami, Kvens and other Nordics, it is mentioned as white/European. Other categories are Asian, Black/African/Caribbean and "other".

United Kingdom

In the UK, the Office for National Statistics uses the term white as an ethnic category. The terms White British, White Irish and White Other are used. White British includes Welsh, Northern Ireland, English and Scottish peoples. The category White Other includes all white people not from the British Isles. Socially, in the UK white usually refers only to people of native British and European origin.

United States

The current U.S. Census definition includes white "people having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa. The U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation describes white people as "having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa through racial categories used in the UCR Program adopted from the Statistical Policy Handbook (1978) and published by the Office of Federal Statistical Policy and Standards, U.S. Department of Commerce.
The cultural boundaries separating white Americans from other racial or ethnic categories are contested and always changing. Among those not considered white at some points in American history have been: the Irish, Germans, Ashkenazi Jews, Italians, Spaniards, Slavs, and Greeks. Studies have found that while current parameters officially encompassed Middle Eastern Americans as part of the White American racial category, a lot of Middle Eastern Americans from places other than Bilad al-Sham feel they are not white and are not perceived as white by American society."
Professor David R. Roediger of the University of Illinois, suggests that the construction of the white race in the United States was an effort to mentally distance slave owners from slaves. By the 18th century, white had become well established as a racial term. The process of officially being defined as white by law often came about in court disputes over pursuit of citizenship. The Immigration Act of 1790 offered naturalization only to "any alien, being a free white person". In at least 52 cases, people denied the status of white by immigration officials sued in court for status as white people. By 1923, courts had vindicated a "common-knowledge" standard, concluding that "scientific evidence" was incoherent. Legal scholar John Tehranian argues that in reality this was a "performance-based" standard, relating to religious practices, education, intermarriage and a community's role in the United States.
In 1923, the Supreme Court decided in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind that people of India were not "free white men" entitled to citizenship, despite anthropological evidence that they were Caucasian. The 1970 US Census classified South Asians as white.

Relations with African-Americans

The one drop rule — that a person with any trace of non-white ancestry (however small or invisible) cannot be considered white — is unique to the United States. The one drop rule created a bifurcated system of either black or white regardless of a person's physical appearance. This contrasts with the more flexible social structures present in Latin America, where there are no clear-cut divisions between various ethnicities.
As a result of centuries of interbreeding with white people, the majority of African Americans have white admixture, and many white people also have African ancestry. Some have suggested that the majority of the descendants of African slaves are white. According to recent studies, white Americans rank non-Americans as socially closer to them than fellow Americans who are black. Writer and editor Debra Dickerson questions the legitimacy of the one drop rule, stating that "easily one-third of blacks have white DNA". She argues that in ignoring their white ancestry, African Americans are denying their fully articulated multi-racial identities. The peculiarity of the one drop rule may be illustrated by the case of Mariah Carey. She was publicly called "another white girl trying to sing black", but in an interview with Larry King, Carey said despite her physical appearance and the fact that she was raised primarily by her white mother, she does not feel that she is white, because of the effects of the one drop rule.

History of the term

The definition of white people has varied in different time periods and locations. Ancient Greece and Rome used the term white as one description of skin color. Its light appearance was distinguished, for example, in a comparison of white-skinned Persian soldiers from the sun-tanned skin of Greek troops in Xenophon's Agesilaus. One early use of the term appears in the Amherst Papyri, which were scrolls written in ancient Ptolemaic Greek. It contained the use of black and white in reference to human skin color. In an analysis of the rise of the term, classicist James Dee found that, "the Greeks and Romans do not describe themselves as "white people" —or as anything else because they had no regular word in their color vocabulary for themselves—and we can see that the concept of a distinct 'white race' was not present in the ancient world." Assignment of positive and negative connotations of white and black date to the classical period in a number of European languages, but these differences were not applied to skin color per se. Religious conversion was described figuratively as a change in skin color.
The term "white race" or "white people" entered dictionaries of the major European languages in the 1600s. Theodore W. Allen notes in The Invention of the White Race that white identity emerged in the colonies with slavery, and says that "seventeenth-century commentator, Morgan Godwyn, found it necessary to explain to the English at home that, in Barbados, 'white' was 'the general name for Europeans." White quickly became a legal category, encoded in a variety of laws and conferring different status.
In 1758, Carolus Linnaeus proposed what he considered to be natural taxonomic categories of the human species. He distinguished between Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens europaeus, and he later added four geographical subdivisions of humans: white Europeans, red Americans, yellow Asians and black Africans. Although Linnaeus intended them as objective classifications, he used both taxonomical and cultural data in his subdivision descriptions.
In 1775, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach described the white race as "the white color holds the first place, such as it is that most Europeans. The redness of cheeks in this variety is almost peculiar to it: at all events it is but seldom seen in the rest... Color white, Cheeks rosy". He categorized humans into five races, which largely corresponded with Linnaeus' classifications, except for the addition of Oceanians (whom he called Malay). These later ideas were far less influential than his earlier assertions with regard to the perceived relative qualities of the different races, which opened the way to secular and scientific racism.
Immanuel Kant used the term weiß (white) in Von den verschiedenen Rassen der Menschen (Of [About] The Different Races of Humans - 1775) to refer to the "the white one [race] of northern Europe" .
According to Gregory Jay, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,
''Before the age of exploration, group differences were largely based on language, religion, and geography. ...the European had always reacted a bit hysterically to the differences of skin color and facial structure between themselves and the populations encountered in Africa, Asia, and the Americas (see, for example, Shakespeare's dramatization of racial conflict in Othello and The Tempest). Beginning in the 1500s, Europeans began to develop what became known as "scientific racism," the attempt to construct a biological rather than cultural definition of race ... Whiteness, then, emerged as what we now call a "pan-ethnic" category, as a way of merging a variety of European ethnic populations into a single "race"...''

See also



  • Allen, Theodore, The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols. (London: Verso, 1994)
  • Brodkin, Karen, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America, Rutgers, 1999, ISBN 0-8135-2590-X.
  • Foley, Neil, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)
  • Gossett, Thomas F. , Race: The History of an Idea in America, New ed. (New York: Oxford University, 1997)
  • Guglielmo, Thomas A. , White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945, 2003, ISBN 0-19-515543-2
  • Hannaford, Ivan, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1996)
  • Ignatiev, Noel, How the Irish Became White, Routledge, 1996, ISBN 0-415-91825-1.
  • Jackson, F. L. C. (2004). Book chapter: Human genetic variation and health: new assessment approaches based on ethnogenetic layering British Medical Bulletin 2004; 69: 215–235 DOI: 10.1093/bmb/ldh012. Retrieved 29 December 2006.
  • Jacobson, Matthew Frye, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, Harvard, 1999, ISBN 0-674-95191-3.
  • Oppenheimer, Stephen (2006). The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story. Constable and Robinson Ltd., London. ISBN 978-1-84529-185-7.
  • Rosenberg NA, Mahajan S, Ramachandran S, Zhao C, Pritchard JK, et al. (2005) Clines, Clusters, and the Effect of Study Design on the Inference of Human Population Structure. PLoS Genet 1(6): e70
  • Rosenberg NA, Pritchard JK, Weber JL, Cann HM, Kidd KK, et al. (2002) Genetic structure of human populations. Science 298: 2381–2385.Abstract
  • Segal, Daniel A. , review of Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit American Ethnologist May 2002, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 470-473 doi:10.1525/ae.2002.29.2.470
  • Smedley, Audrey, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 2nd ed. (Boulder: Westview, 1999).
  • Sweet, Frank W. , Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise and Triumph of the One-Drop Rule, Backintyme, 2005, ISBN 0-939479-23-0.
  • Tang, Hua., Tom Quertermous, Beatriz Rodriguez, Sharon L. R. Kardia, Xiaofeng Zhu, Andrew Brown,7 James S. Pankow,8 Michael A. Province,9 Steven C. Hunt, Eric Boerwinkle, Nicholas J. Schork, and Neil J. Risch (2005) Genetic Structure, Self-Identified Race/Ethnicity, and Confounding in Case-Control Association Studies Am. J. Hum. Genet. 76:268–275.
  • "The United Independent Compensatory Code/System/Concept" A textbook/workbook for thought, speech and/or action for victims of racism (White supremacy) Neely Fuller Jr. 1984
whites in German: Europid
whites in Estonian: Europiidne rass
whites in Spanish: Blanco (persona)
whites in Persian: سفیدپوست
whites in French: Race blanche
whites in Korean: 백인
whites in Hebrew: האדם הלבן
whites in Japanese: コーカソイド
whites in Polish: Biała rasa człowieka
whites in Portuguese: Caucasiano
whites in Russian: Европеоидная раса
whites in Finnish: Europidi
whites in Chinese: 白人
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