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Italian and Caucasian
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

The terms Caucasian and Latin are both used as designations of race.  In the US the term Caucasian seems to be used for Italians, but as an Italian, a majority of Italians claim not to be Caucasian.

I note that the context of your question is the United States.  Keep in mind that uses of terms will vary from country to country.  Even in the United States, you will find variations in usage from region to region.  Italians will vary also from community to community.  In the United States, great numbers of people with Italian cultural or genetic heritage are also mixed with other lineages, just as most Americans.

Would you call Latins Caucasian?

What is really in question here is how various terms are used.  Following general usage and meanings, we may initially answer yes, of course, Latins (Latin Americans) are generally Caucasian.  If they are of European origin.  All the people of European origin would fit into the broad category normally covered by the term Caucasian.  We should note here that this is an older term and falling out of use largely because of its ambiguity.

This depends, though, on the context.  The term Caucasian is used differently in different contexts.  This term, though used informally in various contexts, is not a clearly defined technical term.  This term is not even used as a designation in the US census.  Though it was once one of three terms used for general classification of human types, it is really only an informal working term.  It has no official standing academically, as far as I know.

Keep in mind that the designation Italian, similarly, has multiple meanings and usages.  It refers to all citizens of the political entity called Italy.  It refers to families or individuals, or whole communities in other countries, who have some identifiable history of origin in the country or territory called Italy.

Let me suggest again that the point is not who is Latin or who is Caucasian.  But the point is how particular terms are used in certain cultural, political or social contexts.

Latin and Caucasian
The terms Caucasian and Latin are not exclusive alternative terms.  Caucasian is a very broad term and generally includes all peoples of European extraction.  I will discuss this further later.  What is meant by the terms in question depends on the context in which the terms are used.  "Latin" has different meanings or connotations in different contexts and settings.  One meaning in the Americas for the term "Latin" is Spanish-speaking.  In general it is understood to include Portuguese.  From a background in Texas associated with Mexican culture and language, I did not hear the term Latin used in used to refer to Italians.

One correspondent of part-Italian background tells me that in her social context, the term Latin is used in some ways in regard to the Italian community, though most Italians do not use the term to refer to themselves.  She also sent me a link to a music article about Italian and Latin soul music.  The article reports on "Brown-Eyed Soul, discussing two streams of non-black rhythm and blues music of the 1960s and 1970s.  This article calls these two streams of singers and groups "Italian" and "Latin."  The article uses the term "Latin" as a synonym for "Latino" and "Hispanic" or "Mexican" to refer to this Spanish stream in contrast to the term "Italian" for the Italian stream of this music style.

Non-Caucasian Latins
I said initially that the term "Caucasian" usually includes Spanish-speaking Americans of European origin.  But some "Latins" are of Caucasian background and some are not.  However, keep in mind that a large minority of the persons in Mexico, Central America and South America are of American Indian descent.  These peoples would not be referred to as Caucasian.  Thus "Hispanic" or "Latin" are language and cultural designations, not genetic and not always "racial" designations.

The US census guide states:  "People who identify their origin as Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino may be of any race."  In the 2010 census one question asks about "Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin," and provides sub-categories the resident may choose, plus an opportunity to add a nationality.  These are not exclusive categories.  In the United States one can be Latin (speaking Spanish, or having a Spanish surname) and not be Caucasian, such as a Puerto Rican of African descent, or perhaps an Afro-Brazilian speaker of Portuguese.

In referring to South America, the term is usually extended to include also Portuguese language, which would be basically the peoples of Brazil.  A high percentage of the people and whole ethnic groups in Mexico and other countries are of mixed genetic or ethnic descent, so the traditional limited terms of Caucasian or Amerindian do not meet the need.  Thus the term "Mestizo" is used by many ethnic catalogues to cover the majority population of Mexico.  It is equivalent to "Mexican" as an ethnic designation.

This term again, however, is not a defined technical term, so is only a broad term of reference.  Note also that in the US, other terms are also used for people of Spanish language or ethnic heritage, according to the location, or the meaning and intent of the speaker.  Terminology and categories are rich and varied.

Caucasian and Culture
You mention that Italians are different from Caucasians in culture and features as well as language.  I don't understand exactly what groups are being contrasted here.  This is a use of the term "Caucasian" with which I am not familiar from all my years of investigating ethnicities.  You seem to use it more to refer to a set specific cultural characteristics, which is not how we use the word.

The term Caucasian is not a cultural or ethnic term in any academic usages I am familiar with.  I have never heard it used this way in popular usage, either, though someone might have used the term that way at some time and place.  The term usually refers to a physical type. On the other hand, the term "Italian" is used both as a political and geographical designation and as an ethnic or linguistic designation.  Thus Caucasian and Latin are not used to refer to mutually exclusive groupings.  I reiterate that racial and social terms are very fluid and uncertain, varying from region to region and often terms are only ad hoc social designations.

We find the term Caucasian used to designate a special ethnic group or geographical region, referring to the peoples living in the area of the Caucasus Mountains of Central Asia.  This, of course, is the origin of the term.  The term is also a technical name for the group of Indo-European languages spoken in this region.

Linguistically, Latin and its Romance family are members of the Indo-European family of languages.  It is thus akin to the Germanic languages, Greek and Hittite, Georgian and other Caucasian languages and the Persian and Sanskrit groups.

I do recall a somewhat specialized usage I have heard while in the United States.  I know that in descriptions, a general descriptive distinction is made between Caucasian, African-American, Latino, Asian or American Indian.  You might hear these terms in a TV story about a suspect in a robbery or kidnapping.

These seem to be ad hoc descriptive expressions to give people a visual clue to someone's appearance.  They are not necessarily race designations or linguistic designations.  I hear these in news announcements of lost children, wanted criminals, etc.  This does not seem to imply any ethnic characterization.

No Caucasian
I also recall from the website of the US Government that on census forms there are various categories one may choose from to indicate a racial category.  One may also choose not to indicate a race.  But Caucasian is not one of the choices.  Neither is Latin or Italian.  The list includes White, Asian, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, etc.

It appears that various terms in common use among the populace are provided as options for residents to choose in self-descriptions.  Several choices are combinations of individual categories, such as "Black or African American and White," or "American Indian and Alaska Native and White."

This appears to be an attempt to acknowledge that categories are inadequate, and terms too restrictive for the mixed character of American society. People may choose whatever term they prefer.  There are some general guidelines on what might be intended by the terms, but no requirements, apparently, for which category any individual has to choose.

Latin and Italic

Are Italians also Latin, since their language came from Latin?

The usual term for languages that derive from Latin is Romance.  There is a large family of several dozen languages (depending on how you analyze and divide them) that are classified as Romance.  (See The Ethnologue.) The various Romance languages all derive from some form of the Latin language.  However, language usage is only one defining characteristic of ethnicity.  (See What is a People Group.) Many peoples now speak a language derived from Latin but are genetically and culturally mostly Germanic, Celtic or Slavic.  You will find the term "Latin" used differently in these various situations.

Latin American

What is the meaning of "Latin" as a racial designation?

In the US, the term Latin is generally used to mean "Spanish-speaking."  The term is similar in connotation to "Hispanic." Compare the term Latin American, which refers to South America, countries with predominantly Spanish or Portuguese speakers.  Besides this continental context, the term within the United states generally refers to Spanish speakers.  So it is natural that the term in North America would be used for Spanish, and be extended to include Portuguese.

This is no doubt due to the greater number of Spanish speakers and the preponderance of Mexican culture in significant sections of the US.  Since the mid-1800s Spanish-Mexican populations and cultural influence have spread all over the United States from their early presence in Texas and other Southwestern territories.  In the 20th century Spanish influence has further increased due to increasing immigration, particularly the great Cuban influx since 1959.  Puerto Rican visibility similarly grew in the last half of the 20th century.

In Europe it appears the equivalent term for this is usually Iberian, covering Spanish, Portuguese, Galician, Catalan, Corsican and other related languages.  The technical term I am familiar with that is used to distinguish the languages or ethnicities in the Italian peninsula or Piedmont is usually "Italic."

All these terms and their uses are informal and customary, according to usage in the country or region.  The term "Italian" is primarily a geographic or political term.  More comments below on word usages.

The differences of usage reflect a phenomenon that is commonly commented on by writers, that there is no universally accepted definition or usage for any racial classifications.  These vary according to various national, social and political considerations in particular situations.

The term "Latin" is only one of the general terms that is used in different countries to designate various different groups of the population in certain places.  The term has only a relative meaning.  In the United States, for instance, you will hear the terms Latino, Mexican, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, etc., depending on the situation, geographical setting and political context.  In countries like Brazil and the US there is a great mix of peoples from various racial and ethnic origins, so those societies and the sub-societies within those domains will have different sets of terms for designating various groups according to their various perceptions or intentions.

Back to the term Caucasian, however, this is not used as an ethnic designation.  As far as I know, it has never been used that way in either academic or popular writing.  It is an older, but still-used, term for a broad physical type, usually focusing on facial features, not skin color, language or cultural ethnicity.  It is not a technical term used or defined by any academic discipline, as far as I am aware from my anthropological and linguistic background.

In general you may find the term "Caucasian" used to refer to the various ethnic groups, of a wide range of physical type, color and ethnic background, who speak languages of the Indo-European family.  This includes peoples of Central Asia, the Indian sub-continent and other parts of South Asia.  The term usually also includes Arabs, Dravidian (the short black people of southern Indian and southeast Asia), the Berbers and others who speak various other languages not of the Indo-European family.  The term Caucasian is diminishing in use, in light of its ambiguity and a desire for more precise and more specific ethnic distinctions.

All peoples everywhere are mixed from various backgrounds, depending on how their ethnic, cultural or linguistic streams are analyzed and depending on how far back in history you go.  So all terms of designation are relative to the context and time.

Italian and Caucasian

In the US the term Caucasian seems to be used for Italians, but as an Italian, a majority of Italians claim not to be Caucasian.


I have never personally seen or heard a reference by an Italian claiming not to be Caucasian.  Of course, there may be situations where this has become an issue for some reason.  I also did some specific checking and have been unable to find any reference to this claim.  If they really do, they must be using some special definition of the term under which the ethnicities of Italy are excluded.

Though the peoples living in the geography now called Italy are mixed, they clearly have dominant genetic lines and physical features deriving from Early Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Germanic and Arab roots.  The Germanic sources are extensive, coming in several waves since the 400s, especially in northern Italy.  All these human streams are considered to be Caucasian, in the general usage of the word.

Lombard, for instance, was the name of one of the German tribes that conquered part of the northern territories now part of Italy, giving their name to the region of Lombardy.  This area of Europe was still a part of the Austrian Empire called Lombardy-Venetia in the 1800s.  Lombardy was taken from Austria by France and annexed to Piedmont.  Lombardy was in the territory that became part of the new kingdom of Italy in 1861.  (Venetia, or Venezia, was added in 1866 after Austrian forces in the region were defeated by Italy.)

Political Nationality
Note also that since at least Roman times, the term "Italian" has been primarily a geographical term, referring to the peninsula of Italy.  Over the last century and a half it has become primarily a political term.  In North America the term "Italian" refers primarily to anyone from the Italian peninsula or islands.  "Italian" came to have a secondary ethnic connotation only in the 20th century, as far as I know, as a term for the new political nationality following the unification of various independent territories into one political domain in the 1860s.

King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia succeeded in fostering the union of most of the Italian peninsula and islands with his Sardinian kingdom.  In 1861 several domains in the peninsula voted to enter into a new union, and the new Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed with Victor Emmanuel as king.  The term "Italian" generally has to do with this geographical and political identity, but in the 20th century it came to have an ethnic connotation as succeeding generations developed a common national identity.  Otherwise, traditionally, it appears the term "Italy" was primarily a geographical designation throughout European history.

Italian in North America
In the US, as well as Canada, the high number of Italian immigrants after World War I and again after WWII, led to the identification of these immigrants as a group by the general term "Italian."  Thus it had an ethnic connotation in the new multi-ethnic American society, which "Caucasian" never did.  The latter term remains a broader, general reference and more of a physical descriptive term.

Because of the immigration of many people from the same language group at the same time, they tended to settle in communities by their language grouping, thus becoming identified as a discrete group, rather than spreading more generally into the general population as earlier immigrant groups did, especially German-surnamed (from various European countries), French-surnamed (from various European countries) Irish and Scottish, who blended with the general "Anglo" population.

More specifically, in the US, what people often have in mind by the term "Italian" is actually Sicilian culture and groups in America.  For instance the form of Italian I hear used on TV programs when depicting "Italians" in New York and New Jersey seems to be the Sicilian language rather than Roman or some central or northern form of Italic speech.  An Italian friend in South Africa also told me this is the impression he has from his Italian South African family, their contact with their Italian family in Italy and their acquaintance with Italians in America.

Within a limited political context, it may be that the term "Caucasian" was used at some time to designate only North Germanic peoples in the New World.  I have never seen that, in the years I have lived and studied in North America, nor in other continents of the world where I have lived, worked or done research.

Also related
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Early Greek Ethnicity and Politics
Ethnicity, Ancestors and Society:  Self-Identification in the US
Ethnicity in a Multi-cultural Society:  What is meant by "Hispanic" or "Latino" in the United States?
Genetics Out of Africa
Germanic and Celtic
Italians, Africans and Hannibal
Italians and Race
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks:  Genetics and Ethnicity
Multi-Level Ethnicity:  Illustrating Different Views of the Same Ethnic Group at Different Levels
Peoples and Languages
Scots, Irish and English
What is a People Group
What is an Ethnic Group (A variation of the above topic)

For More
2010 Census Form
Genetic History of the Italians
Genetics & Anthropology in Sicily
Italic Languages The Ethnologue
Racial Categories in the US Census
"Brown-Eyed Soul" Italian and Latin soul music


Initially written in answer to an email query 10 December 2007
Expanded, finalized as an article and posted on OJTR 12 December 2007
Rewritten incorporating comments from subsequent email exchanges 25 November 2009
Last edited 9 October 2014

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright 2007, 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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