Rex, over at anthro blog Savage Minds, was questioning (or just asking about) people’s use of “Euro-American” as a label for different groups of people. He was concerned about ethnic and/or “racial” connotations.

Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » No but seriously: Euro-American?

Looks like I did use “Euro-American” here. On purpose, no less. 

So… What do I mean by “Euro-American,” you ask? Well, it depends on context. And as I like to talk about context and terminological precision, I wrote a lengthy comments on Rex’s blogpost. Here’s an edited version. (The original version is on Savage Minds.)

When I first glanced at Rex’s entry, I felt as if I had to defend myself.

My own usage tends to depend on context. Not that “Euro-American” is that flexible a term, but my disambiguation strategies rely on context a whole lot (might be stronger among French-speakers).
In a discussion where “Western” is expected, I often throw “Euro-American” in as a way to make things clearer (or to make people think about how obviously unclear “Western” really is). I guess this term use is a bit like what Strathern has apparently been doing (though I was unaware of her term use). Some critics would probably talk about political correctness but I hear it more as thought-provocation. The term tickles the ear. To me, “Anglo-American” is even more effective because of US/UK continuities which often go unnoticed. Kind of like “WASP” without the ‘W.’ And with a Weberian ‘P.’
In other contexts, I use it (like Savage Minds commenter Dylan) to refer to a worldview which has clear post-colonial implications. In this sense, there can be a fairly clear implication that we’re really talking about specific parts of Western Europe and North America. Something close to the “Western” (and western) portion of Wallerstein’s “Core.” There’s a country/nation-state version of geo-political thinking embedded in this usage (IMHO) and the implicit map resembles that of NATO members.
In yet other contexts, my personal use of “Euro-American” contrasts with my use of “post-industrial societies.” I often try to point out that there are differences between the historical/geographical realities of “European Imperialism” and the spread of Industrial Revolution. People often use “Western” for either of these and it might be useful to distingush the two. Not all “post-industrial societies” are located in Europe or North America and some concepts seem to apply most directly to those post-industrial societies which are located on those two continents.
In all of these usage patterns (term use plus context), there is some degree of vagueness as to which societies/regions/”countries” are included/excluded. In discussions of Post-Colonialism, for instance, some people would perceive “Euro-American” to tacitly include (or “not expressly exclude,” which is to me slightly different) some parts of Australasia. In Globalization discussions, “Euro-American” may be limited to the “The Most Powerful Nations in the World” (excluding Asia). In those contexts, G6-1 members (G6 without Japan) seem especially relevant: US, UK, France, Germany, and Italy. This degree of vagueness could be seen as more realistic since it captures real vagueness in most discussions on such topics. Sure, it’s often useful to be more specific as to how much ground a term like this is meant to cover. But given journalistic habits seeping into our conversational styles on geo/socio/political issues, we might as well use broad terms and hope for the best.

As for “racial” undertones, I think they were indirect (if present at all) in most conversations in which someone has used “Euro-American.” Sure, there’s an implicit link between “The West” and “The Whites,” to some people. But, IMHO, the conceptual association between “Euro-Americans” and religious affiliation seems stronger than the “racial” one and much more implicit (“Judeo-Christian Westerners”). Rarely are all “Euro-Americans” labeled “White” or all labeled “Whites” considered Euro-American.

In other words, I really don’t think that, as Rex ventured, “Euro-American is code for White.” At least, not in most academic conversations.
Sure, it might have been used on occasion as a differentiating ethnonym for “people who mainly recognize themselves as descendants of European settlers to the United States of America” (clearly excluding the rest of the Americas, especially “Latin Americans”). But “European-American” seems much more common in those contexts, these days. IMHO, “Afro-American” is quaint in most contexts. It might be political correctness which makes ”-o-American” sound weird as a component of ethnic/”racial” terms.


There you have it. It may sound like a defense of my term use but, really, it’s meant as an explanation.

Still, it’s fun to think about what implications might be with such usage. Especially given the vagaries of interpreting the written word.

5 thoughts on “Euro-American?”

  1. The other question is if neither “Euro-American” nor “white”, then what? This seems like either a lack of self-questioning on the part of those who would reject these terms, or a desire to render the target of critique invisible to the critique. I use “white” still, in certain contexts. Why? Because it is valid where persons racialize themselves and others as white. Does that mean one endorses racialization? No, not any more than my calling someone a Nazi, who calls himself a Nazi, is an endorsement of the Nazi movement. I frankly cannot see a valid conceptual or historical basis for disputing the term “Euro-American.”

  2. @MF Seems like some of those who criticize the term might in fact argue that “Euro-American” sounds too much like a way to avoid “white.” Others argue that the term “Euro-American” doesn’t correspond to any specific, cohesive group. Some of these reactions transpired from the SavageMinds thread.
    Of course, the term isn’t typically used by any large group (i.e., outside the Ivory Tower) as either an exoteric or an esoteric label. It doesn’t mean the term isn’t useful.
    My use of the term “Euro-American” is not meant to be “ethnic” (like “European-American,” which is used in the U.S.A. as an unmarked ethnicity) or to label a well-defined group of human beings. I’m mostly using the term to designate a worldview, some “core values,” or a “cultural constellation.” Not too far from Appiah’s “Golden Nugget.” Yes, in this case, it relates to “Western,” but as a way to shake off the “obviousness” of the term.
    Given the “Anglo-American” (!) habit of avoiding ambiguity at all cost, the call may be for “clarifying term use.” It seems to be quite important in conversations in English as some people will react very strongly to term use without going metalinguistic or metadiscursive. When people simply assume that terms can be unambiguous, there isn’t much room for the oh-so-useful “Is this what you meant?”

    So… Are you saying that labels are only ok if they’re used by the in-group? I don’t think you are, but if so, that’s an interesting position. I don’t share it, but I can live with that.

  3. No I would not say that only if a given label is used by a group can we then use it — but it does keep one’s analysis in tune with what individuals and groups are actually articulating, rather than creating labels and categorizations that exist only in the mind of the analyst.

    I agree with using Euro-American as a way of referring to certain dominant cultural values in the world-system — but those values can also be “ethnic property”, not exclusively, but when they map onto the world view of groups that are organized to defend such values as their own heritage, and fold those ideas into communal genealogies and personal biographies, then it’s important to recognize that. In other words, it’s important to recognize when Euro-American becomes white, and to let one’s analytical language reflect that fusion.

    To say that Euro-American sounds like code for white, and white is problematic for being a racial category, and race does not exist we anthropologists say — to me that sounds like a bit too much fuss, and a way to distance the anthropologist as a potential target of critique. And to me it sounds like a way for some of us to continue to ignore the fact that in Canada, and most of the US, anthropology departments (in terms of both faculty and students) remain overwhelmingly, disproportionately, white/Euro-American. Neighbouring disciplines like sociology already show a far greater degree of diversity in terms of the ethnic and national backgrounds of students. We ought to be asking ourselves why, and we won’t be able to come up with any plausible answers if like some we choose to chastise usage of either Euro-American or white.

    Thanks for raising all of these issues, questions, and terms, I think it was very important that you did.

  4. Well, the reason I raised these issues and terms was because they were raised on SavageMinds and I “felt bad” about my own uses of Euro-American. Not sure it helped anyone but I’m glad you can “bring some water to the mill.”

    I like your line of thinking about “ethnic property,” especially because (or “even though” ) we’re talking about unmarked ethnicity which, at least in anthro milieus, often goes unclaimed. Your point about the “whiteness” of anthro departments is well-put and well-taken. But I don’t tend to bemoan the fact that, as anthros, we often distance ourselves from our own “whiteness.” Especially those of us who have somehow felt expelled from certain ethnic groups to which we were supposed to belong.
    As for the fuss on “Euro-American as code for white, white as race, race as situated,” I agree that it can be cumbersome. Especially in the current (last fifteen years or so) climate in North American anthro. That’s part of the reason I pretty much evacuate the ethnic/racial components, when I can. I’m not saying they’re non-existent or not important. I’m just saying that I find them cumbersome and, more importantly, not really conducive to thoughtful conversation about diverse subjects related to the Euro-American worldview which go beyond perceptions of ethnic/racial identities. Simply put, there are other dimensions to Euro-American and Anglo-American worldviews/ideologies than the ethnic origins or racially-constructed phenotypes of some people who hold these views. There isn’t that much which is so specifically “white” about neo-liberalism or about Judeo-Christian belief systems the same way that there isn’t much about lineage systems or semi-egalitarian “ordered anarchy” which is specifically “black.” Granted, in the logic of identity negotiation, some people do claim a “white” (or “Western” ) basis for, say, democracy and currency-based market economy. But there are also people who claim these to be Universal. After listening to some French people talk about the Republican ideals, I don’t know that the claimed universalism is less or more problematic than the claimed whiteness.
    I guess the very simple (but extremely difficult) thing I’m trying to do is get people to contextualize this (world-system dominant) worldview (or “constellation of ideas” ) in as diverse dimensions as possible. Yes, it’s associated with “The West.” The association is even bidirectional (this worldview often identifies Westerners and Westerners often identify this worldview as theirs). But there’s something about “The West” which is more localized then people tend to discuss. Not exactly “degrees of Western-ness” but contexts in which the core values of the “Western worldview” are perceived as distributed differentially in specific social groups.

    Ah, well…

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