Etymological Question

Tiggerj asked the following: What is the historical context behind ‘hakujin’ ?
At first, this seemed to be simple and mundane question–whites are “white”, right? The Chinese compound is 白人; 白=white (haku); and 人=person (jin). But this is, I think, a recently coined word. This compound, bairen in Chinese, originally meant “commoner” or “one without offical standing”. In Japanese, this same compound, read shiroto, is similar, suggesting an amatuer, one without recognized training. So the word hakujin is a modern term, probably reflecting western terminology differentiating the races.

But it begs the question: Why in English (or the West) is a white person called a “white”? Or for that matter, a black person a “black”?

This may seem like just another insipid question, formed to incite unnnecessary arguments. But really, why is a caucasian considered “white”? Strictly speaking, a caucasian is not white, as in “white as the driven snow.” If you ask me, most have a “pinkish” tone. Could it be that the image of what is good and pure is “white”? Perhaps I am being facile, and besides this point has been discussed by more intelligent people than me, and does not need any regurgitation from me.

But let me play devils advocate.

Consider: Look at the seemingly innocuous box of Crayola crayons. Tell me, what is the color of “flesh tone”? Isn’t it that beige-pink combination? Do you suppose if Crayola were marketing its wares in an African or Asian country, do you think “flesh” would have a darker hue?

Of course, Crayola has rethought its terminology and renamed this particular color “peach”, sorta confirming my observation of this pinkish color.

Interestingly, 黒人 kokujin–black person–is also read kuroto. As the opposite of shiroto. it suggests the “professional”, one who is recognized as having all the appropriate training and know-how.

Go figure!

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