White people is a racial classification specifier, used mostly and often exclusively for people of European descent; depending on context, nationality, and point of view. The term has at times been expanded to encompass persons of Middle Eastern and North African descent (for example, in the US census definition), persons who are often considered non-white in other contexts. The usage of "white people" or a "white race" for a large group of mainly or exclusively European populations, defined by their light skin, among other physical characteristics, and contrasting with "black people", Amerindians, and other "colored" people or "persons of color", originated in the 17th century. It was only during the 19th century that this vague category was transformed in a quasi-scientific system of race and skin color relations. The term "Caucasian" is sometimes used as a synonym for "white" in its racial sense and sometimes to refer to a larger racial category that includes white people among other groups.
The concept of a unified white race did not achieve universal acceptance in Europe when it first came into use in the 17th century, or in the centuries afterward. The strongest proponent of racialism in 20th-century Europe, Nazi Germany, regarded some European peoples such as Slavs as racially distinct from themselves. Prior to the modern age, no European peoples regarded themselves as "white", but rather defined their race, ancestry, or ethnicity in terms of their nationality. Moreover, there is no accepted standard for determining the geographic barrier between white and non-white people. Contemporary anthropologists and other scientists, while recognizing the reality of biological variation between different human populations, regard the concept of a "white race" as socially constructed.
The concept of whiteness has particular resonance in racially diverse countries with large majority or minority populations of more or less mixed European ancestry: e.g., in the United States (White Americans), Canada (White Canadians), Australia (White Australians), New Zealand (White New Zealanders), the United Kingdom (White British), and South Africa (White South Africans). In much of the rest of Europe, the distinction between race and nationality is more blurred; when people are asked to describe their race or ancestry, they often describe it in terms of their nationality. Various social constructions of whiteness have been significant to national identity, public policy, religion, population statistics, racial segregation, affirmative action, white privilege, eugenics, racial marginalization, and racial quotas.
The term "white race" or "white people" entered the major European languages in the later 17th century, in the context of racialized slavery and unequal social status in the European colonies. Description of populations as "white" in reference to their skin color predates this notion and is occasionally found in Greco-Roman ethnography and other ancient or medieval sources, but these societies did not have any notion of a white, pan-European race. Scholarship on race distinguishes the modern concept from pre-modern descriptions, which focused on physical complexion rather than race.
Physical descriptions in Antiquity
According to anthropologist Nina Jablonski:
In ancient Egypt as a whole, people were not designated by color terms […] Egyptian inscriptions and literature only rarely, for instance, mention the dark skin color of the Kushites of Upper Nubia. We know the Egyptians were not oblivious to skin color, however, because artists paid attention to it in their works of art, to the extent that the pigments at the time permitted.
The Ancient Egyptian (New Kingdom) funerary text known as the Book of Gates distinguishes "four groups" in a procession. These are the Egyptians, the Levantine and Canaanite peoples or "Asiatics", the "Nubians" and the "fair-skinned Libyans". The Egyptians are depicted as considerably darker-skinned than the Levantines (persons from what is now Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan) and Libyans, but considerably lighter than the Nubians (modern Sudan).
The assignment of positive and negative connotations of white and black to certain persons date to the very old age in a number of Indo-European languages, but these differences were not necessarily used in respect to skin colors. Religious conversion was sometimes described figuratively as a change in skin color. Similarly, the Rigveda uses krsna tvac "black skin" as a metaphor for irreligiosity.
Classicist James H. Dee states "the Greeks do not describe themselves as 'white people'—or as anything else because they had no regular word in their color vocabulary for themselves." People's skin color did not carry useful meaning; what mattered is where they lived. Herodotus described the Scythian Budini as having deep blue eyes and bright red hair. and the Egyptians – quite like the Colchians – as melánchroes (μελάγχροες, "dark-skinned") and curly-haired. He also gives the possibly first reference to the common Greek name of the tribes living south of Egypt, otherwise known as Nubians, which was Aithíopes (Αἰθίοπες, "burned-faced"). Later Xenophanes of Colophon described the Aethiopians as black and the Persian troops as white compared to the sun-tanned skin of Greek troops.