In certain societies and among some anthropologists, color terminology is used to label races, sometimes in addition to other terms.
Identifying human races in terms of skin color, at least as one among several physiological characteristics, has been common since antiquity. Via rabbinical literature, the division is received in early modern scholarship, mostly in four to five categories. It was long recognized that the number of categories is arbitrary and subjective. François Bernier (1684) doubted the validity of using skin color as a racial characteristic, and Charles Darwin emphasized the gradual differences between categories.
The transmission of the "color terminology" for race from antiquity to early anthropology in 17th century Europe took place via rabbinical literature. Specifically, Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (a medieval rabbinical text dated roughly to between the 7th to 12th centuries) contains the division of mankind into three groups based on the three sons of Noah, viz. Shem, Ham and Japheth:
This division in Rabbi Eliezer and other rabbinical texts is received by Georgius Hornius (1666). In Hornius' scheme, the Japhetites (identified as Scythians and Celts) are "white" (albos), the Aethiopians and Chamae are "black" (nigros), and the Indians and Semites are "yellow" (flavos), while the Jews, following Mishnah Sanhedrin, are exempt from the classification being neither black nor white but "light brown" (buxus, the color of boxwood).
François Bernier in a short article published anonymously in 1684 moves away from the "Noahide" classification, proposes to consider large subgroups of mankind based not on geographical distribution but on physiological differences. Writing in French, Bernier uses the term race, or synonymously espece "kind, species", where Hornius had used tribus "tribe" or populus "people". Bernier explicitly rejects a categorization based on skin colour, arguing that the dark skin of Indians is due to exposure to the Sun only, and that the yellowish colour of some Asians, while a genuine feature, is not sufficient to establish a separate category. Instead his first category comprises most of Europe, the Near East and North Africa, including populations in the Nile Valley and the Indian peninsula he describes as being of a near "black" skin tone due to the effect of the sun. His second category includes most of Sub-Saharan Africa, again not exclusively based on skin colour but on physiological features such as the shape of nose and lips. His third category includes Southeast Asia, China and Japan as well as part of Tatarstan (Central Asia and eastern Muscovy). Members of this category are described as white, the categorization being based on facial features rather than skin colour. His fourth category are the Lapps (Lappons), described as a savage race with faces reminiscent of bears (but for which the author admits to rely on hearsay). Finally, the natives of the Americas are considered as a fifth category, described as of "olive" (olivastre) skin tone. The author furthermore considers the possible addition of more categories, specifically the "blacks of the Cape of Good Hope", which seemed to him to be of significantly different build from most other populations below the Sahara.
In the 1730s, Carl Linnaeus in his introduction of systematic taxonomy recognized four main human subspecies, termed Americanus (Americans), Europaeus (Europeans), Asiaticus (Asians) and Afer (Africans). The physical appearance of each type is briefly described, including colour adjectives referring to skin and hair colour: rufus "red" and pilis nigris "black hair" for Americans, albus "white" and pilis flavescentibus "yellowish hair" for Europeans, luridus "yellowish, sallow", pilis nigricantibus "swarthy hair" for Asians, and niger "black", pilis atris "coal-black hair" for Africans.
The views of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach on the categorization of the major races of mankind developed over the course of the 1770s to 1820s. He introduced a four-fould division in 1775, extended to five in 1779, later borne out in his work on craniology (Decas craniorum, published during 1790–1828). He also used color not as the name or main label of the races but as part of the description of their physiology. Blumenbach does not name his five groups in 1779 but gives their geographic distribution. The color adjectives used in 1779 are weiss "white" (Caucasian race), gelbbraun "yellow-brown" (Mongolian race), schwarz "black" (Aethiopian race), kupferroth "copper-red" (American race) and schwarzbraun "black-brown" (Malayan race). According to D'Souza (1995), it was "Blumenbach's classification" which had a lasting influence, being memorable because it "neatly broke down into familiar tones and colors". However, according to Barkhaus (2006) it was the adoption of both the colour terminology and the French term race by Immanuel Kant in 1775 which proved influential. Kant published an essay Von den verschiedenen Racen der Menschen "On the diverse races of mankind" in 1775, based on the system proposed by Buffon, Histoire Naturelle, in which he recognized four groups, a "white" European race (Race der Weißen), a "black" Negroid race (Negerrace), a copper-red Kalmyk race (kalmuckishe Race) and an olive-yellow Indian race (Hinduische Race).
Blumenbach's division and choice of color-adjectives remained influential, with variation depending on author, throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century. René Lesson in 1847 presented a division into six groups based on simple color adjectives: White (Caucasian), Dusky (Indian), Orange-colored (Malay), Yellow (Mongoloid), Red (Carib and American), Black (Negroid).
Two historical anthropologists favored a binary racial classification system that divided people into a light skin and dark skin categories. 18th-century anthropologist Christoph Meiners, who first defined the Caucasian race, posited a "binary racial scheme" of two races with the Caucasian whose racial purity was exemplified by the "venerated... ancient Germans", although he considered some Europeans as impure "dirty whites"; and "Mongolians", who consisted of everyone else. Meiners did not include the Jews as Caucasians and ascribed them a "permanently degenerate nature". Hannah Franzieka identified 19th-century writers who believed in the "Caucasian hypothesis" and noted that "Jean-Julien Virey and Louis Antoine Desmoulines were well-known supports of the idea that Europeans came from Mount Caucasus." In his political history of racial identity, Bruce Baum wrote,"Jean-Joseph Virey (1774-1847), a follower of Chistoph Meiners, claimed that "the human races... may divided... into those who are fair and white and those who are dark or black."
Following World War II, more and more biologists and anthropologists began to discontinue use of the term "race" due to its association with political ideologies of racism. Thus, The Race Question statement by the UNESCO, in the 1950s, proposed to substitute the term "ethnic groups" to the concept of "race". Categories such as Europid, Mongoloid, Negroid, Australoid remain in use in field such as forensic anthropology while colour terminology remains in use in some countries with multiracial populations for the purpose of their official census, as in the United States, where the official categories are "Black", "White", "Asian", "Native American and Alaska Natives" and "Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders" and in the United Kingdom (since 1991) with official categories "White", "Asian" and "Black".
The Martinique-born French Frantz Fanon and African-American writers Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Ralph Ellison, among others, wrote that negative symbolisms surrounding the word "black" outnumber positive ones. They argued that the good vs. bad dualism associated with white and black unconsciously frame prejudiced colloquialisms. In the 1970s the term black replaced Negro in the United States.
In some societies people can be sensitive to gradations of skin tone, which may be due to intermarriage or to albinism and which can affect power and prestige. In 1930s Harlem Slang such gradations were described by a tonescale of "high yaller [yellow], yaller, high brown, vaseline brown, seal brown, low brown, dark brown". These terms were sometimes referred to in blues music, both in the words of songs and in the names of performers. In 1920s Georgia, Willie Perryman followed his older brother Rufus in becoming a blues piano player: both were albino Negroes with pale skin, reddish hair and poor eyesight. Rufus was already well established as "Speckled Red", Willie became "Piano Red". The piano player and guitarist Tampa Red from the same state developed his career in Chicago, Illinois, at that time: his name may have come from his light skin tone, or possibly reddish hair.
More recently such categorization has been noted in the Caribbean. It is reported that skin tones play an important role in defining how Barbadians view one another, and they use terms such as "brown skin, light skin, fair skin, high brown, red, and mulatto". An assessment of racism in Trinidad notes people often being described by their skin tone, with the gradations being "HIGH RED – part White, part Black but ‘clearer’ than Brown-skin: HIGH BROWN – More white than Black, light skinned: DOUGLA –part Indian and part Black: LIGHT SKINNED, or CLEAR SKINNED Some Black, but more White: TRINI WHITE – Perhaps not all White, behaves like others but skin White". In Jamaica albinism has been stigmatized, but the albino dancehall singer Yellowman took his stage name in protest against such prejudice and has helped to end this stereotype. The West Indian region uses the term "coolie" for all people of east Indian descent. In Trinidad, however, use of the term is considered extremely offensive.
In Russia, persons of Caucasus or Asian descent and other people having black hair are often referred to as Black (not because of skin color). "White", apart from its racial meaning, is also a term denoting opponents of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (see White movement for this usage) and "Red", apart from its racial meaning, symbolizes communism (or communists), or refers to the Bolsheviks, while "Green" often refers to ecologists.
Sometimes, Belarus and Belarusians have been referred to (in Western languages, not Russian) as "White Russia" and "White Russians", which can be misleading; see those articles for discussion in more depth.
Huang (yellow) is a common surname, but does not refer to the East Asian race as was popular in Western languages until recently. However, the Yellow Emperor was a legendary founder of China. Yellow is also identified with the "center" cardinal direction (blue-east, red-south, white-west, black-north) while China is known as Zhongguo "middle kingdom".
White (白 bai) means "plain" or "free of charge" in many common expressions and was not traditionally used to refer to Europeans or descendants, who were usually identified as "洋人" (yáng rén, "people from [across the] ocean") or some variety of "barbarians" with reddish or pinkish skin colors (e.g. Minnan ang mo, "red-haired"). Contemporary Chinese, has, however, adopted Western usage to some extent. Black (黑 hei) is typically applied to those of African race today. However, the term "black resident" (黑户) also refers to unregistered rural migrants in cities (as in black market). The word 白, when used under certain contexts, is offensive, taking on a meaning extended from "plain" to "uneducated".
Names of ethnic minorities sometimes contain colors, not to indicate skin color, but simply for identification, possibly based on traditional clothing or geographical direction.
The Five Races Under One Union theory of national unity can be visualized through an old ROC flag and a variant which emphasized Han administration while de-emphasizing the top-to-bottom hierarchy found in the original flag. Red - Han, Yellow - Manchu, Blue - Mongol, White - Hui and Black - Tibetan.
The word, 인종 injong, is used when describing a person's race, which also incorporates his or her skin color. White 백 baek, used with 인 in to make 백인, baegin, literally means 'white-person' in Korean. But now days 홍인 "hong-in", literally means "red-person" is commonly being used among younger koreans, as they explain, the skin tone of "white people" are more close to red. 흑 heuk is used to describe persons of African descent, 흑 heuk literally means 'black' in hanja.
The five cardinal directions were historically identified with colors. This was common to the Central Asian cultural area and was carried west by the westward migration of the Turks. These directional color terms were applied both to geographic features and sometimes to populations as well.
In the 2000 United States Census, two of the five self-designated races are labeled by a color. In the 2000 US Census, "White" refers to "person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa." In the 2000 US Census, "Black or African American" refers to a "person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa." The other three self-designated races are not labeled by color.