I am a Turkish who was born and raised in Izmir, Western Turkey. Until I went to London for a postgraduate law degree, I had never thought of my race and whiteness as defined in the UK and US.
You can be from any different ethnic background in Turkey, but you are a Turk if you speak Turkish and define yourself as a Turk.
According to my personal experience, Turkish people’s language accent is more important than their skin color or ethnic background in Turkey.
For this reason, the race question, which was very commonly asked in the UK, confused me because the race definition based on origins, ethnic background, and skin color was new to me.
I searched everywhere for race definitions to learn who is considered white in the UK and US, and now I believe I can shed some light on the issue.
As a lawyer, I researched official Census definitions of every country.
In this blog, you can find official census definitions of Turkish people as defined by the US, UK, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Governments.
Here is the summary.
In the legal context, Turkish people are part of the white (Caucasian) race in the US and UK.
In the US, Turkish people are considered white because they are one of the original people of Europe, and the Middle East.
In the UK, Turkey is accepted as a European country, and Turkish people are explicitly stated in “other white background” like Polish, Greeks, and Cypriots.
Whereas in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, Turkish people are defined in other categories.
White Race Definition in US and Turkish Race
The Census Bureau’s definition is the widely accepted definition of race and ethnicity in the US. Source
The US Census Bureau defines the white race as “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”
Turkey is a Middle Eastern and a European Country. For this reason, Turkish people are considered White in the US.
White is a term used interchangeably with Caucasians in the US. Literally, Turkish people are also Caucasian because some of the Turkish territories lie within the Caucasus region.
Another interesting trend in the US is lobbying of Arabs and Iranians to be identified differently from the White race. Source
To please this request, the U.S. Census Bureau may offer another racial category for people, regardless of race, who claim ancestry from a limited set of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
If this proposal is accepted, Turkish people will continue to be considered White because the U.S. Census Bureau’s MENA description does not include the original peoples of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and Armenia. Source
Suggested Reading: What Do Turkish People Look Like? With Pictures and History
White Race Definition in the UK and Turkish Race
UK Census definitions are more clear about white definition. Turkish and Turkish Cypriots are explicitly regarded as white European in the UK. Source 1, Source 2, Source 3
In the UK, the white definition does not apply to Middle Easterners and North African people as in the US.
Kurdish, Iranians, and Arabs are also categorized separately as “Any other ethnic group.”
If you wish to learn more about Turkish people, please read my article “Why is Turkey considered a European Country?” and “Are Turkish People Arab?”
How are Turkish People categorized in other countries?
In Canada, Turkish people are categorized separately from White Race.
According to the Canadian Census definition, Turkish People are a specific subcategory of West Central Asian and Middle Eastern origins. All Turkic Nations are also included in this category. Source
In Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics classifies Turkish people in the other Northern African and Middle Eastern category. Source
New Zealand does not have a white race category. There are 6 categories, European, Māori, Pacific peoples, Asian, and MELAA (Middle Eastern / Latin American / African).
Turkish is considered in the MELAA (Middle Eastern / Latin American / African) category. Source
Who is a Turk? Turkish Race and Ethnic Roots
Turks are mostly white people with Mediterranean looks.
Turkish People are descendants of Anatolian, Central Asian (mostly Turkic), Mediterranean, Balkans, and Caucasus people.
According to genetic studies, Turkish people are similar to Southern Europeans, most similar to the South Italian population. source
The major difference from European genetic models is that Turks also have Central Asian ancestry, but how much this ancestry influenced the Modern Turkish population is not certain.
The Central Asian origin of modern Turkish people is believed to be around 10-20%.
Yet, Central Asian ancestry may be more significant because the indigenous Central Asian Turkic population is also known to have European ancestry.
A recent study published by the Royal Society examined the genetics of Turkish villages in Southwest Turkey.
The research concluded that Turkish people living in modern times are ancestors of native Anatolians, and there was no genetic discontinuity in the region for at least 2000 years.
Furthermore, the same study also found %15 percent East Eurasian DNA in the modern group, which was not present in Byzantine times.
Turkish People’s Central Asian ancestry relies mostly on the Oghuz faction of Turkic People. Oghuz arrived and settled in Turkey around the 11th century.
The Turkish Language is a Turkic language that is natively spoken by most Central Asian countries. To learn more about Turkish culture links to Central Asia, please read my article “Turkish Language and its origins“
Turkish Language and its role in Turkish Identity
The Turkic language spoken by the Oghuz people is the base of the modern Turkish language spoken in Turkey.
For this reason, linguistically, Turkish people are Central Asians. Most Central Asian countries natively speak Turkic languages.
Turkic languages are very similar to the Turkish language. For this reason, some claim Turkish is not a separate language but a dialect of Turkic languages.
And also, for this reason, Turkish people see themselves as descendants of Central Asians.
Even some nationalist parties advocate that Turkey should unite with Central Asian countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Suggested Reading: Languages Similar to Turkish – Is Turkish Mutually Intelligible?
Yet, I believe Turkish Anatolian and Balkan roots are underrated. Especially the last migration that happened between 1850 and 1920s was vastly impactful on demography and its roots.
Let me tell you a very brief story of Turkish People.
Turkey has a unique culture, and genderless language also reflects on Turkish Women. Read my article Turkish Women – How and Why They Are Different?” to learn more.
Short History of Turkish People
We, Turkish People, love the term melting pot to describe our culture and heritage.
Our culture and ethnic roots are diverse. The melting pot symbolizes that all the elements (ethnicities) melted in a pot (Turkey) to produce one unique Turkish identity.
Turkish people use the term Anatolia to describe the motherland of Turkey. (Asia Minor is a synonym of Anatolia.)
First native people of Anatolia were highly civilized cultures. Lidyans, Hittites, Phrygians, Troyans, Phoenicians, Galatian Celts, Greeks, Jews, and even Norse settled Anatolia.
Then the Romans came, and all of Turkey became a part of the Roman Empire.
Many centuries later, the East Roman Empire (Byzantine) was formed when the Roman Empire split into two.
From that moment on, Istanbul (Constantinople) ruled all Eastern Mediterranean for centuries.
Check my article if you want to learn about how Istanbul became the name of Constantinople.
Around the 11th century, Turkish people arrived. Turkish people coming from Central Asia were primarily from the Oghuz Turkic ethnic group.
Soon, the Byzantine Empire was replaced by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.
The Turkish adapted Byzantine Empire traditions to form the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire ruled vast parts of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa until World War 1.
All these centuries, the heart of many civilizations was Anatolia and Istanbul. Also, genetic exchanges were common with ethnic groups living under the same Empire.
After Balkan Wars and World War 1, the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
When the Ottoman Empire lost most of its European territory, new Balkan countries expelled Muslims regardless of their ethnic origin.
In those times, religion was the main factor of nationality, and you were Turk if you were Muslim. Therefore, you should go to Turkey.
In that period, 10 million ethnic Turks, Albanians, Bulgarians, Cretans, Bosniaks, Greeks, Circassians, Crimean Tatars, Pomaks, and Serbs migrated to modern-day Turkey.
This last migration was the final touch of the Turkish genetic mix. Today, nearly every Turkish citizen had a descendant who came with the last migration wave. Source.
Some of my ancestors also came to Turkey with this migration wave. One of my grandfathers is of Bulgarian origin, and my other grandfather is of Cretan origin.
Turkish Race defined by The Turkish Republic
As I said in the short history of Turkish, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Turkish population was fragmented by different ethnic backgrounds and languages.
Two factors united all Turkish people under the same destiny, the Turkish Independence War and our founding father, Kemal Ataturk’s reforms.
“Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene” – “How happy is the one who says I am a Turk” was the motto of that period.
If you accept yourself as a Turk and speak the language, you are a Turk regardless of your ethnic background.
The newly founded Turkish Republic’s motto worked.
Many indigenous people of different backgrounds embraced Turkish identity and did not pass their native languages to their descendants like my grandfathers.
I believe, for this reason, language and accent are more important indicators in Turkey than ethnic background.
Turkish People have diverse ethnic backgrounds, but they choose to unite to form a unique national identity, something different from its roots, as if you melt them all into a pot to make a stew.
If you wish to know some interesting facts about Turkey, you can read my article Why Turkey is a First World Country?
Turkish culture is a fusion of Mediterranean, Balkan, Anatolian, and Central Asia, reflecting thousands of years of tradition.
For example, the evil eye, one of the best souvenirs you can buy in Turkey, is a tradition older than 3.000 years old.
European (Mediterranean and Balkan) and Central Asian elements are more dominant in Turkish culture.
Arabic, Persian, and Middle Eastern elements are also present in Turkish culture, yet the Middle Eastern cultural influence of the Middle Eastern in Turkey may be exaggerated.
The common point of both Arabic and Turkish culture is Islam. Even on religion, we do not agree with Arabs.
According to Arabs, Turkish people are light Muslims at best.
According to Turkish people, Arabs practice Islam conservatively and backwardly, not how it should be.
Moreover, most Arabic and Islamic influences, like the Arabic Alphabet, were reformed and replaced with Western standards in the first years of the Turkish Republic.
Click read my article on the differences between the Arabic and Turkish languages and cultures.
Meaning of “White Turks” and “Black Turks” in Turkey
White & Black Turk is a term used frequently in contemporary culture in Turkey. This definition is not related to ethnicity or skin color. It is more related to the lifestyle and beliefs of individuals.
White Turks can be described as progressive, liberal, and secular Turks who embraced Western lifestyles. White Turks are also used to describe Turks living in coastal and urban areas with high purchasing power.
Black Turk is a term used to describe the conservative, religious, and less-educated rural Turkish rural population.
Recently a new term, “Gray Turks” emerged in the media to describe the third group. The new term describes well-educated religious Turks, who are also aligned with western values and lifestyles. Source 1 Source 2
I am writing my personal thoughts and knowledge on a sensitive topic, and English is not my native language. I apologize if the above writing was not accurate enough.
Other articles you may like
- What Do Turkish People Look Like? With Pictures and History
- Why is Turkey considered a European Country?
- Are Turkish People Arab?
- Turkish Women – How and Why They Are Different?
- Is Turkic a Language? What are Turkic Languages?
- Turkish Language and its origins
- Languages Similar to Turkish – Is Turkish Mutually Intelligible?
- Why and When did Istanbul Became Constantinople? A Local Answers
- Why is Turkey a First World Country?
- Turkish and Arabic Languages: 10 Things to Know
Thursday 15th of September 2022
Major thanks for the article. in reality Cool.
Friday 13th of May 2022
As a Turk living in Australia, I found your article very interesting. I was born in Izmir,but both my parents were born in Greece.I am often asked if I am Greek,because of this.My family migrated to Australia under the "White Australia Policy", So im presuming Turks were considered white at the time.
Wednesday 20th of April 2022
if Italians, Spanish, greeks were categorized as white, moreover most of French , then why not Turkish? this is a ridiculous question to me
Monday 9th of May 2022
I think you can’t separate whiteness from religion and culture. It is totally socially constructed, modern concept. As someone from Turkey, I doubt I could be classified as “white”, perhaps only white-passing. You may be educated secularly and have blue eyes, but still you would have a muslim background. The term “race” entered the literature in 17th century and, of course you can’t separate it from slavery and colonization. I feel there are some Turkish people wanting to belong to “white” race, but the category itself worked to oppress people. Instead of wanting to be part of this flawed categorical system, it is better not to participate, whenever possible.
Tuesday 26th of April 2022
It is a question being asked and I wanted to shed light on it with official resources. Hope the article was helpful.
Saturday 19th of March 2022
I was so intrigued by your article! As a 77 year Scot-Irish woman, searching internet for why I filled out forms in grammar years as a Caucasian; and now, I have to check White, I wondered, who am I!!!!! I found your history and just kept being fascinated by it!! Keep up the true ancestry of our meshed lives! Soli Deo Gloria
Wednesday 8th of December 2021
As a Turk that is born in America, I believe I have a different understanding to this question. I think there are white Turks, especially people with Greek or Bulgarian ancestry. But I think classifying all Turks as white is quite dismissive of the problems that our community faces. We will always be considered outsiders by the European or White community. That's why I have always aligned with the MENA definition especially with my experiences as a Turk that is racially ambiguous. I've been told I can be white passing, obviously Middle Eastern/Turkish, racially ambiguous, "exotic looking", etc. My skin color is darker and of a different undertone of my white counterparts. I think this is a really interesting question, especially as someone that has been confronted with this question since I have been younger. Great article!
Wednesday 1st of June 2022
Thursday 9th of December 2021
There are many definitions of the white race and for most Europeans, the white race as defined by Americans is a stupid thing. European people tend to value more about your culture, nationality, language, and even the language dialects. The origin of the people is more visible in Europe. Yet, I think I can understand how Americans think. If you are an American, most of your origin is forgotten in time and your ancestors have probably migrated to the Americas decades or maybe centuries ago and you have only had the skin color identifying your heritage.
Another thing to note is that the American definition of white encompasses all the territory that was once ruled by the Roman Empire. So if you are European and or your ancestors were Roman Empire citizens you are a member of Western civilization and you are white.