Understanding the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity

Ethnicity can be concealed but race typically cannot

A Tigray woman of Ethiopia
Ethiopia is home to many ethnic groups. Rod Waddington/Flickr.com

What is the difference between race and ethnicity? As the United States grows increasingly more diverse, terms such as ethnicity and race are thrown around all the time. Yet, members of the public remain unclear about the meaning of these two terms.

How is race distinct from ethnicity? Is ethnicity the same as nationality? This overview of ethnicity will answer that question by exploring how sociologists, scientists, and even the dictionary perceive these terms.

Examples of ethnicity, race, and nationality will be used to further illuminate the differences between these concepts.

Ethnicity and Race Defined

The fourth edition of the American Heritage College Dictionary defines “ethnicity” as one’s “ethnic character, background or affiliation.” Given that brief definition, it’s important to examine how the dictionary defines the root word of ethnicity—“ethnic.” American Heritage provides a much more detailed definition of “ethnic,” allowing readers to better understand the concept of ethnicity.

The word “ethnic” characterizes a “sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic or cultural heritage.” The word “race,” on the other hand, means “a local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics.”

While ethnicity is more of a sociological or anthropological term to describe culture, race is a term largely thought to be rooted in science.

However, American Heritage points out that the concept of race is problematic “from a scientific point of view.” The dictionary notes, “The biological basis for race is described today not in observable physical features but in the study of mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes, and the groupings outlined by earlier physical anthropologists seldom coincide with findings at the genetic level.”

In other words, it’s difficult to make biological distinctions between members of the so-called white, black and Asian races. Today, scientists widely view race as a social construct. But some sociologists also view ethnicity as a construct.

Social Constructs

According to sociologist Robert Wonser, “Sociologists see race and ethnicity as social constructions because they are not rooted in biological differences, they change over time, and they never have firm boundaries.” The idea of whiteness in the United States has expanded, for example. Italians, Irish and Eastern European immigrants were not always thought of as white. Today, all of these groups are categorized as belonging to the white “race.”

The idea of what an ethnic group is can also be broadened or narrowed. While Italian Americans are thought of as an ethnic group in the United States, some Italians identify more with their regional origins than their national ones. Rather than view themselves as Italians, they consider themselves to be Sicilian.

African American is another problematic ethnic category. The term is often applied to any black person in the U.S., and many assume it refers to the descendants of former slaves in the country who partake in cultural traditions unique to this group.

But a black immigrant to the U.S. from Nigeria may practice completely different customs from these African Americans and, thus, feel that such a term fails to define him.

Just like some Italians, many Nigerians don’t simply identify with their nationality but with their specific group in Nigeria—Igbo, Yoruba, Fulani, etc. While race and ethnicity may be social constructs, Wonser argues that the two differ in distinct ways.

“Ethnicity can be displayed or hidden, depending on individual preferences, while racial identities are always on display,” he says. An Indian-American woman, for instance, may put her ethnicity on display by wearing a sari, bindi, henna hand art and other items, or she may conceal it by wearing Western dress. However, the same woman can do little to conceal the physical characteristics that point out she’s of South Asian ancestry.

Typically, only multiracial people have traits that mute their ancestral origins.

Race Trumps Ethnicity

New York University sociology professor Dalton Conley spoke to PBS about the difference between race and ethnicity for the program “Race - The Power of an Illusion.”

“The fundamental difference is that race is socially imposed and hierarchical,” he said. “There is an inequality built into the system. Furthermore, you have no control over your race; it’s how you’re perceived by others.”

Conley and other sociologists argue that ethnicity is more fluid and crosses racial lines. On the other hand, a member of one race cannot decide to join another.

“I have a friend who was born in Korea to Korean parents, but as an infant, she was adopted by an Italian family in Italy,” he explained. “Ethnically, she feels Italian: she eats Italian food, she speaks Italian, she knows Italian history and culture. She knows nothing about Korean history and culture. But when she comes to the United States, she’s treated racially as Asian.”

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Understanding the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity." ThoughtCo, Jul. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/difference-between-race-and-ethnicity-2834950. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2017, July 8). Understanding the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/difference-between-race-and-ethnicity-2834950 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Understanding the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/difference-between-race-and-ethnicity-2834950 (accessed May 21, 2018).