Understanding the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity

Ethnicity can be concealed, but race typically cannot

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It's common to see the terms "race" and "ethnicity" used interchangeably, but, generally speaking, the meanings are distinct. Race is usually seen as biological, referring to the physical characteristics of a person, while ethnicity is viewed as a social science construct that describes a person's cultural identity. Ethnicity can be displayed or hidden, depending on individual preferences, while racial identities are always on display, to a greater or lesser degree.

What Is Race?

The term "race" refers to distinct populations within a larger species. Racial characteristics are physical and can range from skin, eye, and hair color to facial structure. Members of different races usually have relatively minor differences in such morphology—a branch of biology dealing with the form and structure of animals and plants—and in genetics.

All humans belong to the same species (Homo sapiens) and sub-species (Homo sapiens sapiens), but small genetic variations trigger varying physical appearances. Though humans often are subdivided into races, the actual morphological variations don't indicate major differences in DNA. The DNA of two humans chosen at random generally varies by less than 0.1 percent. Because racial genetic differences aren't strong, some scientists describe all humans as belong to a single race: the human race.

What Is Ethnicity?

Ethnicity is the term used for the culture of people in a given geographic region or of people who descended from natives of that region. It includes their language, nationality, heritage, religion, dress, and customs. An Indian-American woman might display her ethnicity by wearing a sari, bindi, and henna hand art, or she could conceal it by wearing Western garb.

Being a member of an ethnic group involves following some or all of those cultural practices. Members of an ethnicity tend to identify with each other based on these shared traits.

Examples of ethnicity include being labeled as Irish, Jewish, or Cambodian, regardless of race. Ethnicity is considered an anthropological term because it is based on learned behaviors, not biological factors. Many people have mixed cultural backgrounds and can share in more than one ethnicity.

Race Vs. Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity can overlap. For example, a Japanese-American would probably consider herself a member of the Japanese or Asian race, but, if she doesn't engage in any practices or customs of her ancestors, she might not identify with the ethnicity, instead considering herself an American.

Another way to look at the difference is to consider people who share the same ethnicity. Two people might identify their ethnicity as American, yet one is black and the other white. A person born of Asian descent growing up in Britain might identify racially as Asian and ethnically as British.

When Italian, Irish, and Eastern European immigrants began arriving in the United States, they weren't considered part of the white race. This widely accepted view led to restrictions of immigration policies and on the entrance of “non-white” immigrants.

Around the start of the 20th century, people from various regions were considered to be members of sub-categories of the white race, such as “Alpine” and “Mediterranean” races. These categories passed out of existence, and people from these groups began to be accepted into the wider “white” race, though some retained distinction as ethnic groups.

The idea of an ethnic group 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 Sicilian. Nigerians who recently moved to the U.S. might identify more with their specific group from within Nigeria—Igbo, Yoruba, or Fulani, for example—than their nationality. They might have completely different customs from African-Americans who descended from former slaves and whose families have been in the U.S. for generations.

Some researchers believe that the concepts of both race and ethnicity have been socially constructed because their definitions change over time, based on public opinion. The belief that race is due to genetic differences and biological morphologies gave way to racism, the idea of superiority and inferiority based on race, they charge. Persecution based on ethnicity, however, also has been common.

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. 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, like other sociologists, argues that ethnicity is more fluid and crosses racial lines:

“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. 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.”

Key Takeaways

Differences between race and ethnicity:

  • Race is biological, while ethnicity is cultural.
  • Ethnicity can be displayed or hidden, while race generally cannot be.
  • Ethnicity can be adopted, ignored, or broadened, while racial characteristics cannot.
  • Ethnicity has subcategories, while races no longer do.
  • Both have been used to subjugate or persecute people.
  • Some sociologists believe that racial divisions are based more on sociological concepts than biological principles.

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