Race vs. Ethnicity: Why These Terms Are So Complex

Historic protests against racial inequality. National debates over offensive names of sports team names and conflicts over the place of Confederate monuments in our culture. Arguments about border walls, language barriers—rising tensions over immigration despite an increasingly diverse populace.

In this cultural moment, the concepts of race and ethnicity have never been more important to grasp. They’ve also never been so complicated to untangle.

The words race and ethnicity don’t share a dictionary definition, and yet their meanings sometimes overlap, helping individuals define not just their skin tone and other physical characteristics, but their ancestry and heritage as well. But the uses of these often interrelated terms very often don’t intertwine.

The ways a person might utilize race and ethnicity to define their identity are myriad. These descriptors might be deeply personal. Occasionally, they might even be painful.

As we grapple with our divisions like never before, as we aspire to embrace our diversity like never before, it’s more important than ever to better understand what is meant, exactly, by the words race and ethnicity.

What is race?

There are many reasons the word race is a heated topic of debate today. One big reason is that, while we popularly use the term to refer to a person’s skin color, the whole idea of defining people that way is a social construct.

Formally defined, race is an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, especially formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape.

But the word race also carries much more weight, representing not just one’s features, but their ancestry, historical affiliation, or a shared culture.

To make things more complicated, the US Census officially—and perhaps more broadly—uses race for “a person’s self-identification with one or more social groups.”

Where does race come from?

The word race was first recorded in this form around 1490–1500. English borrowed race from the French race, which derives in turn from the Italian razza, meaning “kind, breed, lineage.” The deeper roots of razza are obscure. The homonym race, in its sense of a “context of speed,” is unrelated, coming from Old Norse.

The word race originally functioned in English much like the word ethnicity. It simply referred to groups of people connected by a common descent or origin, e.g., the English race, or English people.

By the 1700s, the meaning of race began to change. As European colonialism and imperialism spread, white Europeans used race to sort humans by place of origin as well as skin color, creating the social hierarchy which served as the foundation of slavery. Anthropologists, physiologists, and other writers and thinkers in the late 18th and 19th century—including the likes of Thomas Jefferson—wrongly claimed that characteristics of a person’s race innately determined and justified their social superiority or inferiority to others. Those whose race appeared to be white incorrectly believed the color of their skin and other aspects of their appearance meant they were more intelligent, moral, capable—more human, tragically—than those who were not white.

The use of race as a classifier, however, has always been fundamentally flawed because sorting individuals based on their race is an arbitrary practice. Observing a person’s skin color, for example, is not a reliable way to infer a genetic difference or similarity. Rather, skin tone (and hair color) is created by the presence of the pigment melanin.

Visit the informative About This Word section in our entry for racism to get a deeper look into the meaning and impact of the word.

None of this is to say that race can’t be meaningful to a person—especially members of minority groups who have marginalized and oppressed—who may also associate it with cultural importance. Pop culture movements through the years have led the charge on reclaiming skin tone as a point of pride. In the 1960s, the refrain “Black is beautiful” ignited a sociopolitical revolution. More recently, American music artists like Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez celebrate their race and heritage through their work.

The use of the word race, however, can still be confusing, especially when compared to ethnicity.

What is ethnicity?

It’s easy to confuse race and ethnicity. Both words are sometimes, but not always, used to describe a person’s heritage as tied to their ancestry or place of origin. Ethnicity, however, is generally used in reference to a person’s cultural markers, not their physical appearance.

An ethnicity is a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, or language. It also refers to a person’s ethnic traits, background, allegiance, or association.

Like race, the meaning and use of the word ethnicity has changed over the last few centuries.

Where does ethnicity come from?

Compared to race, ethnicity is more recent, dating back to around 1765–75. It’s based on ethnic, itself a much older word found in the 1300s. Via Latin, ethnic ultimately derives from the Greek éthnos, meaning “nation, people.”

The earliest use of ethnic in English—it’s worth noting while we’re on the topic of social divisions—was as a noun for a “heathen” or “pagan.” At that time, ethnic was also used colloquially to refer to those who originated from nations that weren’t Christian or Jewish.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that ethnicity was used to refer to social groups of a common ancestry and shared culture. But by the mid-1960s, the adjective ethnic, in white mainstream culture, did develop xenophobic connotations: ethnic came to mean “foreign, or un-American.”

Efforts to counteract these uses are active in many areas of industry, notably in the food business, where ethnic has become an insensitive catchall for “non-white.”

What defines a person’s ethnicity

So, what are the shared cultural markers of ethnicity? There are many, and often exist in combination. Here are some of the main ones:

  • Language. Ethnicity is often tied to the language someone speaks, such as Spanish, thereby representing a shared cultural history among those who also speak the language.
  • Nationality. It is also connected to one’s ties to a specific nation, such as the Philippines. In this instance, a person could describe their ethnicity as Filipino, whether or not they personally speak Tagalog. Many white Americans traditionally identify their ethnicity as Irish or German, as another example, based on where their family emigrated from.
  • Religious expression. Ethnicity can also be tied to a religion, particularly when there are social commonalities and longstanding cultural practices involved, as in Judaism or Islam.

Why race and ethnicity are such complex terms

Race and ethnicity have been used as not just descriptors of a person’s physical features or ancestral origin, but throughout history they have also been deployed, sometimes maliciously, as a means to other—if not outright hurt or oppress—someone perceived to be different.

When speaking about someone’s race, we often mean that they are Black, white, Asian, or Indigenous, for example. However, this generalization of races collapses too many differences, not allowing for much variation between, say, Asian and Pacific Islander, or Indigenous, Native American and Australian Aboriginal.

This is where ethnicity can be of assistance. That descriptor can be specific and supplemental to a person’s race, speaking to a person’s culture, ancestry, and sometimes language and religion. For example, a person’s race may be white, but ethnically, they may identify as Italian. Another’s race may be Black, but ethnically, they may be Haitian.

Nevertheless, the meaning of race and ethnicity remain convoluted. Notably, the U.S. Census defines Hispanic not as a race, but an ethnicity, adding that Hispanic people may be of any race.

However, many Hispanic people disagree with that classification, a 2015 Pew Research study found. Two-thirds of Hispanic Americans consider Hispanic as their “racial background”; half also say Hispanic is also part of their ethnic background. In an earlier study, Pew found one-third of Hispanic Americans checked the box for “some other race” when self-reporting on the 2010 Census. Half chose “white.”

Such an entanglement between race and ethnicity is not exclusive to Hispanic Americans. Many people find their race to be inherently tied to their ethnicity, even though their appearance may not be specific to their personal nationality.

Find out more about the knotty relationship between the terms Hispanic and Latino and what they each actually represent for most. 

How to use race and ethnicity

So, is there a difference between race and ethnicity? The short answer? Yes, but it’s very complicated. Use of the words overlap and are very historical and often personal. But very generally speaking, the word race involves shared physical characteristics, especially skin color, and a shared ancestry or historical experience based on that, whereas ethnicity involves shared cultural or national identity, which may include language, nationality, religion, or other customs.

As Jennifer DeVere Brody, Stanford University’s Director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity, powerfully sums up the issue of race vs. ethnicity: “Race is something we believe to be heritable, and ethnicity is something learned; however, this masks the history of how race has been used to create these concepts for political power.”

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