What’s the difference between race and ethnicity By the year 2045, the majority of the U.S. population will be racially diverse. Already, this reality is impacting our culture, politics, businesses, and national sense of identity.
Companies are particularly eager to get ahead of the change and ensure they’re catering to a rapidly diversifying market and workforce. Gen Z, the most racially diverse generation in American history, will make up roughly 27% of the workforce by 2025. For them, as for many millennials, racial and ethnic diversity are core norms of family, school, and work life.
With more people conscious of racial inequities and mandating official recognition and celebration of diversity, it’s worth drilling down into what exactly “race” and “ethnicity” mean. How are they different, where do they overlap? And how do both impact how we interact with society?
To put the definitions in their simplest terms:
Race refers to categories of human beings that are typically defined by shared biological characteristics. Skin color, hair texture, facial features, and even body shape have historically been used to define “race.”
Ethnicity, on the other hand, refers to cultural identification and expression. Language, arts, cuisine, customs, holidays–a massive amount of a person’s identity is determined by the ethnicity they grow up with and around.
Let’s take a deep dive into race first, because it’s one of the most used words and has a particularly complex history.
Race is primarily an external way of viewing people’s identities. It is based on observed physiological differences associated with regional origins around the world.
RACE IS ENTIRELY SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED
In the US, we encounter categories of race all the time on official documentation. But the U.S. Census uses relatively broad definitions, limited to the following categories: White, Black or African-American, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Asian. The Census Bureau has also started tracking Multiracial populations in much greater detail (in the U.S., this population increased 276% in the last 10 years).
You’ll notice that the categories above lump people rather surprisingly into categories we might not expect (such as that Middle Eastern people are considered racially “White” by the Census), or which callously gloss over stark differences in physical traits (“Asian” simultaneously describes people of Indian, Japanese, or Indonesian origin/descent).
And in fact, there’s a very simple explanation for why it’s so hard to fit people neatly into these vague buckets: Race, from a scientific, genetic, and biological perspective, does not exist.
Genetic differences are not a sufficient explanation for what humans perceive as “race.” All human beings share over 99% of the same DNA. There are some genetic differences based on geographical origin, but even within the same region–or “race,” if you like–there can be significant variation (so that people of different races may have amore similar genetic makeup than people of the same race, but from different regions).
If there were a genetic explanation for race, we would expect to see “trademark” genes that only pop up in certain populations. But of all the genetic markers that account for what we perceive as racial difference (i.e., less than 1% of the human genome), only 7% of them are specific to one geographical region.
This is really important to stress, because historically, studies of racial differences have been presented and construed as scientific projects. The reality, however, is that race is entirely socially constructed by human beings.
RACE AS A JUSTIFICATION FOR UNEQUAL TREATMENT
That doesn’t mean it’s not important. For hundreds of years now, race has been used to categorize human beings and assess their value and potential. Today, it remains a heavy influence on all people’s unconscious biases, which can sometimes lead to violent or even deadly consequences. There’s no doubt that race remains a powerful determinant of much human behavior.
But this scientific insight does underline the rapidly approaching obsolescence of our current (and historically influenced) ideas about race.
The idea that “whiteness” or “blackness” of skin can be used to describe different categories of human beings only appeared several hundred years ago. It did not exist in the ancient world, and it was only with the acceleration of the Atlantic slave trade by Portuguese explorers in the 1400s that Europeans became exposed to “racial” categories based on skin color.
The Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries further developed the concept, especially in order to justify the continued enslavement and unequal treatment of people of color in the New World. As one scholar puts it, this conception of “race” was based on three fundamentally flawed premises:
“One, that biologically distinct races existed in nature; two, that some races were more intelligent than others . . . and three, that these races could be classified and ranked from superior to inferior according to the typical brain, shape, weight or size for each so-called ‘race.’”
– Professor Alice Conklin, Ohio State University
These ideas eventually coalesced into formal “scientific” disciplines, resulting in the now utterly discredited studies of “phrenology” (the study of skull shapes and corresponding mental characteristics) and “eugenics” (the practice of “improving” a race’s characteristics by breeding out supposedly “undesirable” traits). Crucial to the eugenics agenda in the early 20th century was, of course, the concept of “racial purity.” Taken to one of its most violent extremes, this resulted in the rise of antisemitism all over Europe and, eventually, the Nazis’ atrocities against that continent’s Jewish population.
These pseudosciences have been discredited because there is no biological justification for them. Yet, while it has an extremely fraught history full of scientific error and human bias, racial categories are still seen as important markers of identity–both by people and the governments that serve them.
The social construction of race is therefore a double-edged sword. It has led to the denigration and disenfranchisement of specific races based on alleged inequalities in mental, physical, behavioral, and even spiritual ability. (Which has resulted in some very strange arguments, such as the relatively common Abolitionist viewpoint in 19th-century America and England that Black people were intellectually inferior, and therefore required the charity and sympathy of the dominant races, rather than enslavement.)
THE IMPORTANCE OF RACIAL IDENTITY
But it has also led us to an increased awareness of our perceived and actual differences. While race is not a scientifically justifiable distinction, it has played a deeply important role in our nation’s recent history. In the last century, this led to many economic, legal, and social “corrections” that sought to create a more equitable playing ground for people of all races and national origins in our society. The visibility of race is partly what makes it such a powerful, immediate marker of identity (even though many of us intuitively believe that it is, in reality, a superficial marker of difference).
Racial identity is therefore an important way for people to define themselves, connect with one another, and organize on behalf of shared interests. For example, data concerning racial demographics helps the government fund and assess new ways of ensuring equitable access to resources. Racial identity can also generate greater solidarity between different ethnic groups, which can help promote the interests of more people rather than less.
At the same time, in a country where multiracial populations are proliferating and growing extremely quickly, we have to ask how useful race will continue to be as a recognizable marker of difference.
My two daughters, Mia and Lila, are both multiracial. Their race according to the U.S. Census would be a combination of Black and White (their mom is Lebanese). But their ethnicity would be considered African-American and Middle Eastern/Lebanese. I can’t help but think that as more people begin to “look” multiracial, “race” as we know it will become increasingly obsolete as “ethnicity” continues to influence day-to-day lives–as it always has.
ETHNICITY IS HISTORICAL AND CONTEXTUALLY DEPENDENT
Which brings us to the idea of ethnicity. On the surface, this is a much older idea. Ethnicity describes the shared cultural expression and self-identification of a group, typically rooted in historical and geographical origins.
Someone who grew up in Italy but is racially Black might find their own sense of identity is mostly influenced by Italian culture. The fourth-generation descendant of Irish immigrants living in Boston may feel much more affinity to “Irish-American” culture and identity than to its “Old World” Irish counterparts.
Ethnicity is therefore both historical and contextually dependent. It is much more present in our lives than race in some ways, because it incorporates ancestry, culture, and the interaction of these things with our daily environment.
The idea of ethnicity, like so many ethnic identities themselves, has also developed over time. In this country, groups of distinct national origins–particularly the Irish and Germans–only began to be seen as separate entities around 50 years after the American Revolution.
Often, the recognition of these groups led to intensified prejudice and agendas that sought to guarantee their exclusion from political life. In the early 20th century, as these ideas progressed, efforts were even launched to help “Americanize” immigrants (who comprised many different races and ethnic backgrounds) in order to facilitate assimilation.
THE MULTIETHNIC SOCIETY ‘MELTING POT’
At the same time, a parallel idea developed in American politics and thought: A multiethnic society has more advantages (and more manpower) than an ethnically homogeneous one. The view that a pluralistic society was more competitive and harmonious than Old World European nations eventually led to the modern commonplace that America is a “melting pot.” And more to the point, that American identity is flexible enough to accommodate people and identities of non-American origin.
Many of us grew up with this multiculturalist viewpoint in school. But academics have also spent the last century showing how persistent and vital ethnic identities have remained in the so-called “melting” pot–not to mention how easily new hybrids have popped up and established themselves as distinct communities (such as Italian-American, Chicano, Chinese-American, and so on).
Of course, there are limits to the assimilatory spirit of American identity. We all remember how President Obama’s race was used to try to exclude him from running for president. That gambit gained ground because many Americans easily believed that a racially Black man might not be ethnically “American” enough to be president–despite Obama having attended our most prestigious schools, already held office, and lived in the U.S. his entire adult life. (In fact, I think it’s telling that we even believe, somewhat superstitiously, that a president has to be born on American soil to qualify for office. That doesn’t exactly mesh with the idea of “America, the Great Melting Pot”.)
THE TENSION BETWEEN RACE AND ETHNICITY
Ethnicity and race therefore exist in parallel to, and sometimes in tension with, one another. Race is a largely external form of identification, which in many ways defies scientific and even social common sense. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is an extremely profound marker of cultural and ancestral identification, but also highly dependent on history and context. It can communicate an enormous amount of information about a person, but it can also change over the course of a single lifetime.
And while race continues to be debunked as a valid form of biological identification or distinction, there’s no doubt that its externality will continue to ensure it is used (and potentially abused) to assess the differences between human beings. While on a more personal level, ethnicity will continue to play a deeply vital role in identifying cultural differences in our society (as it always has).
One quote I found really speaks to this tension between race and ethnicity. At a conference about the scientific history of race, a professor who identifies with African, Indigenous, and European origins explained that most Indigenous peoples don’t think of themselves as members of an “Indigenous” or “American Indian” or “Native” race:
“I can speak for my own people, the Ojibwe . . . we have a long history of viewing our tribal identity, as viewing it in political and kinship frameworks rather than racial or biological constructs.”
– Professor Deondre Smiles, University of Victoria, Canada
Most of us, consciously or not, would agree with this outlook. We define our ethnicities and our cultural affinities based on where we grow up, where our parents came from, and where we’ve spent significant portions of our lives up to that point.
Ethnicity, nationality, ancestry, tribe, motherland, “my culture”–there are so many ways to describe the cultural differences that define our identities and lay the groundwork for human connection through diversity.
As our nation continues to mature in its attitude toward race and ethnicity, we must remember that both are vital to individuals’ identities. There can be no true authenticity without recognition of the differences between the two and celebration of the role they play in sharing your true self.