Ethnicity vs. Race vs. Nationality: An Explainer

By: John Donovan  | 
diverse group of people
Humans are a diverse lot. And although we sometimes confuse racial or ethnic groups, there are important differences, and neither is the same as nationality. Flashpop/Getty Images

The concepts of race, ethnicity and nationality are so intertwined that it's sometimes hard to tell one from the other. Even unwound, the ideas are not as well-defined as many would present them to be.

At the core, nationality is an indication of the country where a person is a legal citizen, ethnicity refers to a cultural sense of common ancestry and race is a social construct that divides people into large groups. So, a woman born to Japanese parents in Atlanta would be a U.S. national and might consider herself as racially Asian and ethnically Japanese, Japanese American or even just American.


You see how blurry all these distinctions can get. Learn more about each of these concepts and how ethnicity, race and nationality differ.

Why Are These Concepts So Difficult?

Humans are a diverse lot; we can look distinctively different. We come from different places (though we all, as a species, come from modern-day Ethiopia), and the groups from which we have grown — our families, our clans, our cultures, our nations — all have traveled different paths.

A wide world of factors have influenced our appearance and our ways of life during thousands of years of evolution and migration.


Yet all those amazingly diverse people don't exist in a vacuum. Over all those millennia and all those miles, we've become mixed. And our ethnic backgrounds continue to mix.

Putting us in distinct boxes with fixed labels is near impossible. Even the labels get jumbled.

"I think there's a ton of overlap [between the terms ethnicity and race]," says Douglas Hartmann, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and coauthor of "Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World" (with sociologist Stephen Cornell).

"I really think it's difficult to disentangle them," he continues. "And maybe even inappropriate. Because all of these categories have elements of identity, self-assertion, culture and heritage. But they also have elements of labeling, of stigma, of differential treatment, of power inequality, etc."

Still, maybe because of some innate need for order — or something more sinister — we continue to define. We identify people as this race, that ethnicity or by a national identity. We self-identify, too.

And so it is that these labels become blurry and, at times, inseparable.


A Quick Review of the Word 'Race'

The modern idea that independent races of man exist goes back to the late 1700s when German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach attempted to scientifically classify humans, largely by their distinctive physical traits — how they looked — and where they called home.

From a 1994 article on Blumenbach in Discover Magazine:


Blumenbach's final taxonomy of 1795 divided all humans into five groups, defined both by geography and appearance — in his order, the Caucasian variety, for the light-skinned people of Europe and adjacent parts of Asia and Africa; the Mongolian variety, for most other inhabitants of Asia, including China and Japan; the Ethiopian variety, for the dark-skinned people of Africa; the American variety, for most native populations of the New World; and the Malay variety, for the Polynesians and Melanesians of the Pacific and for the aborigines of Australia.
Five types of the human race, late 19th century
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach theorized you could divide humans into five groups: (clockwise from top right) Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, American and Caucasian (center).
Ann Ronan/Getty Images

Blumenbach not only used geography and skin color but, notably, the size and shape of skulls to explore what he called the "varieties of mankind."

One of his measures, though, was unmistakably unscientific: He called Caucasians (named for the people of the Caucasus Mountains in eastern Europe) "beautiful."

Many Europeans — who already believed, mistakenly, that the first humans came from the Caucasus — seized upon Blumenbach's work ("We're beautiful, the respected scientist says!") as scientific proof that the "white" race, the "original" race, was biologically and inherently superior to others.

(They did so even though Blumenbach, eons ahead of his time, held that all races and peoples were equal and stated that the "many varieties of man as are at present known to [be] one and the same species.")

That thinking by Europeans — that racial differences made one group superior to another — has led, historically, to some of the worst of human behavior: colonization, slavery, apartheid and genocide, to name a few.

It's given rise to forced inequality in many different forms, including political, social and economical.


What Does 'Race' Mean Today?

Here's the kicker: The high-and-mighty Europeans were dead wrong. Scientists now overwhelmingly agree that humans, biologically and genetically speaking, are all the same.

"[T]he DNA of all human beings living today is 99.9% alike," according to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. In fact, there is more genetic variance between individuals than there is among any given "race" or ethnic groups.


Basically, because genetic differences in humans are so minimal, some scientists simply describe humans as belonging to just one race: the human race.

Despite the scientific shootdown, the term "race" is still in wide use today, and people still have racial categories assigned to them according to physical differences: skin color, the shape of the nose or lips, or the type of hair texture.

Now, instead of claiming some pseudo-scientific basis, race refers to a "social construct," meaning it's something we, as societies, use to place people conveniently into groups.

Here's how Hartmann and coauthor Cornell define race:

" ... a human group defined by itself or others as distinct by virtue of perceived common physical characteristics that are held to be inherent ... Determining which characteristics constitute the race ... is a choice human beings make."

Some of the reasons for the continuing use of race as an identifier may be acceptable: The U.S. Census Bureau, for example, asks people to identify themselves by race and gives them six choices, including "some other race." (The Bureau also allows respondents to say they're of more than one race.) The Bureau uses that data for such purposes as funding government programs aimed at specific groups.

Other reasons are definitely not acceptable: Racial discrimination and racial prejudice are still real all over the globe.

Though genetically race is not a valid concept, socially it is very, very real. In some definitions, it goes well beyond physical characteristics, too.

"There really are cultural differences between people who grow up in an African American community versus a white suburban community. It's not genetic, but it's a real thing," Hartmann says. "There's different languages, different patterns of behavior, different ways of thinking about the world."

Cultural differences suggest the other word most often conflated with race: "ethnicity." And that muddies the terminology waters even more.


Racial Groups, Ethnic Groups and Nationalities

Nisei Week Festival
Young Japanese-American girls dress in kimonos during the 2017 Nisei Week Festival closing ceremony in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. This is a perfect example of how we can display our ethnic group through dressing. Kit Leong/Shutterstock

These three terms can cause a lot of confusion. Here are the key differences:


Unlike race and ethnicity, nationality might be the easiest to define — sort of. "Nationality refers to the status of belonging to a particular nation, whether by birth or naturalization," according to IGI Global. "It constitutes a legal relationship between an individual person and a state... A person's nationality is where they are a legal citizen, usually in the country where they were born."


According to that definition, your nationality can change through naturalized citizenship. For example, a person born in Costa Rica can gain U.S. citizenship and become an American citizen.

As the UK's Office for National Statistics explains, "A person can gain new citizenship (a person's formal membership of a state) and hold multiple passports reflecting different nationalities. Nationality reflects an individual's choice to become a citizen, as well as their ability and eligibility to do so."

People of the same nationality may also share cultural practices and social customs, even if they belong to different races or ethnic categories.

For example, take two people born in the United States, one of Mexican descent and one of Middle Eastern background. They may not share the same facial features, hair color or cultural heritage, but growing up and living in the U.S. has shaped both their experiences, so they celebrate holidays similarly or use smiling to express themselves in a nonverbal way.

And just to add a little more confusion, Merriam-Webster also defines nationality as "an ethnic group constituting one element of a larger unit (such as a nation)."


Cornell and Hartmann define ethnicity this way:

"A sense of common ancestry based on cultural attachments, past linguistic heritage, religious affiliations, claimed kinship, or some physical traits."

Examples of ethnicity include being Indian, Jewish or Asian, regardless of race. Clothes can play a big part, too. A Scottish-American man wearing a plaid or tartan kilt, an Indian American woman wearing a sari, and a Japanese-American woman wearing a kimono are all examples of a person's ethnicity being expressed through wardrobe.

Race vs. Ethnicity

The difference between race and ethnicity then? Whereas physical characteristics mostly determine a person's race, a person's culture, language, family and place of origin determine ethnicity. (Nationalities are sometimes in the mix.)

Generally speaking, people define both race and ethnicity as social constructs. Neither is biologically valid. Interestingly, Cornell and Hartmann say that people are more likely to self-identify as mixed ethnicity than mixed race, though clearly, some consider themselves more than one race.

It's important to note two other points the sociologists make about race and ethnicity.

Race, unlike ethnicity, is still mostly a term that other groups assign to a person (which often leads to one claiming superiority over the other). And racial identity is inherent. In other words, you're born as a certain race, and it's generally not something you can change just by saying so. Remember Rachel Dolezal?

That said, all these are observations, not rules. The rules, as we've said, are a tad murky.

"People have this kind of crazy idea about the purity of races ... there's no way to really isolate a race. And today, even more so, with intermarriage, with globalization," Hartmann says, "those categories that we often think are so firm — Americans are so convinced there's five main races because we've acted like there are in our census and everything else. They get blurred and mixed up and they don't make sense anymore."