What's the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity?

By: John Donovan  | 
diverse group of people
Humans are a diverse lot. And although the terms race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Flashpop/Getty Images

The concepts of race and ethnicity 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.

The reason for that is simple: Yes, humans are a diverse lot. We can look distinctively different. We're seen sometimes completely differently. 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 peoples 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 co-author of "Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World" (with sociologist Stephen Cornell). "I really think it's difficult to disentangle them. 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 or that ethnicity. 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 there are independent races of man can be traced 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 that humans could be divided 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 despite the fact that 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 between in any given "race" or ethnic groups. Basically what that means is 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" still is widely used today, and a person is still assigned a race according to physical characteristics: 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 co-author 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 vs. 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.


Race vs. Ethnicity

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

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."

The difference between race and ethnicity then? Whereas race is mostly defined and determined by physical characteristics, ethnicity refers to a person's culture, language, family and place of origin. (Nationalities are thrown into the mix, too.)


Examples of ethnicity include being Indian, Jewish or Asian, regardless of race. So a female born to Japanese parents in Atlanta might consider herself as racially Asian, but as ethnically Japanese, American, Japanese American or even just American.

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 how people display their ethnic group through dressing.

Both race and ethnicity, it's argued, are socially defined. Neither is biologically valid. Interestingly, Cornell and Hartmann say that people are more likely to self-identify with multiple ethnicities than multiple races. 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 is assigned by other groups (which often leads to one claiming superiority over the other). And racial identity is usually considered 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 any more."

If it's logic we're after when discussing the terms race and ethnicity, the last word probably ought to go to someone who's an expert at words. Say, a poet:

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

Maya Angelou, "Human Family"


Originally Published: Jul 9, 2019