What is the difference between race and ethnicity?

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jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both race and ethnicity are social constructions. However, the latter is a connection forged on one's sense of belonging to a particular country (i.e., nationality), as well as a shared language, cultural traditions, and ancestral lineage. Groups of people may live within the same borders but may not share a common ethnic identity. Ethnic difference exists in presumably homogeneous countries, such as China.

Race is an idea of human difference born out of a group's shared physical traits (e.g., hair color, eye color, skin color) and ancestral lineage. Biologically, there is no such thing as race. Our physical differences developed as a result of adaptation and natural selection. For example, Northern Europeans with blond hair and blue eyes developed these traits so that their bodies could absorb Vitamin D from sunlight more efficiently, due to the lack of direct sunlight in countries such as Germany or Denmark. However, the natives of these countries are still, like all human beings, descended from a common ancestor in prehistoric Central Africa: Mitochondrial Eve, the veritable mother of the entire human race.

In the eighteenth century, pseudosciences emerged which helped to establish the idea of separate races based on certain physical traits, such as skull size (e.g., craniometry). Notions of the "inferior" intelligence and character of some groups (e.g., Africans) versus the "superior" intelligence and character of other groups (e.g., Europeans) emerged at this time, as did the designation of European peoples as "Caucasian," a moniker based on the belief that all European peoples originated in the Caucasus. 

Genetically, we can identify ethnicity. Race is a bit trickier. With the popularity of genetic testing, people are finding that their lineages are a bit more complicated than they may have believed. For example, people who appear to be primarily of African descent sometimes find, through DNA testing, that they have more ancestors from European countries than from African ones. Famously, the historian and genealogist Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discovered this truth about himself through genetic testing. 

Now, one would think that a man who discovers that more than half of his ancestry is European would identify as such. Yet, the fact remains that Gates appears to be a black man. The assumption of one's race is based mainly on appearance —not origins or genetic lineage. Ethnicity can help to determine race, but it is not a decisive factor.

amccloud1234 | Student

There are few situations where word choice matters more than in discussions of race and ethnicity.

Most people associate race with biology and ethnicity with culture. It's important to stress the culture and language part of it. Ethnicity isn't just a question of affiliation; it's also a question of choice. It's also a question of group membership. And it's usually associated with a geographic region. It's also often confused or conflated with nationality, but that's not the same thing.

Today people identify with ethnicity positively because they see themselves as being part of that group. People can't just simply say, "Well, I want to become a member of that race." You either are or are not a member of that race. Whereas, if you wanted to look at ethnicity based on culture, you could learn a language, you can learn customs - there are things that you can learn so that you could belong to that group. 

In summary, race refers to physical characteristics, like skin color or hair texture and ethnicity refers to cultural characteristics that are not always visible, like language and religion.

kenjoseph | Student

Even though ethnicity and race have similarities with regard to the notion of common ancestry, they have differences in various ways. Only few among us could correctly state the differentiation between race and ethnicity. This is due to the fact that we tend to group them into the same type of definition. Even though the dictionary could show that these two terms are similar, they are in fact different. The definition relating to ethnicity and race is linked respectively to sociological and biological factors. Ethnicity refers to cultural factors such as language, ancestry, regional culture and nationality. Race on the other hand is defined as that which states an individual's physical characteristics like bone structure, texture, hair color, skin color, and so on.


The primary difference between race and ethnicity is that while race is fundamentally unitary—meaning you could have only a single race, you could have several ethnicities. One could ethnically identify as Polish and Irish, however one has to be either white or black. The predominant differentiation between race and ethnicity is that race is hierarchical and imposed socially. Inequality is ingrained within the system.  One could have no control over the race. This is how one is being identified by others. A strong difference between ethnicity and race is that race tends to be institutionalized in a manner which has major social impacts on the members of various groups.


Another difference is that around the world and throughout history there have been ferocious conflicts among ethnic groups. However in most of the countries, majority of the ethnic groups would peacefully get along well. In comparison to ethnic conflicts, prejudice in the name of race continues to be an issue around the world. Yet another differentiation is that while ethnicity could be mimicked or changed by means of beliefs and choices; race cannot be changed. Ethnicity provides us the opportunity to alter since we could end up rejecting our own and could grab another. One could advance from one region to another and absorb customs, actions and beliefs for identifying with that particular ethnicity. However one would not be able to do that with race. Ethnicity could be hidden or displayed, based on personal choices; however racial identities would be on display always.