What is the difference between race and ethnicity?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The general distinction between these two concepts is that race is made up of physical traits while ethnicity is made up of cultural traits.  Both of these concepts are socially constructed and it can be very difficult at times to determine what race a person is or what ethnicity they are.  Even so, we can generally say that race can be determined by looking at a person’s physical characteristics while ethnicity is determined by looking at their cultural traits.

We place people into given races based solely on their physical appearance.  All people with dark skin and tightly curled hair tend to be seen as “black.”  People with skin that is browner and with straight black hair are called “Hispanic” or “Asian” depending on some other characteristics.  You can tell a person’s race by looking at them (although you may be mistaken as, for example, Asians and Hispanics can look similar.  This is not a stereotype; it is my personal experience of my race being mistaken by many people.).

We place people into ethnic categories based on their culture.  People of different races can have the same ethnicity.  People of the same race can have different ethnicities.  A “black” person from the Dominican Republic is ethnically Hispanic or Dominican while a “black” person from the US is American.  Almost all American citizens can be seen as having the same ethnicity as we tend to have practically identical cultural traits even though we are from different races.

Thus, race is physical and inherited while ethnicity is cultural and learned.