What is ethnicity?    

Ethnicity refers to the shared cultural and social backgrounds, historical context, experiences, language, beliefs, religion, and traditions of a group of people. Ethnicity can help people feel like they belong as they form connections with others and with their roots, but sometimes ethnic groups can discriminate against other ethnic groups, even leading to violence.

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According to the American Sociological Association, ethnicity is a “shared culture.” People of the same ethnicity, or ethnic group, come from the same nation or region and share many experiences in common. People of the same ethnicity often share cultural and social backgrounds as well as historical context. Their values may be similar, as well as their language, beliefs, religion, and traditions.

Think, for instance, about Swedish ethnicity. People who claim this ethnicity have a Scandinavian background and share in a common history. They (or at least their families) originate in Sweden. Many speak Swedish, although those some who claim the Swedish ethnicity may have lost the language through emigration. Even those who no longer speak Swedish still practice some Swedish customs (the St. Lucia celebration, for instance) and/or partake of Swedish foods (like pepparkakor cookies). They often display reminders of their ethnicity, like Dala Horses (if they come from that region of Sweden) or the Swedish flag. Their Swedish ethnicity ties them together with others of the same group and keeps them connected to their past.

Indeed, this is one of the primary benefits of identifying with an ethnicity: connections with others and with one's roots. One survey asked a group of people how close they felt to their ethnic group. Over three-quarters indicated that they were close or very close to their ethnicity. For many, ethnicity is a way to belong.

Sometimes, however, people can experience ethnicity in a negative way. This happens when some ethnic groups exclude or discriminate against other groups. Conflicts can quickly arise. Some areas of the world have even experienced the horrors of “ethnic cleansing,” in which one ethnic group views another as so undesirable that it feels the need to eliminate its rival, leading to bloodshed and even war. In these cases, ethnic pride goes badly wrong.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 14, 2021
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