Race and ethnicity, as well as related terms like racial and ethnic, are often mixed up in speech and writing. The terms are mistakenly used interchangeably, yet there is a clear difference between the definitions of race and ethnicity. It’s hugely important to know the difference, as both terms are deemed politically sensitive. Even when you learn the difference between ethnicity and race, it’s important to tread carefully so as not to cause offense.
Race refers to biological or physical heritage. To describe someone’s race is to describe their physical identity with reference to one of the major divisions of humankind based on ancestral origin and perhaps also shared physical characteristics such as hair texture, facial structure and most commonly, skin or hair color.
Ethnicity refers to culture and non-physical heritage. To describe someone’s ethnicity is to describe elements like their cultural, religious, national or linguistic background and identity.
Race vs Ethnicity – What’s the Difference?
Race and ethnicity are both nouns used for the purpose of describing and dividing groups of people. Race is a way of dividing humans into subgroups based on shared physical characteristics, such as hair and skin color, bone structure and so on. Ethnicity is a way of dividing humans into subgroups based on culture and heritage, such as nationality, religion, language and so on.
Therefore, we can take the following two statements to be true:
Different ethnic groups can belong to the same race.
Different races can belong to the same ethnic group.
So, how does this work in practice? Well, it can be quite confusing. For example, in the United States, we often hear the term Latino or Hispanic, which is generally used to describe someone of Central or South American, or other Spanish-speaking, culture. Hispanics (technically, the ethnic group should be referred to as Spaniard, but this has fallen out of general usage) are the second-largest ethnic group in the US, after the ethnic group termed non-Hispanic whites. However, we will also see media stories erroneously labeling differences between the two groups as racial, when, in fact, Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites (mostly) belong to the same race – Caucasian. Although, it is perfectly possible to be Hispanic and black, sometimes referred to as Black Hispanic.
Still confused? Don’t worry, it’s a difficult concept to grasp, one that transcends simple rules of language and moves into an area of political and cultural sensitivity. However, we can still strip it back to the base concept: Race has to do with physical characteristics and ethnicity has to do with cultural, national, religious and linguistic heritage.
When to Use Race
Talking about race can be a sensitive topic, even when discussing it as a linguistic subject. Indeed, there isn’t even complete consensus as to how many races exist, or how many have existed throughout human history.
As you might imagine, these terms are very broad, and potentially difficult and sensitive to use. For example, in the United States, the race described as white or Caucasian covers Europeans (including descendent Hispanics in the Americas), Arabs, North Africans and parts of West, Central and South Asia. The problem lies in that white or Caucasian has become synonymous with the idea of the white European or white North American, and it is thus mistakenly used to omit Arabs, North Africans, Asians and Hispanics. For this reason, making assumptions about race – normally based on skin color – can be politically sensitive and even defined as racist.
So, for all these reasons, we use race and racial terms with the utmost sensitivity.
In the United States, the census recognizes five races:
Black or African American
White or Caucasian
Asian or Mongoloid
American Indian or Alaskan Native
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
In Brazil, the census recognizes five racial classifications as well: white, black, pardo or brown, yellow or Asian, or indigenous.
In many other countries, questions regarding racial identity are not included in the census, though in some cases ethnicity is, such as in the UK and Ireland.
Here are some examples of using race:
Benjamin felt he was being discriminated against because of his race; indeed, there were no other black lawyers with the firm.
Anna was proud of her mixed-race background, her father being African American, and her mother coming from a white Irish family.
Everyone should be equal before the law – regardless of race or ethnicity.
*Please remember: the word race can have other meanings, such as the noun to indicate a competition or contest (horse race, election race) or the verb to contest or to run quickly (he raced towards the finish line, they raced for the gold medal).
When to use Ethnicity and Ethnic Categories
We speak of ethnicity when referring to a group of people with a shared cultural, linguistic, national or religious heritage. There are, in fact, hundreds of ethnic groups in the world today making it difficult to list specific ethnic categories.
Ethnicity can be a more useful term than race, because it gives more information about a person’s cultural heritage, i.e. it tells you more specific information about that person including the cuisine they favor, the way they dress, and the holidays they celebrate. But an ethnic group could be a huge population, such as the Han Chinese (numbering around 1.3 billion), or a small group measured in dozens, such as indigenous tribes based in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea. Thus, defining the latter can be easy, because they will likely share cultural, religious, linguistic and geographical traits, but defining the former can be much more problematic, as Han Chinese groups can be spread across the world, and have different religions, languages and cultural practices.
Once again, we are faced with the problem of using ethnicity to describe something specific, because labels of ethnicity can overlap language, region, culture, ancestry, history and so on. Therefore, it’s important to be careful and measured when speaking about ethnicity, so as not to cause offense.
Look at these examples of how to use ethnicity correctly:
The university was criticized for its admissions program, which allegedly favored rich white and Asian-American students, while overlooking applicants of other ethnicities.
The Yoruba people are one of the biggest ethnic groups in Africa. They are mainly found in Nigeria, but people with Yorubic ethnicity can also be found in neighboring countries like Benin and Mali.
London has become a multi-cultural city, drawing people from Britain’s past and present to become a vibrant city that celebrates ethnicity in many ways.
*The word ethnic, especially in British English, has become a catch-all term to describe non-Western culture. For example, you might hear about ethnic food or clothing stores used as an umbrella term to describe anything deemed of non-Western origin, with special emphasis on smaller ethnic-minority groups.
Using Race and Ethnicity in a Changing World
Using terms of race and ethnicity can be deemed offensive, even when the context is fully understood and there is no intention to offend. Part of the reason is that descriptions of race and ethnicity that were accepted as non-offensive in the past can be deemed offensive in the present. For example, 50 years ago it was common to use words like colored to describe African Americans, or Indian to describe Native Americans, even by media and academia. Both terms are regarded as highly offensive today and should not be used in speech or writing.
Indeed, the language of race and ethnicity is still evolving. Terms like black, people of color (now used as a broad term to describe non-whites), gypsy and many others are now publicly being scrutinized by rights groups, with a fierce debate on their offensiveness and usefulness as descriptors. Regardless of your own race or ethnicity, all of this leaves some difficulty in the choices you make for speech and writing, especially if it is in a professional capacity.
So, how to we talk about race and ethnicity correctly? Race and ethnicity should be talked about only when the context of those two terms are deemed integral to the point being made. That means we should talk about race and ethnicity only when describing someone’s physical appearance, or when that person’s experience of race and ethnicity is contextually important.
Race vs Ethnicity – How to Decide
As hinted above, it’s sometimes not a question of choosing between race and ethnicity, but whether you should be using the terms at all. However, when we use the terms, it falls back to the fundamental difference between race and ethnicity:
Race is about physical differences between people.
Ethnicity is about cultural, religious and linguistic differences between people.
Some grammar guides will give the tip of both ethnicity and culture having a t in the spelling, making it an easy way to remember that ethnicity is about cultural differences. Knowing the difference between the two terms is important, but we would also caution that knowing how to speak about both terms individually is important too, possibly even more so. That means your writing and speech should always stay clear of stereotypes, slurs and assumptions about race and ethnicity.
Some more examples using race and ethnicity:
Some geneticists claim there are five races of humankind. However, others claim that race has no scientific merit at all.
People from different ethnicities have made New York the world’s most wonderfully diverse city.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most ethnically diverse countries on the planet, its people having many different languages, religions and cultural practices.
Despite electing its first African-American president in 2008, questions of race and racism are still hugely important in American political dialogue.