The traditional definition of race and ethnicity is related to biological and sociological factors respectively. Race refers to a person's physical characteristics, such as bone structure and skin, hair, or eye color. Ethnicity, however, refers to cultural factors, including nationality, regional culture, ancestry, and language. An example of race is brown, white, or black skin (all from various parts of the world), while an example of ethnicity is German or Spanish ancestry (regardless of race).
|Definition||An ethnic group or ethnicity is a population group whose members identify with each other on the basis of common nationality or shared cultural traditions.||The term race refers to the concept of dividing people into populations or groups on the basis of various sets of physical characteristics (which usually result from genetic ancestry).|
|Significance||Ethnicity connotes shared cultural traits and a shared group history. Some ethnic groups also share linguistic or religious traits, while others share a common group history but not a common language or religion.||Race presumes shared biological or genetic traits, whether actual or asserted. In the early 19th century, racial differences were ascribed significance in areas of intelligence, health, and personality. There is no evidence validating these ideas.|
|Genealogy||Ethnicity is defined in terms of shared genealogy, whether actual or presumed. Typically, if people believe they descend from a particular group, and they want to be associated with that group, then they are in fact members of that group.||Racial categories result from a shared genealogy due to geographical isolation. In the modern world this isolation has been broken down and racial groups have mixed.|
|Distinguishing Factors||Ethnic groups distinguish themselves differently from one time period to another. They typically seek to define themselves but also are defined by the stereotypes of dominant groups.||Races are assumed to be distinguished by skin color, facial type, etc. However, the scientific basis of racial distinctions is very weak. Scientific studies show that racial genetic differences are weak except in skin color.|
|Nationalism||In 19th century, there was development of the political ideology of ethnic nationalism -- creating nations based on a presumed shared ethnic origins (e.g. Germany, Italy, Sweden...)||In 19th century, the concept of nationalism was often used to justify the domination of one race over another within a specific nation.|
|Legal System||In the last decades of the 20th century, in the U.S. and in most nations, the legal system as well as the official ideology prohibited ethnic-based discrimination.||In the last decades of the 20th century, the legal system as well as the official ideology emphasized racial equality.|
|Conflicts||Often brutal conflicts between ethnic groups have existed throughout history and across the world. But most ethnic groups in fact get along peacefully within one another in most nations most of the time.||Racial prejudice remains a continuing problem throughout the world. However, there are fewer race-based conflicts in the 21st century than in the past.|
|Examples of conflict||Conflict between Tamil and Sinhalese populations in Sri Lanka.||Conflict between white and African-American people in the U.S., especially during the civil rights movement.|
Definitions of Ethnicity and Race
What is ethnicity?
Ethnicity is state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. This is, by definition, a fluid concept; ethnic groups can be broadly or narrowly construed. For example, they can be as broad as "Native American" or as narrow as "Cherokee". Another example is the Indian subcontinent — Indians may be considered one ethnic group but there are actually dozens of cultural traditions and subgroups like Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali, and Tamil that are also bona fide ethnic groups. Yet another example is people in Great Britain — they may be considered British, or more precisely English, Scottish or Welsh.
What is race?
A race is a group of people with a common physical feature or features. While there are hundreds — if not thousands — of ethnicities, the number of races is far fewer.
Difference Between Race and Ethnicity
Take the Caucasian (a.k.a., Caucasoid) race. The physical characteristics of Caucasians were described by M. A. MacConaill, an Irish anatomy professor, as including "light skin and eyes, narrow noses, and thin lips. Their hair is usually straight or wavy." Caucasians are said to have the lowest degree of projection in their alveolar bones that contain the teeth, a notable size prominence of the cranium and forehead region, and a projection of the midfacial region. A person whose appearance matches these characteristics is said to be a Caucasian.
Caucasians are found in many countries around the world. So while a Caucasian person in the United States may share certain racial characteristics with a Caucasian person from France, the two people have different ethnic backgrounds — one American, the other French. They will likely speak different languages most of the time, have different traditions, and may even have different beliefs that have been heavily influenced by their local cultures.
It is worth noting that "race" and "ethnicity" can be highly subjective, with lines between the two concepts frequently blurred. The video below discusses how terms for racial and ethnic identities have changed over the years and how a racial or ethnic term may not accurately describe a person's identity, as the person may have multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Multiracial vs. Multicultural
In most cases, race is unitary — i.e., a person belongs to one race — but may claim ethnic membership in multiple groups. For example, Barack Obama is racially black in spite of his mother being caucasian. On the other hand, a person can self-identify ethnically as Scottish and German if she has indeed lived in both ethic groups.
Self-identification and Choice
Another difference between race and ethnicity is related to the ability to self-identify. A person does not choose her race; it is assigned by society based upon her physical features. However, ethnicity is self-identified. An individual can learn a language, social norms and customs, and assimilate into a culture to belong to an ethnic group.
"Race relations" is one of the dominant themes in American politics from time to time, and refers to relationships between the major race groups — white, black, native American, Hispanic/Latino, "Asian," and others of mixed races.
America has also had a sometimes troubled history with ethnic strife — e.g., during the waves of Irish and Italian immigration to the U.S. These immigrants were Caucasian but had a different ethnicity compared to the Anglo Saxons who preceded them; they often faced ethnic discrimination.
The word "Asian" used in a racial context in the United States refers to people of Southeast Asian origin, including a vast variety of ethnic backgrounds, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.
This colloquial usage is incorrect because "Asian" is not technically a race, as it means someone from Asia, including people from India, Saudi Arabia, Israel and parts of Russia.
Geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza has argued that neither ethnicity nor race have a genetic basis and cannot be scientifically defined. He notes that human populations have a great degree of genetic unity (even in their apparent diversity):
Most genetic differences are between individuals, not groups. Almost never does one group (racial or ethnic) have a trait that is missing in the rest of humanity. Our physical differences—skin color, facial features, hair texture— actually represent ancestral adaptations to different environments. These are malleable characteristics that evolve relatively swiftly. The obvious differences in skin color, for instance, relate to the intensity of sunlight at different latitudes.