Race and ethnicity - two different things?

Okay, bear with me. I know the title sounds goofy but I think it would be good to get this clarified. I feel goofy for asking but sometimes I can see this issue is very muddled for many people.

What is the difference between “race” and “ethnicity”? I had a fairly good idea as to how they were different, but I’m wondering when and how these terms might be interpreted differently.

For example, when asked the question: “What is your race?” I respond, “White (Caucasian).” When StormSpouse is asked (even though it’s pretty obvious) he will say, “Asian”. He is Asian, I am Caucasian, so we are of different races.

I’ve seen different kinds of responses to this sort of question, which is why I bring it up in GQ.

For example: I was reading a form in which the person was asked to check off their race and their ethnicity. In the box listing different races, all of them were scratched out and the person wrote in “Hispanic” in the box asking for race. Nothing was checked in the “ethnicity” box, although “Hispanic” was listed in that box among other types of ethnicities.

I know someone at work who stated her marriage was interracial. She is Anglo-American (what she calls herself) and her spouse is Mexican-American/Hispanic. Would that be “inter-ethnic” or “interracial”? I thought that would be “inter-ethnic” (if there’s such a word as that) because though he is of Hispanic descent, wouldn’t he still be classified as “Caucasian” belonging to the Hispanic or Latino ethnicity?

So tell me: There’s a difference between “race” and “ethnicity” and the two cannot be used interchangeably, or is this wrong?

Let’s say (like one of my friends) “Jane’s” father was Black, and her mother was Asian. Jane would be mixed-race and mixed ethnicity. Let’s say she married a man who was Asian. Is that an interracial relationship? She’s half Asian, her spouse is full Asian, but is it interracial?

Sorry if this has been hashed over in GQ already. I searched, but maybe am not using the right keywords…

Something tells me I’m making this more complicated than it really is.

If you want, I can make it even more complicated. :smiley:

I’m of the human race, myself. :wink: I’m of mixed descent ethnicity wise though. I do have some Native American ancestry.

I’m of the human race, myself. :wink: <snipped>



It’s all a matter of context. They can mean the same thing, or they can mean different things. Generally, ethnicity is more narrowly defined (eg, Polish or Chinese as opposed to Caucasian or Asian). But neither has much value as a scientific concept. Scientifically, we might speak of “populations”, meaning you start with the biology and define populations that share (or are more likely to have) certain traits and then work outwards from there. In popular culture we start with superficial characteristics, often defined as “different from me”, and then group people accordingly.

“Race” isn’t nearly as well-defined as some people think. There’s essentially no biological basis for it, so it basically just comes down to how people classify themselves and each other. So if, in one particular area, “Hispanics” are considered a different race than “Whites”, in that area, they are different races. In another area, though, Hispanics might be considered part of the white race, though they might still be considered an “ethnicity”. In yet another area, the category “Hispanic” might not even be relevant at all, with Cubans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans each being a distinct group, as separate from each other as from any other group.

I think no matter how valid the concepts actually are, race is seen as almost exclusively genetic but ethnicity has significant a cultural component.

I’m sure some will disagree, but for example I think someone adopted as a baby and raised without significant exposure to their biological parents’ culture will take on the adoptive parents’ ethnicity but not their race.

Race and ethnicity are not scientific terms. They are cultural constructs and used very loosely in everyday language, which means that they wind up having hundreds of different meanings. Essentially, they’ve come to mean: “whatever I point to when I use the word.”

Usually, the broad context of race is one of skin color. Ethnicity is usually meant to refer - in the modern U.S. - to variations within the “white race.” One’s ethnicity can be Irish or Italian, but both are still considered white.

The real problem arises with people who have brown skin. There’s no racial classification, even in the loose sense, that separates out brown-skinned people. The classic racial types were white, black, yellow (Asian), and red (Native American).

But the people who invented those racial classifications - almost all northern Europeans - still felt that brown-skinned people were not like them. They invented highly charged words like “wogs” for brown-skinned peoples and even extended the use of “nigger” to them. These peoples ranged from the Indians under the British Raj to the darker-skinned Mediterranean peoples, from Arabs to Greeks to Italians to Spaniards to Jews.

In the U.S. these populations were small at first, until the Mediterranean immigrations of the late 19th century brought millions into the country. Prejudice against Italians and other “olive-skinned” peoples was widespread and vicious in ways that we have mostly forgotten. Anti-Semites called Jews “mud people” and tried to read them out of the white race entirely, no matter what they looked like.

Hispanics fall into the category of brown-skinned people and with their increasing numbers are the target of the latest round of prejudice. Ethnicity should play a large role in the categorization of Hispanics, because the various countries of South and Central America and the islands in the Caribbean are about as different from one another as Ireland and Italy are. But racism causes these ethnics to be lumped together because of the color of their skin into a single brown race.

Hispanics are legally counted as white by the census, but there are certainly black Hispanics with skin color that is indistinguishable from those who are classified as blacks. Yet because of the overt racism, Hispanic as a category is often used as an alternative to white, black, yellow, and red (though those last two terms aren’t called that these days) just for practical reasons.

Hispanic is a new variant on an old thing: a collection of ethnicities classified by the color of skin. It is both a race and an ethnicity, and yet it is really neither. No wonder you’re confused. So is everybody else.

This is incorrect, at least as far as the current US census goes. (And also, as far as I am aware, in general usage, even though many people are confused on the issue. Because the majority of Hispanics/Latinos in the US are mestizo - mixed European/American Indian - this is often assumed to be a racial categorization, but in fact it is not. ) Hispanic or Latino is considered an ethnicity, which is categorized separately from race. Hispanics/latinos may be of any race.

The two ethnicities considered by the census are Hispanic/Latino vs Not Hispanic/Latino.

The racial categories are:

American Indian or Alaska Native
Black or African American
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

People may select more than one race on the census form.

From the US Census Bureau

See also:


The word “ethnicity” is technically closer to “language” than “skin”, “hair”, etc. So I think of “ethnicity” as accentuating provincial, cultural and linguistic differences than the physical differences that “race” focuses on. I’m not saying that’s how they’re defined, I’m just saying that’s what they mean in my ideolect.

Not to my knowledge.

Do you have a cite or do you mean that’s just the way you personally interpret it?

IIRC, in ed. psych. classes they taught would-be teachers that race was purely a categorization based on physical characteristics, including but not limited to skin color; it is an unchangeable function of one’s ancestry. They taught that ethnicity is a more cultural aspect that CAN be a function of race, but takes many things into account such as socioeconomic status, specific locations within a larger country (e.g. mid-western Americans vs. southern Californian Americans), religion, extended family, etc. Ethnicity is largely a function of one’s upbringing, which I believe is what kellner was saying. The point was that teachers should not consider race to be any kind of factor in a child’s behavior or performance, but to recognize that ethnic differences may cause problems. I don’t have a specific cite at the moment, but I recall that the textbook was from the author J. Ormrod. (?)

I remember in high school biology they taught us that humans don’t technically come in different “races,” so I’ve always thought along the lines of what Chronos said. I think the analogy they used was that different human “races” implies a level of difference akin to different dog breeds. As in, Chihuahuas come in different colors, and they’re all still Chihuahuas, but there’s no kind of human that’s genetically different enough from the rest of us as, say, a Great Dane is from a Chihuahua. They said that “ethnicity” is a better scientific term.

I have no kind of cite or basis for this other than they taught it to us in high school biology, so take it for what it’s worth.

I believe that originally, the races referred to three vaguely-defined but more or less correct descriptions of humans ancestry: Causasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. But these are extremely large groups. Causasoid covers everything from the native Celts of Ireland to India. Mongoloid, I believe, actually covers Native Americans and maybe even Pacific Islanders as well as, say, east asian peoples. IIRC, they actually added a couple of other races which dwell in Africa. of course, in modern times people have been moving around more and there’s less distinction in some places.

Ethnicity are roughly the various nations, more or less. They’re even more fluid than races, but there are differences between populations.

However, I believe all of this is what an anthropoligts might say, which may not hold true for anyone else. And anthropologists are extremely touchy about the subject and often refuse to discuss the matter. Many prefer to ignore physical variation as such, and talk about “population movement” and so forth.

Before Linnaeus, race was more closely associated with national or cultural background. Linnaeus’s classification of four races brought an implication of genetic heritage into the term (despite the rudimentary understanding of genetics at the time).

Ethnicity carries a stronger overlay of cultural heritage, as discussed upthread.

By injecting the element of a common gene pool as the core underpinning of the term into the equation, race became a substantially more loaded, and potentially inflammatory, term, than ethnicity. This is because there are substantial disparities among “races,” however they are defined. Moreover, it probably makes more sense from a biological standpoint to talk about genetic populations–relatively isolated pools–rather than a category so broad as “race.”

Bingo. As many have inadvertently pointed out, it’s all a matter of perspective. American blacks can be racist (ethnist) to Jamaican blacks and Japanese can say they’re a different ethnicity from the Chinese but it’s all the same to your average white American (who wouldn’t know a Jew if they saw one).
Crap, was that racist?

No sorry you are very much in error .
Amongst peoples of north European origin there are many names for each other.
Limey,Paddy,Taff,Kiwi,Yank,Frog, Canucks,Rost Biff,Cloggies and Jocks amongst others.

Amongst those of non European ethnic groups whos first language is English Whitey,White Boy and the somewhat archaic Honky are some of the names coined for Caucasians .

Japanese and Chinese call Caucasians barbarians in their own languages(I believe Gajin in Cantonese but might be wrong)
I have heard Thais deriding Philipinoes in English aDog Eaters.
Racists come from all cultures not just from the europeans.

“Gaijin” is the Japanese for “foreigner”, and it’s not intrinsically offensive.

“Race”, as it’s used commonly, is a terrible concept, because it mostly comes down to skin colour, even though (for example) the Bantu and Khoi San people of southern Africa (both with brown to black skin) are genetically more distant than the Scandinavians and the Sri Lankans (at pretty well opposite ends of the skin-colour spectrum).

“Ethnicity” can be a matter of common ancestry, national origin, language, or anything else which people find culturally relevant.

Ethnicities are often sorted out by the people claiming that they belong to a particular social group. There are lots of criteria that come into play into defining one ethnicity vs. another, but they’re often broken up into things like language, behaviors, modes of dress, religion, seasonal celebration, and other things that are culturally based. To some people, all people who speak Arabic are lumped into a “race” of Arabs, but there’s lots of differentiation between all of these peoples and there are subsets that do not follow ties to a specific country like Kurds and Bedouins, so saying X group is a [member of country Y] doesn’t always work when explaining their ethnicity, as their culture and way of living may differ greatly from the “typical” member of country Y.

The idea of race often stems from one group trying to differentiate itself from other groups by labeling these people in a sorted set of “other” categories. Some people use gradations of skin color, while others use different methods of sorting out between the different out-group members. Sometimes it’s as simple as the “us” group and the “them” group, but most of the time it’s more complex than that. Giles just gave a good example with “gaijin” as a defining term for the “them” group.