What is the difference between race, nationality, ethnicity?

I am apparently not up to speed on this.

a) All three are social constructs. That is, the categorical structures aren’t rooted in characteristics of the individual per se, but in projected characteristics that are assumed of a person based on knowing their category, and the categories are widely shared and expected to be shared—that is, there’s a social expectation that other people will be familiar with those categorical systems and fluent in their use.

b) Within the limitations of the above, “race” is historically treated as if it were a sub-element of species, or akin to “breed” in cats or dogs or horses. I honestly don’t know how long ago “race” evolved as a notion—ancient history is full of references that we’d nowadays interpret as ethnicity or national origin or religious affiliation but not so much bolted on to physical characteristics. Some time roughly half a millennium ago, the European powers in particular were sufficiently ascendant over the African that the former invaded the latter and stole a lot of their people to use as slaves. It wasn’t the first occurrence of slavery but it may have been the first time a social status was so strongly associated with observable physical characteristics. The physical characteristics appear (by the way) to have developed because while we are all African in ancestry, those of us whose ancestors roamed into northern latitudes had some evolutionary advantages to narrower noses (better for cold air), different hair (keeps in heat rather than dissipating head heat) and lighter skin (something to do with vitamin D and less concern about damage from the sun, I forget the details). The designation of Asian folk and Native American folks as additional races appears to have come later. There’s no substantiated reason to ascribe different personality or behavioral traits, cognitive diffs, or much of anything else to the so-called “races”; they are mostly of more recent origin than lots of people believe.

c) Nations are totally social structures that organize and/or control a populace within a specific geographic area. They’re governmental and hence each have their own organizing principles, as well as history and some notions, perhaps, of “national character”. Because they do overlap with geographic regions, some of the generalizations may indeed capture a regional sense of history for a people whose ancestors lived in a given area. French and American and German people are particularly known for entertaining notions of a “national character”. The people themselves aren’t inherently different (that should be obvious) but their shared history and culture may give them a common identity.

d) Ethnicity is sometimes described as “race light”, a less reductionistic way of taking notice of different culturally distinct historical groups and how the people within them have embraced various traditions and whatnot. As with race, certain characteristics are often projected onto individuals by others based on their perception of them as belonging to this or that ethnic group. Once again, there’s zero reason to believe the individuals are inherently different, but shared history and cultural views can indeed shape people’s perspectives and inform their values and priorities. The notion of ethnicity is generally less “poisoned” with the notion of inherent diffs and more likely to focus on cultural and historical ways that different ethnic groups see the world, which in turn is assumed to affect most, if not all, of the individuals thereof. There is still a colonial attitude, as if (to use a United States example since I’m most familar with it) race-designed “white” folks from the British isles or Germany or (to a slighly lesser extent) Scandinavia and other parts of western or central Europe are not “ethnic” but everyone else is.

Nationality, as I understand it, is identical to citizenship and is a legal concept.


I would say nationality implies a legal status (citizenship, what passport you’re entitled to, where you may vote), ethnicity is more to do with the language and culture you identify with, and race is a much more subjective concept that may be defined in different ways for different purposes.

But the boundaries in each category are debatable, to varying degrees.

I agree on all points.

I took an Anthropology class once, the professor insisted the concept of “Race” was a purely European (white) concept. Which I agree with. I doubt interaction between the peoples of various parts of the world paid much mind to the physical characteristics of other humans (pre European Colonization).

As I understand it, even ancient peoples from Greece to China equated physical characteristics with social class. And they considered certain physical characteristics not native to their tribe “barbarian”, “descended from monkeys”, etc. Certainly in antiquity it was known that black skin had to do with Africa/Nubia. It was thought that the hill peoples of Gaul were fierce because it was in their nature (by lineage), Egyptians intelligent and skilled, etc.


I don’t remember the source, but prior to the colonization African people were aware of the existence of the Albino man who appeared in some of their traditional stories. The process of “othering” is not as modern as it may seem.

Us vs Them has probably always existed. Could be the cavemen in the hills vs the cavemen in the valley.

Can you provide textual evidence of any of this ? Certainly there is much in direct contradiction to what you claim: people in Greece and Rome were enslaved (considered as contrary to the natural state) because they were sold or captured, not because they looked funny; Caesar says right out that the Gauls were badass precisely in the measure they were not exposed to the “feminizing” influence of civilization and trade articles and consequently spent all of their time fighting each other; the origin of the Patricians was political rather than to do with physical characteristics; the Chinese’s problem with “barbarians” was that they had not adopted Chinese culture, not the way they looked; etc.

Is it identical? As I understand it, historically, and even today there is the concept of non-citizen nationals. For example, many residents of Hong Kong have British nationality. There is also the concept of ethnic nationality like Kurds and Walloons.

The relationship between ethnicity, nationality and statehood/citizenship is one of the many debatable areas. The idea that ethnicity (language/culture) does and should equate to nationality, and nationality to statehood, is relatively recent (I was taught that it became formalised, chiefly by Herder, in the Enlightenment era). As someone once said, “a nation is what constitutes itself as such” - and at what point are there enough people making that subjective judgement to create a nation as an objective fact?

I had to google Walloons.

I would make the argument that Nationality is based not just only on a legal basis on what Sovereign power controls a particular territory, but the predominate ethnic group that controls that sovereignity.

I’d give you 20 dollars to tell me Uigers in China are Chinese. Yes they are citizens of China. But they are not Chinese.

Actually you’d have difficulty finding any society that didn’t have any notion of grouping people by origin or appearance. Sadly, at some fundamental level we are quite tribal and really, really want to believe that we can make a fast judgement about Joe bloggs because he comes from the south town and has olive eyes or whatever.

But the idea of all of humanity being comprised of a handful of groups that are so different as to be effectively sub species, and those groups being largely differentiated by skin pigmentation… Yeah that’s something largely sprung out of the age of “exploration”.

Two examples. From the Yan Shi Gu’s annotated Book of Han, volume 96:


Translation (by me, so don’t count on it):

“Wusun have the most different shape of the Xirongs in the Western Regions. Today’s barbarians have blue eyes, red beards, and macaques are their own kind.”

From Dio’s Roman History, Epitome of Book LXXVIII. Translation courtesy of Earnest Cary, PhD on the basis of the version of Herbert Baldwin Foster, PhD:

"Antoninus belonged to three races; and he possessed none of their virtues at all, but combined in himself all their vices; the fickleness, cowardice, and recklessness of Gaul were his, the harshness and cruelty of Africa, and the craftiness of Syria, whence he was sprung on his mother’s side. "


In the case of Hong Kong, it’s complicated but my understanding is that the UK has different forms of citizenship for overseas citizens and dependent territory citizens vs regular citizens. It used to be that Hong Kong was full of citizens with dependent territory citizenship. All of those people ceased being British citizens/nationals in 1997 and are now subjects of China. There are still some British overseas citizens in Hong Kong.

With Kurds I would say they want to be recognized as a nationality - to have their own nation. I haven’t heard of Walloons claiming an ethnic nationality.


What I mean is, they are not “barbarians” because they have blue eyes and red beards. They are barbarians because they don’t act Chinese.

Similarly, foreign tribes could be conquered and made Roman. As for Roman citizenship itself, while it eventually became easier to obtain for inhabitants of the Empire its value also went down as things declined.

This official site says that British overseas territories citizens in Hong Kong were able to register as “British nationals (overseas)” before 1 July 1997. It doesn’t say anything about being booted out. However, it does say that if you, a resident of HK, now want to apply for UK citizenship you must not have “citizenship or nationality” of another country, such as China.

(Disclaimer: I’m not an immigration expert. But that site explicitly says


ETA it says that you lost British overseas territories citizenship, but if you had no other nationality you automatically became a Brisish overseas citizen, which is still a category of British national.

One of the problems is that “nationality” covers two disparate concepts - “ethnic nationality” and “State nationality” e.g. Someone could be a Basque or an Albanian as an ethic nationality, and yet be French or Kosovan as their state nationality.

“Aah!”, I hear you say, “so ‘ethnic nationality’ is the same as ethnicity? Because Basque and Albanian can also be considered just ethnicities”. Not so fast. There are lots of ethnicities that don’t claim nationhood. My own, for instance, has never had that slant. There is no Greater Cape Colouredia. This is because Cape Coloureds have never had their own territory. However, a related Coloured sub-grouping, the Griquas , are very much an ethnic nation. They have historically had two territories of their own. So you see, it gets very messy.

I tend to avoid the issue by not using ethnic nationality if I can possibly avoid it, and just referring to ethnicity.

I don’t think it’s safe to assume that whatever word Cary translated as “races” meant to Dio the same as the word “race” means to modern English-speakers.

Othering is older than humans. The specific forms it takes at different times and in different places vary.

There is the weird (to me, maybe this is common elsewhere) caveat that you can be a U.S. national without being a U.S. citizen, see American Samoa.