Various Lego character toys

Photo Courtesy: [Eak K/Pixabay]

What do the words ‘ethnicity’ and ‘race’ actually mean?

Humans divide each other into any number of categories including gender, religion, color, sexual orientation, political inclination, diet, race, and ethnicity. All of those distinctions come with practical consequences, but are they really just distinctions without any real difference?

In response, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History reports in “What does it mean to be human?” that every human on Earth belongs to the same species — homo sapiens — and that “the DNA of all human beings living today is 99.9% alike.”

CGI DNA helixCGI DNA helix
Photo Courtesy: [lisichik/Pixabay]

The traditional definition of race

The Encyclopedia Brittanica describes race as: “the idea that the human species is divided into distinct groups on the basis of inherited physical and behavioral differences.” The United States Census Bureau defines race as “a person’s self-identification with one or more social groups.” When you last completed the census, you were probably asked to choose between several options for “race”:

  • White
  • Black or African American
  • Asian
  • American Indian
  • Alaska Native
  • Native Hawaiian
  • Other Pacific Islander
  • or “some other race”

That administrative application of the word “race” is consistent with common thinking that “race” defines someone according to their skin color and physical, social and biological characteristics.

The meaning of ‘race’ has evolved

That categorical approach to defining and organizing race data obscures that, within the very word and categories, there are significant historical, political and value-driven considerations. For example, in the 19th Century, the census included “mulatto” as a race option for people self-identifying as of mixed white and Black ancestry. People of mixed Black and white ancestry have not disappeared… but the racial label and offensive term “mulatto” no longer appears on the census.

Two Ethiopian children
Two Ethiopian children
Photo Courtesy:[fabiomondelli/Pixabay]

Why do we collect race data?

What is the point of collecting race-based data for a population?  The American Anthropological Association has acknowledged that some term for grouping people with shared cultural identity and geographical ancestry — be it the term “race” or some other word — can convey useful information.

For example, sickle cell hemoglobin is a health risk associated with black or African-descended populations and PKU or phenylketonuria is a health risk associated with white or European-descended populations.

The value of that race-based information from a genetic or biomedical perspective is undermined by the fact that, as reported in the paper “A Qualitative Analysis of How Anthropologists Interpret the Race Construct,”  there can be more genetic variation between individual members of one “race” than there is between individuals belonging to altogether different “races.”

From the perspective of the Census Bureau, data about race and ethnicity is important for “making funding decisions that affect educational opportunities, assess[ing] equal opportunities, assess[ing] equal employment practices, and ensur[ing] equal access to health care for everyone.”

The dangers of race as a concept

Common understandings of the concept of race assign racial categories according to things like skin color, the shape of facial features (nose or lips, for example), and the type of a person’s hair. At their very worst, racial categorizations have tried to connect other qualities to those physical distinctions — things like intelligence, athleticism, etc. At the extreme end of such biology-tied racial categorizations, one finds race-motivated travesties such as the Holocaust, slavery, and the displacement and eradication of indigenous populations.

As described by the American Anthropological Association, “the danger in attempting to tie race and biology is not that individuals are never identical within any group, but that the physical traits used for such purposes may not even be biological in origin.”

Collecting race-related data in a changing landscape

Until 1997, the Census Bureau’s “Directive 15” permitted respondents to self-identify with just one race. The September 1997 report “Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting” described the transition away from that approach:

Since Directive 15 was issued 20 years ago, the United States population has become increasingly diverse. Criticism that the federal race and ethnic categories do not reflect the Nation’s diversity led to a review of Directive 15. Formal review began in 1993 with Congressional hearings.

In 1997, the United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued new rules around collecting race and ethnicity-related data. Recognizing the growing number of interracial children in the United States and the desire of individuals to acknowledge their full ancestry — rather than denying or ignoring some of it — the OMB amended census instructions to allow respondents to select one or more races.

The OMB’s guidance included the direction that the census’ race categories be developed “using appropriate scientific methodologies, including the social sciences.” The guidance recognized that race “should not be interpreted as being primarily biological or genetic in reference.” Rather than being primarily biological or genetic, “[r]ace and ethnicity may be thought of in terms of social and cultural characteristics as well as ancestry.”

The connection between race and geography

The United States Census Bureau relates a respondent’s race to particular geographical regions of origin. The census considers the following regions of origin for each race category:

  • White: Europe, Middle East, and North Africa
  • Black or African American: Africa
  • American Indian or Alaska Native: North America, South America, and Central America
  • Asian: Far East, Southeast Asia, and Indian
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and Pacific Islands

Tying race to geography is not, though, always helpful. People’s racial self-identifications and geographical relationships can be fluid. In O Magazine, Stanford University’s Director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity, Jennifer DeVere Brody, said: “Someone could say, I identify as Black, but I was raised in Panama, so I’m ethnically Panamanian,or: We are both Black, but I am West Indian. Or, to bring pop culture into it, Jason Momoa identifies his race as Native Hawaiian, but his ethnicity is Polynesian.”

Two Polynesian women smiling
Two Polynesian women smiling
Photo Courtesy: [Michelle Maria/Pixabay]

So what, then, is ethnicity?

Merriam-Webster defines “ethnic” as “of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.” That is a definition that seems to distance itself from the geographic, biological, and physical elements that inform many understanding of “race.” But how do we distinguish between “ethnicity” and “race” when the very word “racial” is in the dictionary definition of “ethnicity?”

“So, What’s the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity” in The Oprah Magazine defines ethnicity this way: “the way in which one identifies learned aspects of themselves — i.e. nationality, language, culture.” People with a common ethnicity share such things as cultural heritage, ancestry, mythology, history, homeland, language, religion and ritual, cuisine, style of dress, and art.

Can you choose your race?

In PBS’ “RACE – The Power of an Illusion”, John Cheng said, “I think most people associate race with biology and ethnicity with culture.” He also opens up the challenging issue of choice with the idea that one can choose an ethnicity, but not one’s race.

Today people identify with ethnicity positively because they see themselves as being part of that group. People can’t just simply say, “Well, I want to become a member of that race.” You either are or are not a member of that race. Whereas, if you wanted to look at ethnicity based on culture, you could learn a language, you can learn customs…so that you could belong to that group.

Even the idea of being able to choose one’s ethnicity, but not one’s race, was challenged recently and dramatically in the case of Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal is an American author, artist, and former NAACP chapter president. Though of European ancestry — and despite having no verifiable African ancestry — she identified and presented herself as a black woman.

The census’ approach to ethnicity

The United States’ Census Bureau takes a very narrow approach to the notion of respondents’ ethnicity. Census survey respondents have only two choices: Hispanic or Latino; and Not Hispanic or Latino. A respondent who self-identifies as Hispanic or Latino ethnicity can select any race.

In 2010, census respondents who self-identified as of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity chose either white, black, Asian, American Indian, or Pacific Islander as their race only 63% of the time. Thirty-seven percent of people self-identifying as Hispanic or Latino ethnicity selected “some other race” compared to only six percent of those who identified as Not Hispanic or Latino. What does this mean? The Pew Research Center’s study “Is being Hispanic a matter of race, ethnicity or both?” answers the question this way:

…standard U.S. racial categories might either be confusing or not provide relevant options for Hispanics to describe their racial identity. They also raise an important question long pondered by social scientists and policymakers: Do Hispanics consider their Hispanic background to be part of their racial background, their ethnic background or both?

Race and ethnicity do not necessarily mean the same thing, but the words clearly refer to many of the same things. The overlap is significant, and how we distinguish between the two goes a long way to defining our values about the issues behind the words. Considering how complex the issues behind the labels are, anyone using either word is well-advised to do so carefully, thoughtfully, and recognizing that others may use them differently.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101: