What’s the difference between race and ethnicity? Looking beyond the labels

The concepts of race and ethnicity can be difficult to untangle, not to mention contentious, with many different definitions and interpretations. At their core, race and ethnicity describe the ways in which people are grouped based on certain physical and cultural characteristics. While race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably, they have distinct differences that are important to understand.

Defining Race and Ethnicity

Race is often used to describe a person’s physical appearance, such as their skin color or facial features. This is a term that has been used throughout history to group people based on their perceived physical differences.

However, the concept of biological race is really just a social construct, and there is no scientific basis for grouping people into distinct “races.” In fact, genetic studies have shown that there is more variation within racial groups than between them. For instance, two people of European descent may be more genetically similar to an Asian person than they are to each other. In other words, the idea of “race” as a biological category is not supported by science and is not useful in this regard.

On the other hand, ethnicity is a way of grouping people by their cultural heritage and background, such as their nationality, language, and religious beliefs. Unlike race, which is based on physical characteristics, ethnicity is based on shared cultural practices and beliefs, and it is often used to describe the cultural traditions and heritage of a particular group of people.

For instance, someone might say that their race is ‘White’ but their ethnicity is ‘Jewish’, while others might list ‘Black’ as their race and ‘African American’ as their ethnicity.

BasisPhysical appearanceCultural background
ExamplesSkin color, facial featuresNationality, language, religious beliefs
Ancestry/heritageNot necessarily tied to cultural ancestry/heritage,
but linked to genetic heritage
Often tied to cultural ancestry/heritage
MutabilityGenerally seen as fixed and immutableCan change over time
Social constructYesYes

The History of Race and Ethnicity

Slave Trade, print on paper by John Raphael Smith after George Morland, 1762–1812; in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The concept of race has a long and complex history, and it has been used in many different ways throughout the centuries, and not all of them have been pleasant — let’s put it like that.

Since ancient times when people first opened sophisticated trade networks that put them in contact with other people distinct from their homogenous populations, concepts such as ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ may have been used to group others based on their geographic location and the physical characteristics that were common in that area.

However, race and ethnicity, as the social constructs that we understand today, are modern inventions. Before the 1500s, there is little mention of the term ‘race’, let alone ‘white’ or ‘black’. It was during the 17th century, a period marked by the Enlightenment movement, that European philosophers and naturalists — who rejected the faith-based religious understanding of the world in favor of secular reasoning and science — were keen on categorizing the world anew and extending their the new philosophical thinking towards the different people of the world.

Thanks to technological leaps, especially in terms of maritime navigation, Europeans expanded their reach for many thousands of miles outside their homelands where they encountered foreign people that were not only very different from them culturally, but also in terms of appearance. As if this cultural shock wasn’t enough to light a fire, the European settlers were guided by their new beliefs that there were natural laws that governed the world and, by extension, people. Over time, this led to the notion that “white” people were smarter, more capable, and in many ways, shapes, and forms superior to foreigners with a different skin complexion or heritage.

As such, during the period of European colonization, the concept of race was used to justify the enslavement of African people and the exploitation of their labor. In the United States, race was weaponized and used to justify the enslavement of African Americans, as well as the segregation of black and white people in schools, housing, and public spaces even a century after slavery was abolished in the nation. The concept of race was also used to justify the exclusion of certain racial groups from political and economic opportunities, such as voting and land ownership.

The concept of ethnicity, on the other hand, has a more recent history, and it emerged as a way of describing the cultural traditions and heritage of particular groups of people. The term “ethnicity” didn’t appear in the vernacular until the early 1940s, when sociologists first started using it as a sociological concept meant to replace older, tainted terms such as “national origin”, “minority”, and “race”.

Initially, “ethnicity” was often used to describe the customs and beliefs of indigenous peoples and those with a distinct heritage and cultural tradition from the larger majority group, as well as the traditions of immigrant groups who came to the United States from other countries. Today, the term ethnicity typically describes any group that is characterized by a distinct sense of social belonging owing to culture and descent.

Is race a social construct or is it rooted in biology?

Although physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features can be objectively observed and measured, the way they are used to define and group people into racial categories is nevertheless a social construct. What this means is that the boundaries between different racial groups are not at all fixed and can (and indeed have) changed over time based on a number of cultural, political, and social factors.

To illustrate the point of race as a social construct, just consider the fact that the terms “white” or “whiteness” weren’t used by people in the United States to identify themselves within a group until the 17th century. Prior to this time, people simply identified themselves based on their national origin, religion, and social class. The timing of the surfacing of “white” as a racial group coincides with the development of slavery and racial oppression in the Americas. As such, a hierarchy of racial categories was formed, with “white” people at the top and non-white sitting at the bottom of the social strata, in order to justify the right to enslave and oppress others.

Over time, the concept of race and its nefarious prodigy, racism, would go through many changes, some bordering the absurd. Can you imagine that at one point in history Italians and Irish people weren’t thought of as white? Between 1880 and 1290, more than 13 million immigrants flocked to the United States from southern, eastern, and central Europe. These people were not considered “white” upon arrival, but instead occupied a weird limbo in the pecking order, somewhere below ‘true’ whites but slightly above blacks. In this instance, the social and hierarchical aspects of racial classification are highlighted, in which “whiteness” means fully socially accepted as the equals of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic stock.

Up until that point, true whites were typically considered only people hailing from England, the Netherlands, Germany, and Scandinavian countries. So not only were there racial divisions but people also believed that there were subraces within the white category. Economist Robert F. Forester wrote in 1924, “in a country where the distinction between white man and black is intended as a distinction of value … it is no compliment to the Italian to deny him his whiteness, but that actually happens with considerable frequency.”

Like race, ethnicity is also a social construct. Ethnicity can help people identify themselves and others based on shared cultural characteristics such as language, religion, and national origin. These characteristics can be genuine and objective, but the way they are defined and used to categorize people is nevertheless a social construct, whose boundaries are not fixed and can change over time.

Virtually all scientists today agree that race is a social construct, in the sense that it is a human-invented classification system with no real scientific basis rooted in biology. Thanks to phenomenal advances in whole-genome sequencing, we now know that race is a very poor proxy for genetic diversity among human populations.

“What the study of complete genomes from different parts of the world has shown is that even between Africa and Europe, for example, there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded,” said Svante Pääbo, a biologist and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, who won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology thanks to his landmark work on the Neanderthal genome. “It is all a question of differences in how frequent different variants are on different continents and in different regions.”

In one now-famous example that demonstrates genetic differences are not fixed along racial lines, when one study compared the genomes of three important scientists — James Watson, one of the scientists who discovered DNA, American scientist Craig Venter, who is one of the leading figures behind the sequencing of the first human genome, and Korean Seong-Jin Kim — the researchers found that Watson and Venter shared fewer variations in their genetic code than they each shared with Kim. That’s rather ironic seeing how Watson is now disgraced due to his pseudoscientific racist remarks.

But mainstream science wasn’t always like this — quite the contrary. Since we’re on the subject of Watson, just a few years ago he told former protégé Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really,” later adding in a different instance that the purported variations in “the average between blacks and whites on I.Q. tests” are genetic in nature.

Watson’s comments are deemed unacceptable and pseudoscientific today, but scientific racism was huge starting with the 19th century when Francis Galton introduced the word ‘eugenics’ to the world and continuing well into the 20th century. In the 1960s, there were people like the psychologist Arthur Jensen who believed that black Americans were naturally less intelligent than white Americans. There was William Shockley, the physicist who invented the transistor, who thought that black women should be sterilized. Luckily, such comments are today relegated to the fringes of the institution of science, but there is always the risk of race science resurfacing, especially as “alt-right” groups are becoming increasingly influential.

What’s the alternative to race?

The reality is that we have less diversity as a species than chimpanzees, meaning we cannot be divided into distinct genetic subgroups. But if that’s the case why are demographics often separated into racial categories even in scientific papers? Similarly, why are people often asked about their race and ethnicity when completing census and medical forms?

There are no simple answers to these questions, but it’s worth considering that well-intentioned people who are trying to fight back against racism often have to use racial classifications to be effective. It sounds a bit backward but it nevertheless makes sense. For instance, governments will collect data about a community’s racial profile to ensure that policies serve all racial groups. The reality is that there is still a lot of racial discrimination and there is no way to measure compliance or infringement upon people’s rights unless you divide people into racial or ethnic groups. If black people are discriminated against and have less access to healthcare than white people, the only to measure this effect is by having study participants identify with a racial or ethnic group. In biological science, however, race is an undesirable classification and many researchers are petitioning to phase out racial terminology in this field.

Concerning medical conditions that are associated with certain races, such as sickle cell anemia, which is considered a disease mostly affecting black people, or cystic fibrosis, which mostly affects whites, the discussion can get complicated but this does not mean that race is biological. Certain genetic diseases that disproportionately affect some populations are the result of the local environment causing an evolutionary response. Sickle cell anemia, for instance, is an adaptation to malaria exposure, so the disease is naturally more common among populations whose ancestors lived in regions with a high incidence of malaria. This means people from Sub-Saharan Africa, but also people of Middle Eastern, Indian, or Mediterranean descent because malaria was widespread in those regions as well. Bearing this in mind, geography rather than race may be a better substitute to define populations from a genetic perspective.

Both race and ethnicity are social constructs whose boundaries are arbitrary. Recognizing this fact is important for fostering a more inclusive and culturally sensitive society.

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