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Do You Really Know the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity?

Bhakti Satalkar Jun 3, 2019
The difference between race and ethnicity is often very confusing. If you ask people, each one of them will come up with different explanations for the terms. Many times, the terms are used vaguely as synonyms of each other. However, there are marked differences between them.
When we differentiate people on the basis of their skin color, have your ever thought if there are any other defining characteristics for humans or is it solely a matter of skin color? May be there are other factors that are important, or may be even more important, which do play a vital role.
There are some people who are termed as Hispanic while there are others who are called Latino. Is such a differentiation made on the basis of the languages spoken, the mother tongue to be more precise? Does the country of origin, cultural traditions, family values, religion, etc. also have a role to play?
Have you considered that a person can be a non-Spanish speaking person and yet belong to the Mexico's Indian community and be Hispanic? These are just some of the questions which come up when the debate on ethnicity and race starts.
Sometimes, race and ethnicity are used interchangeably, but it is important to understand that they are two different things, else they would not have two different names. In order to understand the differences between both read this.

So, let us begin by defining race and ethnicity, which will enhance our understanding about the differences between the two.

What is Race?

Race has been defined as, human population, that is believed to be distinct in some way from other human beings based on real or imagined physical differences. The racial classification is rooted more in the idea of biological classification of humans, based on the morphological features, such as skin color or facial characteristics.
More often than not, an individual is externally classified into a racial group, instead of the individual choosing where he/she belongs as a part of his/her identity.
The whole concept of race and specific racial groupings is often controversial, because of their impact on social identity and how the identity influences a person's position in the social fabric. Some examples of race include the Chinese, the Indians, and the Arabs, etc.

What is Ethnicity?

The term ethnicity is derived from the Greek word ethnos, which roughly translates to 'nation'. More commonly it is said to be people of the same race, who share a distinctive culture.
In the modern-day usage, the word ethnicity is used to reflect the different kinds of encounters industrialized states have with the different types of so-called 'subordinate' groups, such as immigrants and colonized subjects.
Ethnicity is not about the physical characteristics, but the social traits, which are shared by a certain group of human population. The variance is made on the basis of nationality, tribe, religion, faith, language, culture and traditions. Examples include as Hispanics or the Latin American community, Native Americans in the United States of America, etc.

Difference Between Ethnicity and Race

The first main difference is the fact that race is primarily unitary. A person can only belong to one race, but can have multiple ethnic affiliations. To elaborate the point further, ethnically a person can be called Irish or Polish, but if the difference has to be made on the basis of race, then the person is classified as black or white.
The next fundamental difference is that race is socially imposed and is also hierarchical. At the same time, a person has no control over his or her race.
It is more about how you are perceived by others around you. But when it comes to ethnicity, a person can have control over ethnicity up to a certain limit. We will take an example to understand the point better.
A person is born in India to Indian parents, but is adopted by a French family in France. Ethnically, he feels French, eats French food, speaks French and is well versed with the French history and culture, but is not aware about the Indian history, language, culture, etc. When the person travels to the United States, he is treated racially as Asian.
To sum up the difference between race and ethnicity in one line, race is nature, whereas ethnicity is nurture, in other words, it is birth characteristics as opposed to cultural heritage.