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What's the difference between race and ethnicity?

Two darker skinned females against blue background. Researchers have found that as a tool for grouping people into racial categories, skin color is basically useless.
Researchers have found that as a tool for grouping people into racial categories, skin color is not meaningful. (Image credit: Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images)

Race and ethnicity are terms that are sometimes used sloppily, almost interchangeably. But race and ethnicity are not the same thing.

Both terms are used to describe human identity, but in different – if related – ways. Identity might bring to mind questions of skin color, nationality, language, religion, cultural traditions or family ancestry. Both race and ethnicity encompass many of these descriptors. "'Race' and 'ethnicity' have been and continue to be used as ways to describe human diversity," said Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist and paleobiologist at The Pennsylvania State University, who is known for her research into the evolution of human skin color. "Race is understood by most people as a mixture of physical, behavioral and cultural attributes. Ethnicity recognizes differences between people mostly on the basis of language and shared culture." 

Related: Why did some people become white?

In other words, race is often perceived as something that's inherent in our biology, and therefore inherited across generations. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is typically understood as something we acquire, or self-ascribe, based on factors like where we live or the culture we share with others. 

But just as soon as we've outlined these definitions, we're going to dismantle the very foundations on which they're built. That's because the question of race versus ethnicity actually exposes major and persistent flaws in how we define these two traits, flaws that — especially when it comes to race — have given them an outsized social impact on human history. 

What is race?

The idea of "race" originated from anthropologists and philosophers in the 18th century, who used geographical location and phenotypic traits like skin color to place people into different racial groupings, according to Britannica. That not only cemented the notion that there are separate racial "types" but also fueled the idea that these differences had a biological basis. 

That flawed principle laid the groundwork for the belief that some races were superior to others — which white Europeans used to justify the slave trade and colonialism, entrenching global power imbalances, as reported by University of Cape Town emeritus professor Tim Crowe at The Conversation. "We can't understand race and racism outside of the context of history, and more importantly economics. Because the driver of the triangular trade [which included slavery] was capitalism, and the accumulation of wealth," said Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe, a medical anthropologist at the Center on Genomics, Race, Identity, Difference (GRID) at the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI), Duke University. She is also the associate director of engagement for the Center on Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) at Duke. The center is part of a movement across the United States whose members lead events and discussions with the public to challenge historic and present-day racism.

Scientists have found that the amount of genetic variation within any of racial groups is greater than the average difference between any two groups. (Image credit: JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images)

The effects of this history prevail today — even in current definitions of race, where there's still an underlying assumption that traits like skin color or hair texture have biological, genetic underpinnings that are completely unique to different racial groups, according to Stanford. Yet, the scientific basis for that premise simply isn't there. 

"If you take a group of 1,000 people from the recognized 'races' of modern people, you will find a lot of variation within each group," Jablonski told Live Science. But, she explained, "the amount of genetic variation within any of these groups is greater than the average difference between any two [racial] groups." What's more, "there are no genes that are unique to any particular 'race,'" she said. 

Related: What are genes?

In other words, if you compare the genomes of people from different parts of the world, there are no genetic variants that occur in all members of one racial group but not in another. This conclusion has been reached in many different studies. Europeans and Asians, for instance, share almost the same set of genetic variations. As Jablonski described earlier, the racial groupings we have invented are actually genetically more similar to each other than they are different — meaning there's no way to definitively separate people into races according to their biology. 

Jablonski's own work on skin color, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010, demonstrates this. "Our research has revealed that the same or similar skin colors — both light and dark — have evolved multiple times under similar solar conditions in our history," she said. "A classification of people based on skin color would yield an interesting grouping of people based on the exposure of their ancestors to similar levels of solar radiation. In other words, it would be nonsense." What she means is that as a tool for putting people into distinct racial categories, skin color — which evolved along a spectrum — encompasses so much variation within different skin color "groupings" that it's basically useless, she said during a TED Talk in 2009. 

We do routinely identify each other's race as "Black," "white" or "Asian," based on visual cues. But crucially, those are values that humans have chosen to ascribe to each other or themselves. The problem occurs when we conflate this social habit with scientific truth — because there is nothing in individuals' genomes that could be used to separate them along such clear racial lines. 

In short, variations in human appearance don't equate to genetic difference. "Races were created by naturalists and philosophers of the 18th century. They are not naturally occurring groups," Jablonski emphasized. 

What is ethnicity?

An attendee reacts during the ceremony at Gisozi Genocide Memorial, Kigali, Rwanda on April 7, 2022. The memorial is in commemoration of the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 mostly Tutsis, but also moderate Hutus, were slaughtered. (Image credit: SIMON WOHLFAHRT/AFP via Getty Images)

This also exposes the major distinction between race and ethnicity: While race is ascribed to individuals on the basis of physical traits, ethnicity is more frequently chosen by the individual. And, because it encompasses everything from language, to nationality, culture and religion, it can enable people to take on several identities. Someone might choose to identify themselves as Asian American, British Somali or an Ashkenazi Jew, for instance, drawing on different aspects of their ascribed racial identity, culture, ancestry and religion. 

Ethnicity has been used to oppress different groups, as occurred during the Holocaust, or within interethnic conflict of the Rwandan genocide, where ethnicity was used to justify mass killings. Yet, ethnicity can also be a boon for people who feel like they're siloed into one racial group or another, because it offers a degree of agency, Ifekwunigwe said. "That's where this ethnicity question becomes really interesting, because it does provide people with access to multiplicity," she said. (That said, those multiple identities can also be difficult for people to claim, such as in the case of multiraciality, which is often not officially recognized.)

Ethnicity and race are also irrevocably intertwined — not only because someone's ascribed race can be part of their chosen ethnicity but also because of other social factors. "If you have a minority position [in society], more often than not, you're racialized before you’re allowed access to your ethnic identity," Ifekwunigwe said. "That's what happens when a lot of African immigrants come to the United States and suddenly realize that while in their home countries, they were Senegalese or Kenyan or Nigerian, they come to the U.S. — and they're Black." Even with a chosen ethnicity, "race is always lurking in the background," she said.

These kinds of problems explain why there's a growing push to recognize race, like ethnicity, as a cultural and social construct, according to the RACE Project

Yet in reality, it's not quite so simple. 

Impact of race and ethnicity

Race and ethnicity may be largely abstract concepts, but that doesn't override their very genuine, real-world influence. These constructs wield "immense power in terms of how societies work," said Ifekwunigwe. Defining people by race, especially, is ingrained in the way that societies are structured, how they function and how they understand their citizens: Consider the fact that the U.S. Census Bureau officially recognizes five distinct racial groups, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

The legacy of racial categories has also shaped society in ways that have resulted in vastly different socioeconomic realities for different groups. That's reflected, for instance, in higher levels of poverty for minority groups, poorer access to education and health care, and greater exposure to crime, environmental injustices and other social ills. What's more, race is still used by some as the motivation for continued discrimination against other groups that are deemed to be "inferior," the Southern Poverty Law Center explained.

"It's not just that we have constructed these [racial] categories; we have constructed these categories hierarchically," Ifekwunigwe said. "Understanding that race is a social construct is just the beginning. It continues to determine people's access to opportunity, privilege and also livelihood in many instances, if we look at health outcomes," she said. One tangible example of health disparity comes from the United States, where data shows that African American women are more than twice as likely to die in childbirth compared with white women, the Census Bureau reported.

Perceptions of race even inform the way we construct our own identities — though this isn't always a negative thing. A sense of racial identity in minority groups can foster pride, mutual support and awareness. Even politically, using race to gauge levels of inequality across a population can be informative, helping to determine which groups need more support, because of the socioeconomic situation they’re in. As the U.S. Census Bureau website explains, having data about people's self-reported race "is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights." 

All this paints a complex picture, which might leave us pondering how we should view the idea of race and ethnicity. There are no easy answers, but one thing is clear: While both are portrayed as a way to understand human diversity, in reality they also wield power as agents of division that don't reflect any scientific truths. 

Science does show us that across all the categories that humans construct for ourselves, we share more in common than we don't. The real challenge for the future will be to see that instead of our "differences" alone.

Additional resources

For a deeper understanding of how the U.S. government categorizes race and ethnicity, read "Research to Improve Data on Race and Ethnicity," which traces how the Census bureau is working to keep up with individuals' understanding of their own identities. (Hint: It's usually complex.) The nonpartisan Pew Research Center has a landing page for its research and survey data related to race and ethnicity, which touches on topics as diverse as immigration, health, and education. 

As is easy to imagine for such a hot topic, mountains of books have been written about issues around race and ethnicity. "Superior: The Return of Race Science" (Beacon Press, 2019) by Angela Saini Beacon tracks the history of scientific racism and the ways discredited ideas still influence scientific fields today. "Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision Between DNA, Race, and History" (Rutgers University Press, 2013), is a scholarly look at how the field of genetics has complicated how we talk about genetics and history. Isabel Wilkerson's "Caste: The Origins of our Discontents" (Random House, 2020) explores how race and ethnicity are used to divide people into hierarchies. 

Bibliography

Bibliography

"About the topic of race." U.S. Census Bureau. Dec. 3, 2021.

"Racism and Health." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. November 24, 2021.

"What Racism Costs Us All." Finance & Development, International Monetary Fund. Fall 2020.

(2014, July 31). A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance. Smithsonian. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/new-african-american-identity-harlem-renaissance 

Roberts, Frank Leon. (2018, July 13). How Black Lives Matter Changed the Way Americans Fight for Freedom. ACLU. https://www.aclu.org/blog/racial-justice/race-and-criminal-justice/how-black-lives-matter-changed-way-americans-fight 

White Nationalist. Southern Poverty Law Center. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/white-nationalist 

Newkirk II, Vann R. (2018, Feb. 28). Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/02/the-trump-administration-finds-that-environmental-racism-is-real/554315/

American Psychological Association. Ethnic and Racial Minorities & Socioeconomic Status. https://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/minorities 

(2019, June 10). Ethnic Cleansing. The History Channel. https://www.history.com/topics/holocaust/ethnic-cleansing 

Smedley, Audrey, The history of the idea of race. Britannica. Accessed April 9, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/topic/race-human/Scientific-classifications-of-race

Jablonski, Nina and Chaplin, George. (2010, May 5). Human skin pigmentation as an adaptation to UV radiation. PNAS. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.0914628107

Originally published on Live Science on Feb. 8, 2020 and updated on April 9, 2022.

Emma Bryce
Emma Bryce

Emma Bryce is a London-based freelance journalist who writes primarily about the environment, conservation and climate change. She has written for The Guardian, Wired Magazine, TED Ed, Anthropocene, China Dialogue, and Yale e360 among others, and has masters degree in science, health, and environmental reporting from New York University. Emma has been awarded reporting grants from the European Journalism Centre, and in 2016 received an International Reporting Project fellowship to attend the COP22 climate conference in Morocco.  

With contributions from
  • Joe
    This article is rather disturbing in that it attempts to mix science with Political Correctness.

    The article implies that our concepts of Race and Racial differences is strictly social and the genetic variations are "just not there."

    Well, if You use this "scientific mindset," then there is no differences between species or even Fauna and Flora. Because after all, GENETICALLY, the variations are SO SMALL as to be INCONSEQUENTIAL

    The fact is that if we can DISCERN Phenotypical differences, that means that we can discriminate between one flower from another, one animal species from another and even discern male and female of various species. THAT IS SCIENCE.

    The attempts to indoctrinate via Pseudo Science is not. Whomever wrote this article needs to be censured.
    Reply
  • john.janossors
    admin said:
    If someone asked you to describe your identity to them, where would you begin? Would it come down to your skin color or your nationality? What about the language you speak, your religion, your cultural traditions or your family's ancestry?

    What's the difference between race and ethnicity? : Read more
    My reply to this question is I am of the Human Race (i do not consider that there is more than one race within humanity) Ethnicity has two answers the DNA which is of course not subject to change and the "Ethnic" group in which I was raised and/or am habituated to. There is no reason to continue to see it as any more complicated than that.
    Reply
  • john.janossors
    Why in heavens' name is human kind considered more than one Race. This is stupidity not Science. Humanity is but one Race. If some Neandertals had survived there would be two.
    Reply
  • TRM
    That's the point of the article, we are all the same species.

    Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata; Class: Mammalia; Order: Primates; Suborder: Haplorhini; Infraorder: Simiiformes; Family: Hominidae; Subfamily: Homininae; Tribe: Hominini; Genus; Homo; Species: H. sapiens.
    Based on pure biology and Linnaeus' zoological taxonomy, there are very little differences between all humans other than how we react to the external environments in which we have evolved (hair and skin color, height, facial features, muscle development, etc.). Other categories beyond this are purely human-constructed; which, is not always a "bad" thing. Only when we classify these categories as more superior or inferior do they become a source of contention. Unfortunately, that became the norm since the dawn of modern civilization.
    Reply
  • FairfaxPhD
    Joe said:
    This article is rather disturbing in that it attempts to mix science with Political Correctness.

    The article implies that our concepts of Race and Racial differences is strictly social and the genetic variations are "just not there."

    Well, if You use this "scientific mindset," then there is no differences between species or even Fauna and Flora. Because after all, GENETICALLY, the variations are SO SMALL as to be INCONSEQUENTIAL

    The fact is that if we can DISCERN Phenotypical differences, that means that we can discriminate between one flower from another, one animal species from another and even discern male and female of various species. THAT IS SCIENCE.

    The attempts to indoctrinate via Pseudo Science is not. Whomever wrote this article needs to be censured.
    I think the article does lean towards political correctness; but I think the author needs not to be censured but introduced to some statistical concepts. The physical differences we notice among the peoples native to sub-saharan Africa, Europe, eastern Asia etc. are biological in origin. These are phenotypical differences which result from genetic variations. I believe it is true that the variability within any "racial" group can be quite substantial, but not so much that an observer could wrongly perceive a person's race. There is enough enough overlap in the distribution of the skin tones of Europeans and Africans to mistake a European with dark skin for an African with light skin; but then the other the other phenotypical traits would have to bear more resemblance to the African prototype than the European prototype as well. So it might be possible but highly improbable that we could find a European with very dark skin, tightly curled hair, and thick lips that suggest the African prototype rather than the European prototype. Sometimes we will encounter a person who will be classified as black, but have a light skin tone and straight hair etc., but such people are probably the issue of parents with mixed racial origins, for example, Princess Meghan.
    Reply
  • whatthewhat
    FairfaxPhD said:
    .... it is true that the variability within any "racial" group can be quite substantial, but not so much that an observer could wrongly perceive a person's race.

    that definitely not true, as i’ve had american indian relatives mistaken for asian more than once


    FairfaxPhD said:
    ...resemblance to the African prototype than the European prototype as well. So it might be possible but highly improbable that we could find a European with very dark skin, tightly curled hair...

    ever been to southern italy?
    or north africa?
    Reply
  • Ront5353
    Universality resides in the economic thesis of Karl Marx that he wrote around the early 1900,s. Use morality to blame one group or another for the ills of the world. As long as you stir the pot nothing is gained you divide people.
    Reply
  • MonaLisa
    Joe said:
    This article is rather disturbing in that it attempts to mix science with Political Correctness.

    Define "Political Correctness" and point to the examples of it in the text. You made this claim, so the burden is on you to back it up. I do not accept the term "Political Correctness" as anything but a subjective, emotion-laden evaluation.

    Joe said:
    The article implies that our concepts of Race and Racial differences is strictly social and the genetic variations are "just not there."

    Well, if You use this "scientific mindset," then there is no differences between species or even Fauna and Flora. Because after all, GENETICALLY, the variations are SO SMALL as to be INCONSEQUENTIAL

    Like myself at first, you misread the meaning of the statement. "There are more similarities than differences" meaning, once you take out the genes that are common across all of homo sapiens sapiens, there is no scientific way to discern "race", because the visible traits we use to determine belonging to certain races appear so often across the species that it is impossible to define in a meaningful way.

    People do frequently "wrongly" identify the race of others -- at least, according to the people who say they have been misidentified. My husband, for example, is Sicilian. If he grows a beard, he looks like, and has been mistaken for, an Arab. But his DNA does not show Semitic origin as a primary contributor. He also has North African and Italian/Greek DNA, and he can become quite dark in the sun. What is his race? In the USA, up until the 1950s he'd be considered "Black." Is he Black? He does not identify as Black. He checks the White/Caucasian box.

    This was not discussed in the article, but "race" as a term has changed in meaning ever since it was invented. Not even American surveys can agree on what races there are. The term itself, whenever surveys ask this question, mixes together terms that are used to denote observable features as well as language families and continents. Black, White/Caucasian (not Hispanic), Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American. This clearly makes no sense at all. Hispanic means "Spanish-speaking." What does one's language have to do with one's appearance, particularly since many "Hispanics" are actually of Indigenous South or Central American origin, whereas others are of more European origin. So "race" as a method of identifying people scientifically is not even something everyone agrees on, mixes together totally unrelated categories, and has never had a stable meaning.

    Secondly many regions are completely ignored as separate even though there are clear differences in how they look. Why is "Asian" one race, when Chinese, Japanese and Koreans look VERY different from Central and South Asians, and Russians are primarily also in Asia. What race are they? Many South Asians share traits with people of African Descent, such as very dark skin and wiry hair. What race are people from India? What if they don't have dark skin and wiry hair? What race are people from the Middle East? What race are the Kurds, who are literally Caucasians, but also from the Middle East, and share some features with Semitic peoples, however some are blond with blue eyes?

    Even today, there is no generally agreed-upon definitions of these races, let alone one based on measurable characteristics, so how can one measure the degree of belonging to a race? If you can't measure it, it's not a science-based categorization.

    Joe said:
    The fact is that if we can DISCERN Phenotypical differences, that means that we can discriminate between one flower from another, one animal species from another and even discern male and female of various species. THAT IS SCIENCE.

    You are in error. Human "discernment" of "Phenotypical" features is notoriously unreliable as a basis for scientific discrimination. One need only to look at the original categorizations of species by the early biologists. When we discovered DNA, we began to realize that categorization by feature was a bad way to determine how species were related. The correct, and only method of scientifically determining relationship, including belonging to a species or a variety, is through DNA typing. This is for exactly the reason that the author mentions: because many, many traits develop independently, in almost completely unrelated organisms, under similar environmental conditions. This has led many, many species to be recategorized, moved sometimes into a completely different genus, or eliminated as a separate species entirely.

    I have demonstrated how race is in fact a completely unscientific method for categorizing people:

    1. it mixes unrelated categories
    2. it relies upon visual distinction by humans, which is cannot reliably determine relationship
    3. There is no agreed-upon definition of measurable characteristics.
    4. It ignores DNA
    5. It lumps together groups of people that are clearly visually distinct from each other, and leaves others out entirely

    Clearly race is an unreliable, inconsistent, self-contradictory, qualitative and totally subjective categorization of humans. There is no other logical conclusion but that it is unscientific.
    Reply
  • knot sure
    Ugh? Whether or not this is PC, not PC, genotypical or phenotypical it is LAUGHABLE that a myopic view of what constitutes a, "minority" is AVOIDED when one thinks about the 6 or 7 billion people on earth... So whom is really a, "minority?" Ugh. LOL. Not Asians, not Africans, not every other, "minority" you can phenotypically describe... No, in the overall pizza pie slice diagram of EITHER race or ethnicity, CAUCASIANS are a MINORITY in global population. Duh. So why pretend? If a person with more consants than vowels in their name (who was apparently angelicly brought to and raised in the USA) can lash out, instead of being subjected to FGM, ethnic cleansing, slavery, or whatever OTHER atrocious behaviors STILL are PERPETRATED by people of either the same, "race or ethnicity" has apparently forgotten that slaves were for sale on the beaches of Africa, often traded for the harder alloy of bronze. The people who traded their next door neighbors were FLUSH with gold and slaves. They needed more bronze shackles from the (Latino) Portuguese.
    The hand that feeds you is the easiest to bite.
    Don't forget the WORLDWIDE pie diagram when you think of what constitutes a "minority, or race, or ethnicity" of people's. Please correct me if statistics, history, or inconvenient truths embarrass myopic views... Duh.
    Reply
  • knot sure
    Oops. I accidentally uttered the inconvenient truth that Caucasians are a minority when you consider the bulk of Asia, the subcontinent of India, the overcrowded islands of Indonesia, and the burgeoning slums outside the, "5 eyes" countries. IMHO we are are all equal. Period. Just don't lecture me on birth control into already impoverished scenarios, or the accompanying stupidity that follows. It is overlooked by this article that SOME THINGS ARE EASY TO SEE. whether phenotypical or genotypical, "you can not fix stupid." And as Forrest Gump said, "stupid is, as stupid does." Which explains perfectly the population rise in impoverished majorities. Who in the, "first world" dares to call them out on their profligacy? Their ineptitude at managing their scarce (oops, their fault again) resources. The simple FACT that the Paris climate accord " front loaded" and gave both India and China 50 more years to.pollute and build coal plants... Meanwhile, I can't get a plastic straw in the USA, because 80% of the pollution in the world's oceans comes from 8 (magic) rivers in Asia.... Duh.
    I don't care about the color of your skin, but as every one forgets Martin Luther King Jr.'s SECOND HALF of that sentence, "but rather that they be judged by the CONTENT OF THEIR CHARACTER." DUH. Please forgive the surprise that I have sprung on the uninformed, the denying fools, or the ignorant that comprise 74% of the, "bell curve." You are what you eat, and you will reap what you sow... So lay off the, Bush meat" and the bat soup... Because Y'all infected yourselves with the crowning achievement of the 2020 Darwin Award, LOL (corona virus) just like the Bush meat eaters in Africa could not resist the plagues that haunt them, too.

    Stupid is as stupid does.
    Peace out.
    Reply