What’s the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity?

Nisei Week Festival

Young Japanese American girls dress in kimonos during the 2017 Nisei Week Festival closing ceremony at Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. This is a perfect example of how we can display our ethnic group through dressing. Kit Leong/Shutterstock

Cornell and Hartmann define ethnicity this way:

“A sense of common ancestry based on cultural attachments, past linguistic heritage, religious affiliations, claimed kinship, or some physical traits.”

The difference between race and ethnicity then? Whereas race is mostly defined and determined by physical characteristics, ethnicity refers to a person’s culture, language, family and place of origin. (Nationalities are thrown into the mix, too.)


Examples of ethnicity include being Indian, Jewish or Asian, regardless of race. So a female born to Japanese parents in Atlanta might consider herself as racially Asian, but as ethnically Japanese, American, Japanese American or even just American.

Clothes can play a big part, too. A Scottish American man wearing a plaid or tartan kilt, an Indian American woman wearing a sari, and a Japanese American woman wearing a kimono are all examples of how people display their ethnic group through dressing.

Both race and ethnicity, it’s argued, are socially defined. Neither is biologically valid. Interestingly, Cornell and Hartmann say that people are more likely to self-identify with multiple ethnicities than multiple races. Though, clearly, some consider themselves more than one race.

It’s important to note two other points the sociologists make about race and ethnicity.

Race, unlike ethnicity, is still mostly a term that is assigned by other groups (which often leads to one claiming superiority over the other). And racial identity is usually considered inherent. (In other words, you’re born as a certain race, and it’s generally not something you can change just by saying so. Remember Rachel Dolezal?).

That said, all these are observations, not rules. The rules, as we’ve said, are a tad murky.

“People have this kind of crazy idea about the purity of races … there’s no way to really isolate a race. And today, even more so, with intermarriage, with globalization,” Hartmann says, “those categories that we often think are so firm — Americans are so convinced there’s five main races, because we’ve acted like there are in our census and everything else. They get blurred and mixed up and they don’t make sense any more.”

If it’s logic we’re after when discussing the terms race and ethnicity, the last word probably ought to go to someone who’s an expert at words. Say, a poet:

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

Maya Angelou, “Human Family”


Originally Published: Jul 9, 2019

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