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Ethnicity Vs. Race: A Definitive Comparison

Ethnicity Vs. Race
The only prime distinguishing characteristic between race and ethnicity is the physical appearance vs. the customs and traditional beliefs respectively. However, these are two overlapping concepts that have subtle differences. Here, we talk about what sets a person's race apart from his ethnicity.
Puja Lalwani
Last Updated: Apr 3, 2018
There has often been a great confusion in an attempt to distinguish race from ethnicity. Often, the two terms are interchangeably used, thereby creating a dilemma in differentiating one from the other. So are ethnicity and race the same thing? No. There are slight differences that set the two apart, though they are related to a certain extent. While race is related to biological characteristics, ethnicity is defined more on the lines of social grouping.

What is Race?
  • Meaning: Race refers to the biological aspects of a person. It comprises the skin color, hair color, eye color, and so on. It even comprises some of the health problems a particular race may be prone to.
  • Who Defines Race: Though this discretion of biological traits has been underlined, it is important to note that the variety of prevalent races have been defined by governments and laws, and not by science.
  • Indicator of Biological Traits: Race does not involve the behavioral or cultural tendencies of a person, as these are shaped mainly by the environment. If 3 different people belonging to the same race were to be placed in starkly different cultures, they would adapt to the behavior of those cultures and groups. However, their physical characteristics would remain unaltered.
  • Capable of Change: Racial differences, however, can be altered over time, when there is a crossover among different races. As such, race is also vulnerable to change. For instance, if an African-American were to marry a person of Chinese origin, this would lead to a change in the physical characteristics of a child born of this marriage. Thus, further such crossovers would lead to alterations in the race.
We all know about racism, and how it has made its mark in history. The Caucasians against the African-Americans, the Germans against the Jews, have led to several bloody wars just for a pure race. Over time, these conflicts have been reduced considerably, though traces of it still exist until this day.

Some examples of races include the Chinese, the Indians, the Arabs, and the African-Americans.

What is Ethnicity?
  • Meaning: Ethnicity refers to the culture, customs and traditions acquired from the environment one belongs to. Ethnic groups are marked by regional differences, and not physical characteristics.
  • Common History: Ethnic groups have a common history, and may even share their language and religion. However, this is not true of every ethnic group.
  • Capable of Change: While races may be altered over generations due to crossovers, the ethnicity of a person can easily change if he chooses to adopt the customs and traditions of another ethnic group.
There have been several clashes in history among various ethnic groups, though these have considerably subsided over time. An example is the clash between the Kurds in Iraq (who speak a language called Kurdish, similar to Arabic), and the Iraqis (who speak Persian).

Some examples of ethnicity include, the Hispanic or the Latin American community, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, Jews in Germany, the Native Americans in the United States of America.

A clear way of understanding the difference between ethnicity and race is this example. We all know that the African-Americans are a race that have emerged from the African continent. While their physical characteristics, such as the shape of their skull, their hair texture and their skin color are similar, the ethnic groups that they have now been divided into are numerous. There are African-Americans, North Africans (following Islam and belonging to Sudan, Somalia, etc.), and Sub-Saharan Africans. Each of these groups have adapted to different customs and traditions pertaining to the region they reside in. Their physical appearance, however, is similar.

A factor in this debate that is common to both race and ethnicity, is the ability to transcend religious barriers. While you may be born into a Christian family, it is not essential that you may follow all the religious traditions that a Christian does. This is true to both race and ethnicity. Thus, we cannot clearly differentiate race vs. ethnicity, and their definitions often overlap each other. While a race and an ethnic group can be similar, as is clear from the example mentioned above, races adapt to the ethnicity of the region they belong to.