The Difference Between Race and Ethnicity

How the US Census Bureau Identifies Ethnicity and Race

race vs ethnicity

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

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Race and ethnicity are used to categorize sections of the population. In basic terms, race describes physical traits, and ethnicity refers to cultural identification. Race may also be identified as something you inherit, whereas ethnicity is something you learn.

This article details the differences between race and ethnicity, how the terms overlap, and how various groups are categorized according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Race is biological, describing physical traits inherited from your parents. Ethnicity is your cultural identity, chosen or learned from your culture and family.

Race vs. Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are typically misunderstood, because many people simply don’t fit into neat categories offered on forms with checkboxes. People are able to self-identify their ethnicities and, to some extent, their races.

Race
  • Narrow

  • Based on similar physical and biological attributes

Ethnicity
  • Broad

  • Based on cultural expression and place of origin

Race

Merriam-Webster defines race as “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.”

Race is usually associated with biology and linked with physical characteristics such as hair texture and skin color. It covers a relatively narrow range of options. Yet people of similar complexions/hair textures can be defined as different races, and the definitions in the U.S. have changed over time.

Although some may be considered to be of a certain race (e.g., Black), a person may identify more with an individual ethnicity, as opposed to race. This could apply for any member of any race.

When completing paperwork that asks for race, you may be asked to identify yourself as belonging to one or more of the following categories:

  • White
  • Black or African American
  • Asian
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander

Sometimes, you may be asked to select just one category. At other times, you may be invited to check all the categories that apply.

Ethnicity

Ethnicity is a broader term than race. The term differentiates among groups of people according to cultural expression and identification.

Commonalities such as race, national origin, tribal heritage, religion, language, and culture can describe someone’s ethnicity.

Whereas someone might say their race is “Black,” their ethnicity might be Italian. LIkewise, someone might say their race is "White," and their ethnicity is Irish.

The US Census Bureau, Race, and Ethnicity

You might wonder why you’re asked about race and ethnicity when you complete the census, medical forms, and job applications.

Race Data

Race data affects the funding of government programs that provide services for specific groups.

The Bureau collects data about race also because they’re ensuring that policies serve the needs of all racial groups. They want to monitor compliance with antidiscrimination laws and regulations, too.

The data on race is based on self-identification and is not “an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.” Census respondents can mark more than one race on the form to indicate their racial mixture.

The U.S. Census Bureau asks about race and ethnicity to collect information about populations, specifically those who tend to be underserved. This data is used to:

  • Ensure fairness in the distribution of aid
  • Enforce compliance with antidiscrimination laws
  • Develop new programs and funding to address the needs of various groups
  • Gauge effectiveness of existing initiatives
  • Address race and ethnicity issues in obtaining access to healthcare and assistance


The categories listed under “Race” have evolved over the last 200-plus years. Some of the previously used terms are now considered offensive and have been removed. The ways the questions are asked have also shifted. At one point, people were asked for their “race” and “origin,” but this proved too confusing.

https://www.verywellmind.com/domestic-violence-varies-by-ethnicity-62648

Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau uses the following guide to help people pick the category that best describes them:

White

“The category ‘White’ includes all individuals who identify with one or more nationalities or ethnic groups originating in Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”

Some examples of these groups include: German, Italian, Lebanese, Cajun, Chaldean, Slavic, Iranian, French, Polish, Egyptian, Irish, and English.

Black or African American

“The category ‘Black or African American’ includes all individuals who identify with one or more nationalities or ethnic groups originating in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.”

Example of people from these groups include: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, and Somali.

People who identify as Ghanaian, South African, Barbadian, Kenyan, Liberian, and Bahamian also fall under this category.

American Indian or Alaska Native

“The category ‘American Indian or Alaska Native’ includes all individuals who identify with any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintain tribal affiliation or community attachment.” 

Groups that fall under this category include:

  • Navajo Nation
  • Blackfeet Tribe
  • Mayan
  • Aztec
  • Native Village of Barrow Inupiat Traditional Government
  • Nome Eskimo Community

Asian

“The category ‘Asian’ includes all individuals who identify with one or more nationalities or ethnic groups originating in the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.”

There are individual Asian checkboxes for people who identify as one or more of the following:

  • Chinese
  • Filipino
  • Asian Indian
  • Vietnamese
  • Korean
  • Japanese
  • Other Asian (e.g., Pakistani, Cambodian, and Hmong)

Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander

“The category ‘Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander’ includes all individuals who identify with one or more nationalities or ethnic groups originating in Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.” 

There are individual Pacific Islander checkboxes for people who identify as one or more of the following:

  • Native Hawaiian
  • Samoan
  • Chamorro
  • Other Pacific Islander (e.g., Tongan, Fijian, and Marshallese)

Some Other Race

If you do not identify with any of the above groups, you can choose "Some Other Race" and input how you identify yourself.

Ethnicity Data

The U.S. Census Bureau asks whether you’re of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish descent. They recognize that individuals who describe themselves as fitting into this category may be of any race.

https://www.verywellmind.com/the-latinx-community-and-the-u-s-census-5191182

The Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish categories refer to people who identify with any of the ethnic groups originating from:

  • Mexico
  • Puerto Rico
  • Cuba
  • Other Spanish cultures (e.g., Salvadoran, Dominican, Spaniard, Colombian, Guatemalan, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Honduran, etc.)

If you do not identify with any of these groups, you would select the option "Not of Hispanic, Spanish, or Latino origin."

Problems With Categorization

Some scholars argue that race is cultural and reflects specific attitudes and beliefs imposed on populations in the wake of the Western European conquests of the 15th century.

Historically, the idea of race has been used to divide members of society, and it’s often based on superficial physical attributes.

Research shows that people who have similar physical attributes aren’t as similar genetically as some people think. Researchers have found that skin color variations stem from adaptations to the environment. For example, dark skin colors evolved because of solar exposure. Grouping people according to their skin color shows only that their ancestors got similar amounts of sunlight—and they may actually have very little in common genetically.

People Don’t Always Fit Into Categories

Although organizations might want to collect statistics on race and ethnicity, people don’t always fit into simple categories.

Many individuals identify with several racial and ethnic backgrounds. They may have been raised by parents from very different groups. And they might not want to pick which group they belong to.

Instead, they can identify as belonging to many groups, or they could feel as though they make up a smaller group that is not an option on a form. Fill-in-the-blank questions are helpful in that case.

We Are More Alike Than We Are Different

According to the human genome project, our DNA is 99.9% the same, and less than 1% of DNA accounts for the differences among people. In other words, we should celebrate and appreciate the differences of one another while keeping in mind we are all part of the same human family.

A Word From Verywell

The difference between race and ethnicity is not always clear-cut. This is why forms are constantly evolving, along with our understanding of both race and ethnicity.

The terms we use, the categories we offer, and our beliefs about genetic makeup will continue to change over time. But for now, government forms are likely to continue asking questions about both race and ethnicity—even though not everyone will agree with the questions or the answer options.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Merriam-Webster. Race.

  2. United States Census Bureau. Why We Ask About...Race.

  3. United States Census 2020. 2020 Census Questions: Race.

  4. United States Census Bureau. Why We Ask About...Ethnicity.

  5. United States Census 2020. 2020 Census Questions: Hispanic Origin.

  6. Wade P. Race. Encyclopædia Britannica.

  7. Jablonski NG, Chaplin G. Human skin pigmentation as an adaptation to UV radiation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2010;107(Supplement_2):8962-8968. doi:10.1073/pnas.0914628107

  8. National Human Genome Research Institute. Genetics vs. Genomics Fact Sheet.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.