The Difference Between Race and Ethnicity

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Race and ethnicity are used to categorize certain 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 while ethnicity is something you learn.

This article details the differences between race and ethnicity and also defines the ways in which various groups are categorized according to the United States Census Bureau.

Race vs. Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are typically misunderstood as most people often don’t fit into neat categories that are offered on forms with checkboxes. We don’t necessarily have any tests or scientific basis to separate people out; people are able to self-identify.

Race
  • Narrow

  • Based on similar physical and biological attributes

Ethnicity
  • Broad

  • Based on cultural expression and place of origin

Race

The dictionary by 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 or skin color and covers a relatively narrow range of options. Yet people of similar complexions/hair textures can be defined as different races, and definitions in the United States have changed over time.

While some may be considered to be of a certain race, Black for example, people may identify more with their 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 is used to categorize groups of people according to their cultural expression and identification.

Commonalities such as racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin may be used to describe someone’s ethnicity.

While someone may say their race is “Black,” their ethnicity might be Italian, or someone may say their race is "White," and their ethnicity is Irish.

The United States Census Bureau

You may wonder why you’re asked about race and ethnicity when you complete medical forms or job applications.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau website, they ask about race and ethnicity because they’re collecting information about civil rights.

Race Data

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

They also collect data about race because they’re ensuring that policies serve the needs of all racial groups. They want to monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws and regulations as well.

Their data on race is based on self-identification. They report that their categories “are not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.” And they also make it clear that respondents can mark more than one race on the form to indicate their racial mixture.

The categories listed under “Race” have evolved over the last 200-plus years. Some of the terms that were previously used have been considered offensive and removed from the paperwork.

The ways the questions are asked have also shifted. At one point, people were asked for their “race” and “origin,” but this proved to be too confusing.

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 simply choose the "Some Other Race" category 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.

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 a cultural intervention that reflects specific attitudes and beliefs that were imposed on different 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.

There’s research showing 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. Darker skin colors evolved because of more solar exposure. So grouping people according to their skin color only shows 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

While organizations may want to collect statistics on a population’s race and ethnicity data, 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 may identify as belonging to many groups, or they could feel as though they make up a smaller group that doesn’t appear on the paperwork as an option (which is when the fill-in-the-blank type questions might be helpful).

We Are More Alike Than We Are Different

According to the human genome project, our DNA is 99.9% the same and the differences between people are accounted for are less than 1% of DNA. 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 issues surrounding what’s considered race and what’s considered ethnicity aren’t always clear-cut. This is why forms are constantly evolving—as is our understanding of both race and ethnicity.

The terms we use, the categories we offer, and our beliefs about genetic make-up 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.

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Article 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. Published 2020.

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

  4. United States Census Bureau. Why We Ask About...Ethnicity. Published 2020.

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

  6. Wade P. Race. Encyclopædia Britannica. Updated July 28, 2020.

  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. Updated September 2018.