Race and ethnicity: How are they different?

Race and ethnicity don't show up at the genetic level, but the concept of race still forms the human experience.

Photograph by Robin Hammond, Nat Geo Image Collection
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The four letters of the genetic code —A, C, G, and T—are projected onto Ryan Lingarmillar, a Ugandan. DNA reveals what skin color obscures: Race is a construct.
Photograph by Robin Hammond, Nat Geo Image Collection

Race and ethnicity: How are they different?

Race and ethnicity don't show up at the genetic level, but the concept of race still forms the human experience.

Race and ethnicity are two concepts related to human ancestry. Race is defined as “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.” The term ethnicities is more broadly defined as “large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.”

“Race” is usually associated with biology and linked with physical characteristics such as skin color or hair texture. “Ethnicity” is linked with cultural expression and identification. However, both are social constructs used to categorize and characterize seemingly distinct populations.

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Ethnicities share a cultural background. Mea Shearim neighborhood, just outside of Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, is populated mainly by Haredi Jews.

Genetics and race

Neither race nor ethnicity is detectable in the human genome. Humans do have genetic variations, some of which were once associated with ancestry from different parts of the world. But those variations cannot be tracked to distinct biological categories. Genetic tests cannot be used to verify or determine race or ethnicity, though the tests themselves are associated with an increased belief in racial differences.

Though race has no genetic basis, the social concept of race still shapes human experiences. Racial bias fuels social exclusion, discrimination and violence against people from certain social groups. In turn, racial prejudice confers social privilege to some and social and physical disparities to others, and is widely expressed in hierarchies that privilege people with white skin over people with darker skin colors.

Categorizing race

Race and ethnicity are often regarded as the same, but the social and biological sciences consider the concepts distinct. In general, people can adopt or deny ethnic affiliations more readily than racial ones, though different ethnicities have been folded into racial categories during different periods of history.

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Religious customs also play a part in ethnicity. Here, worshipers celebrate the blessing of the water and washing of the Ethiopian Patriarchs' feet on Holy Thursday in the Old City in Jerusalem.

As legal scholar Tanya K. Hernandez writes, “The social experience of being consistently viewed as distinct is what informs a racial identity, not a shared culture.” People who share an ethnicity may speak the same language, come from the same country, or share a religion or other cultural belief or expression.

These Twins Show That Race Is A Social Construct Marcia and Millie Biggs say they’ve never been subjected to racism—just curiosity and surprise that twins could have such different skin colors.

The politics of race

The United States government recognizes distinctions between the concept of race and ethnicity, and sorts individuals as White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, or “other.” It also recognizes two ethnicities: Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino. This demographic data in turn affects public policy and civil rights law.

Humans share over 99 percent of their genetic material with one another, and variation occurs more between individuals than ethnic groups. Nevertheless, the legacies of racial and ethnic constructs can be spotted in everything from housing to health. Racial and ethnic prejudices affect the distribution of wealth, power, and opportunity, and create enduring social stratifications.

Racial pride can foment racial prejudice, as in the case of white supremacists. But for members of groups marginalized because of race or ethnicity, involvement in activities that promote group pride can help lessen or offset the effects of racial discrimination and social prejudice. Though race and ethnicity are among the most divisive concepts in history, both irrevocably shape our social, personal, and cultural experiences.