Difference Between Race and Ethnicity

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: April 30, 2023


Difference Between Race and Ethnicity

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In the modern sense, the term race has a similar meaning to ethnicity. However, ethnicity is a broad term that encompasses race. These words cannot be used interchangeably even though both describe human diversity. Both terms refer to a form of identity; one is believed to be biologically inherited (race), while the other is said to be acquired (ethnicity).

Ethnicity refers to a group or sub-group of people with the same cultural background or shared attributes that set them apart from other groups. The shared attributes may be ancestry, dressing style, cuisine, language, nation, mythology, social treatment, and so on. Ethnic groups can be subdivided, and these sub-divisions may become separate groups. On the other hand, separate/different ethnic groups can be merged to form pan-ethnicity; some groups may merge to form a single ethnic group. Ethnogenesis refers to this separation or merging of ethnic groups.

Race is a grouping of people based on their similar physical or social qualities. It is a touchy subject to many, as it served as the foundation of racism (the belief that one race is superior to the other). Different cultures define race in different ways. As the culture grows and develops, the definitions may change. Though the term race is used to group people with similar skin colors, facial features, hair texture, and so on, some believe it to be a social distinction than a biological one.

Race Vs. Ethnicity

People’s ethnicity is determined by their cultural heritage, nationality, the language they speak, and so on. The race of a person is most often determined by physical similarities. Moreover, a person’s race may be determined on the basis of ethnicity, but thier ethnicity cannot be determined by race (white people may be Americans, British, or French, who knows? More data is required to classify them).

Difference Between Race And Ethnicity In Tabular Form

Parameters Of Comparison Race Ethnicity
Narrow Or Broad Term Race has a narrower meaning. Ethnicity is a broad term that encompasses race.
Biological, Social, or Cultural similarities The people are grouped into races based predominantly on similar physical qualities (biology). However, some believe it is only a social construct, not a biological phenomenon. They argue that skin color variations result from adapting to the environment. Shared culture is the main characteristic of ethnic groups.
Merging of groups The amalgamation of races is not possible (white cannot be merged with black). But the meaning of race may change over time. Ethnic groups may be separated or merged.
Conflicts Racial prejudice has been a serious concern throughout history. However, conflicts between races are fewer at present. Ethnic conflicts are rare, but they can be brutal when fights break out between two ethnic groups.
Can a person belong to multiple groups? In most cases, an individual belongs to only one race. A person may belong to multiple ethnic groups.
Self-Identification People cannot choose their race. Others assign it to them. Ethnicity is self-identified. Learning and adopting other cultural norms or customs will help an individual belong to that group.
Need for profiling In some countries, racial profiling is done to help law enforcers perform their job conveniently. Ethnic profiles aid in ensuring equality and reducing the possibility of the emergence of ethnocracies in the future.

What Is Race?

A race is a group of people with similar bone structures, colors, and so on. The classical view is that races are biological phenomena; however, in modern times, many opine that it is only an idea formed and accepted by society (social construct) and has nothing to do with biology. In 2000, Robert Anderson proposed that race could be both a biological and a social construct. Some opine that races are born because of political decision-making.

Polygenism and monogenism are important theories related to races. The former is of the view that human races have different origins, whereas the latter proposes that humans have a single origin. Polygenesis is mentioned in many mythologies; it served as a way to explain the existence of outsiders.

Law enforcement officers use the term race to summarize the general appearance of people they need to catch. Usually, the racial category provides information about height, weight, eye color, and other distinctive marks. To them, it is more important to provide a description of an individual than get worked up about valid scientific categorization. However, many countries banned maintaining data based on race. In the United States, racial profiling is considered a violation of civil rights.

Forensic anthropologists (professionals who assist in identifying unrecognizable bodies) identify the body’s race, too. Such a practice challenged those who said races do not exist and opted for less loaded words. However, the assignment of race to a body/skeletal remains merely means that such a social construct exists; it does not support racial discrimination.

What Is Ethnicity?

Primordialism vs instrumentalism is a debate that factored into the study of ethnicity until recently. Primordialism is the idea that ethnic identities are fixed, natural, and closely linked to nations. However, many scholars of ethnicity rejected this, as they were of the view that a person has multiple ethnic identities that changes over time. Instrumentalism views ethnicity as a tool in political strategy. Max Webber viewed ethnicity as a social construct. In modern times, ethnicity refers to grouping people based on shared culture, language, or territory (they are further sub-classified into many groups).

Ethnic nationalism is a form of nationalism in which ethnicity defines the nation. Ethnocentrism and sometimes ethnocracy is strongly emphasized in such nations. Ethnocracy is a political structure in which the dominant ethnic group has the power to further its own interests. Most ethnocracies put up a façade of democracy. In such regimes, citizenship does not matter; it is race, religion, or language that matters.

If the dominant ethnic group’s population is less than 20% of the total population, the need to use control systems to suppress the majority is more. Belgium, Latvia and Estonia, and Northern Ireland are some examples of ethnocracies. If only one ethnic group dominates, it is a mono-ethnocracy (the traditional form of ethnocracy). In poly ethnocracy, more than one ethnic group governs.

Ethnic Conflict is a conflict between two or more ethnic groups; the groups may fight because of political disagreement, religion, or the position of one group in society. Political scientists opine that ethnic wars are not the result of clashing ethnicities but the unfortunate result of political decisions. Politicians will not make appeals based on ethnicity if there is no ethnic difference to be exploited.

Therefore, though ethnic difference alone cannot explain why a conflict takes place, it does play a crucial role in conflicts. In fact, online social media contributed a lot to amplifying ethnic conflicts and violence in the early twenty-first century. An excellent example is the ethnic violence in Ethiopia during 2019-20.

Types Of Ethnicity

Depending on which factor is emphasized to determine identity, ethnicity can be classified as follows: Ethno-Linguistic (people are grouped based on language, dialect, or script), Ethno-National (national identity is used to group people), Ethno-Racial (emphasizes physical similarities), Ethno-Religious (the emphasis is on which religion or sect the group belongs to), Ethno-Cultural (groups people based on shared culture or customs).

Different Approaches To Understanding Ethnicity

The meaning of ethnicity has changed and evolved over the years. In addition to Primordialism and Instrumentalism, some of the well-known approaches to understanding it are as follows:


This approach considers ethnic communities and nations as the same. According to perpetual perennialism, some ethnic groups/nations have existed throughout history. Situational perennialism holds that nations or ethnic groups emerge, change, dissolve, and reappear. According to this view, ethnicity is a political tool to manipulate resources to favor a particular group.

Instrumentalist perennialism views ethnicity as a mechanism used for establishing social hierarchy. Ethnic stratification occurs when certain ethnic groups show a high degree of ethnocentrism (the group looks at the world from the perspective of its culture and demeans other groups). Competition between the groups results in stratification and conflicts.


This approach holds that ethnicity is a result of social interactions and considers primordialism and perennialism as flawed. Modern constructivism argues that ethnicity is a modern invention that appears only in modern history.

Ethnicity Theory

Robert E. Park’s ethnicity theory attributes ethnic discrimination to the failure of colored people (though race is not the only factor that determines ethnicity) to blend in with American culture. Park opined that they could become equal to other ethnic groups if they abandoned their ‘inferior’ cultures. However, Omi and Winant heavily criticized this theory.

Ethnic Groups Of Various Continents

In Africa, thousands of ethnic groups are found. Some of the major ethnic groups are the Arabs, Igbo, Berbers, Shona, and Zulu (the list goes on). The predominant ethnolinguistic groups are Afro-Asiatic, Khoisan, Niger-Congo, and Nilo-Saharan. Ethnic groups are abundant in Asia. Some groups are hunter-gatherers, some have been agriculturists for millennia, while others became urban (Hong Kong and Shanghai). In Indonesia, the government recognizes 1300 ethnic groups. Russia has 185 known ethnic groups.

Eighty-seven distinct ethnic groups are found in Europe; the list is not complete, as some countries (France and Switzerland) do not collect the ethnic information of their citizens. Roma, a large nomadic ethnic group in Europe is known as gypsies. They speak the Romani language (Vlax Romani, Balkan Romani, and Sinte Romani are the most spoken among the seven major varieties of Romani).

White Americans, Hispanic and Latino Americans, and Asian Americans are the major ethnic groups in North America. Most Mexican Americans (a sub-division of Latino Americans) have mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry (mestizo). Some of the other well-known ethnic groups in the US are Germans, Scottish, Irish, Puerto Ricans, and so on. South American ethnic groups are mostly indigenous. Africans, Amerindians, and Europeans are the major races found here. Mixed races are common in South America. Mestizo, Zambo, and Mulatto are all terms that refer to people with different mixed ancestry. This continent has more than 5 million Asians (the majority of which are East Asians).

Except for Australia, New Zealand, and Norfolk Island, most states of Oceania have indigenous populations – Australian Aboriginals, Austronesians (further classified as Melanesians, Micronesians, and Polynesians), and Papuans. Euronesians, descendants of early British and Tahitian settlers are also found here. Bonin Islands, too, has a small population of early European settlers.

Main Difference Between Race And Ethnicity In Points

  • Race is only one of the factors that determine a person’s ethnicity. Language, culture, ancestry, and so on play a role in determining ethnicity.
  • Multi-ethnicity or having multiple ethnic identities is possible, whereas a person cannot belong to more than one race.
  • Though ethnic nationalism and ethnocracies are prevalent today (thinly veiled as democracies), a political structure in which a particular race dominates is not present (though there were some examples in the past).
  • Race is a social construct and thus is assigned to an individual by society. People can self-identify themselves as belonging to a certain ethnic group (in some countries, law enforcement officers must accept this identification even if the apprehended persons identify themselves as belonging to the wrong group).
  • The ethnicity of a person may change (for example they may choose to follow another culture or learn a new language). The race of a person is fixed and cannot be changed.
  • Ethnic groups are much more diverse and complex than the different races identified.
  • Ethnic discrimination leads to ethnic stratification or ethnocracies. Racial discrimination is detrimental to the interests/rights of the races considered inferior.


Ethnicity or race would not matter if a nation treats everyone equally as citizens and stops viewing them as political pawns. The people, too, should realize that the characters of all humans are similar; what each individual looks like, how they dress, or whom they are descended from is not of import. Exploiters will always look for ways to instigate ethnic or racial conflicts to achieve what they want. However, they cannot fool responsible citizens who overcome minor differences and stand united.


  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnicity#
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_South_America#Racial
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_language
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_nationalism#Contemporary_examples
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_conflict#Ethnic_conflict_amplification
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_(human_categorization)#Views_across_disciplines_over_time
  • https://www.verywellmind.com/difference-between-race-and-ethnicity-5074205
  • https://www.livescience.com/difference-between-race-ethnicity.html


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"Difference Between Race and Ethnicity." Diffzy.com, 2023. Mon. 29 May. 2023. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-race-and-ethnicity-1265>.

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