Ethnicity vs. Race, Part 1

Headshots of both professors

When talking about race and ethnicity, there are certain characteristics that can help people understand the differences.

“Ethnicity is not best understood in visible terms. Ethnicity is cultural: the foods we eat, the holidays we celebrate, our traditions, what we do with our families, how we absorb that at birth,” explains Rhode Island College Professor of Sociology Mikaila Arthur.

“On the other hand, race is what sociologists would call an ascribed status, which means it’s really determined by other people’s perception of you,” she says. “We treat skin color as a characteristic of race even though race is not biological. You cannot do a genetic test and tell what color someone is. There are many different genes involved. Race is something we as a people have created and used to stratify.”

“Race has been significant from the development of this country’s history, going back to when the European conquerors colonized North America,” notes Assistant Professor of Secondary Education History and Social Studies Tommy Ender, yet one’s racial identity and ethnic identity are not the same.

Ender, who is of Colombian, Italian, Spanish and German descent but identifies as Latino, says many factors make up someone’s ethnic identity, such as their cultural pastimes such as baseball or soccer. “For example, people from the Caribbean like baseball, and I like it because I grew up with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. When I got to college I played soccer with Colombians, Ecuadorians and Argentinians. I rely on those cultural things.” He adds, “The language, music, films, books in Spanish, those little common threads built a unique overall identity for Latinos living in a place like the United States.” 

In the United States we tend to lump different ethnic groups under one umbrella. This is called ‘panethnicity,’ says Arthur. Asian Americans are often grouped together in this way as well as people of Latino and Hispanic heritage.

Ender explains that there are 18 countries beyond Mexico with Spanish as their main language, and each one has different ethnicities and cultural practices. “You often have to explain to people that because you are Latino does not mean that you are Mexican,” he says. “There are differences between being Colombian, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan – and there is also Brazil, which has around 28 ethnic identities.”

For Ender, whose mom is Muisca (an indigenous community in Colombia), knowing one’s ancestry is important. “My mother established this hierarchy among different Latin American countries based on the language,” he notes. “Mexican Spanish is different than Colombian Spanish which is drastically different than Argentinian.” 

“Latin America is a very mixed society. People from all over the world have lived together in Latin America for hundreds of years,” Arthur concludes. “Of course, that is true in the United States, as well. But here, people have often treated racial categories as fixed hierarchies rather than focusing on understanding the history and complexity of our society.”

See Part 2 of this article