Race vs. Ethnicity: When to Use Ethnicity vs. Race in English

When you’re describing where someone comes from, two words come to mind: race vs. ethnicity. They both are used to provide some background on the person in question. However, they mean two very different things and shouldn’t be confused. Often used interchangeably in daily conversation, these terms have distinct meanings that reflect different aspects of our identities.

The Main Difference between Race vs. Ethnicity

Key Takeaways

  • Race is generally based on physical characteristics such as skin color, while ethnicity is associated with cultural factors like nationality, language, and customs.
  • Race is often seen as a social construct with no biological basis, while ethnicity is linked to shared cultural heritage and identity.
  • Individuals can belong to multiple ethnicities, but race is often viewed as more fixed and limited to a few categories.

Race vs. Ethnicity

Race vs. Ethnicity: The Definition

Defining Race

When we divide people into groups based on their RACE, we do that based on some specific physical traits that all the members of the group must have. People of the same race have various common biological and genealogical characteristics, such as the color of their skin, or the shape of their face. That is why discrimination against people whose skin color is different is called racism. History is full of examples of race-based conflicts, e.g. between white and African-American people in the United States.

Defining Ethnicity

Different ethnicity, however, means a different nationality and different cultural traditions. People who belong to the same ethnic group share culture, history and, in many cases, religion and a language. Different ethnic groups mostly coexist quite peacefully in the same nation or country but some conflicts are known. For instance, that is the conflict between the Tamil and the Sinhalese, the two ethnicities that live side by side in Sri Lanka.

The Differences

There are a lot fewer races than there are ethnicities. This is because ethnicity can be construed more widely or more narrowly. For example, people who come from Great Britain can say that their ethnicity is British; or they can be more precise and specify that their ethnicity is Welsh or Scottish.

This can’t happen with races. Take the Caucasian race: people who belong to it all have light skin, light eyes, thin lips, and straight or wavy hair. There are some other characteristics that describe the appearance of a person but none of them specify the country that this person comes from. Therefore, you can meet a Caucasian person in America, in Russia, and in France; while they will have the same race, they will have three very different ethnicities. They will have different traditions, speak different languages, and believe in different things because they weren’t raised in the same background.

One other difference between race vs. ethnicity is that, in contrast with race, ethnicity can be self-identified. It’s impossible to choose which race you belong to. However, you can move to another country, learn the language and all the traditions and start identifying as a representative of whichever ethnicity you prefer.

To put it very simply, anyone who has the same color as you is also of the same race. And those people who live in the same country as you, follow the same traditions and speak the same language, in most cases belong to the same ethnic group as you.

Tip to Remember the Differences

  • R in Race can remind us of “Roots” referring to physical traits stemming from our genetic lineage.
  • E in Ethnicity evokes “Expression,” signaling our cultural group including practices, language, and beliefs.

Race vs. Ethnicity Examples

Race Examples

  • The census collected data on race for demographic analysis.
  • Laws prohibit discrimination based on race.
  • The study examined health disparities across race.
  • Race is a social construct, not a genetic determinant.
  • Race-based classifications lack a biological foundation.
  • The exhibit highlighted human race diversity.
  • Race is often visible in physical characteristics.

Ethnicity Examples

  • The festival celebrated the rich tapestry of ethnicity and culture in the city.
  • In the melting pot of the metropolis, ethnicity plays a key role in people’s identities.
  • Discrimination based on ethnicity is illegal and goes against the company’s policies on diversity and inclusion.
  • The study aimed to explore the relationship between ethnicity and health outcomes.
  • Her ethnicity is part of her heritage, and she takes great pride in it.
  • The school’s curriculum was designed to be inclusive of all ethnicity and backgrounds.

Related Confused Words with Race or Ethnicity

Race vs. Nationality

Race typically refers to a categorization of people based on physical characteristics such as skin color, facial features, and hair texture. It is a social construct that has been historically used to differentiate and classify groups of people.

Nationality, on the other hand, pertains to the legal relationship between an individual and a sovereign state. It denotes the country of citizenship or the nation with which a person is affiliated. Nationality is often tied to legal and political considerations, including rights and responsibilities associated with citizenship.

Race vs. Culture

Race typically refers to a categorization of people based on physical characteristics such as skin color, facial features, and hair texture. It is a social construct that has been historically used to differentiate and classify groups of people.

Culture, on the other hand, encompasses a broad range of elements including customs, traditions, language, arts, and social behaviors that are shared by a particular group of people. Culture is shaped by a variety of factors such as history, geography, religion, and societal norms.

Ethnicity vs. Heritage

Ethnicity refers to the shared cultural characteristics that connect a group of people, such as language, traditions, customs, and history. It is about the cultural identity that people have in common, which can include a shared sense of ancestry or lineage.

Heritage, on the other hand, encompasses the legacy passed down from previous generations. It includes not just cultural practices and traditions, but also historical sites, artifacts, literature, and other tangible and intangible assets inherited from the past. Heritage can be associated with a particular ethnic group, but it can also be broader, including national, regional, or familial legacies.

Race vs. Ethnicity: Practice and Exercises

Below are a list of characteristics. For each characteristic, decide whether it is more likely to be associated with the concept of ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’.

  1. Skin color
  2. National origin
  3. Genetic ancestry
  4. Shared language
  5. Cultural practices
  6. Hair texture
  7. Historical experiences
  8. Belief systems
  9. Geographic ancestry
  10. Cuisine and dietary habits


  1. Race
  2. Ethnicity
  3. Race
  4. Ethnicity
  5. Ethnicity
  6. Race
  7. Ethnicity
  8. Ethnicity
  9. Race
  10. Ethnicity

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you differentiate between race and ethnicity?

Race is primarily associated with physical characteristics such as skin color, facial features, and hair texture that are shared by a group. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is related to cultural factors like nationality, language, religion, and traditions.

Can you give examples of how race and ethnicity might differ for an individual?

An individual might be racially categorized as Asian based on physical traits but ethnically identify as Vietnamese, reflecting their specific cultural background and heritage. Another person might be racially classified as Black and ethnically as Caribbean if their roots trace back to that region.

What are the commonly recognized racial categories?

Common racial categories include White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. These classifications are often used in demographic surveys and censuses.

In what ways can ethnicity be determined?

Ethnicity is determined by a group’s common cultural aspects such as shared language, ancestry, practices, and beliefs. It reflects a group’s historical roots and can encompass their collective memories and shared experiences.

How do cultural and social factors influence ethnic identity?

Cultural and social factors like the community one grows up in, traditions practiced at home, language spoken, and religious affiliations play a significant role in shaping a person’s ethnic identity, influencing how they perceive themselves and how others perceive them.

Why is understanding the distinction between race and ethnicity important in society?

Understanding the distinction between race and ethnicity is crucial for appreciating the diversity and complexity of human identities. It helps in acknowledging and respecting the varied backgrounds that contribute to social richness, and it’s pivotal in addressing issues of equity and social justice.