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Breakdown: Race vs. Ethnicity

Written by Emily Heraty

A common misconception in discourse on racial issues is that race and ethnicity are interchangeable. This is far from the case, and confusion between the two terms leads to flawed arguments.  For example, a popular argument on the existence of reverse racism is the historical persecution and discrimination towards Eastern Europeans by Western Europeans. This is where the distinction between ethnicity and race is crucial. Indigenous Europeans all share the same race- white. The plight of Eastern Europeans was not reverse racism in action. It was the result of prejudice based on ethnicity. The difference between race and ethnicity is small, but it is important to remember in dialogue dealing with either of them.

Race, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is, “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits”. Race deals with your biological make-up, and is not affected by where you call home or immigration. Exact markers of race can be fluid, but most people identify as partially or completely White, Black, Asian, Indigenous North/Central/South American, or Pacific Islander. Again, your race has nothing to do with where you live and presently people of every race live all across the world.

Ethnicity, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is, “a particular ethnic affiliation or group”. Ethnicity is all about how you mentally perceive yourself and how you identify culturally. It can be based on your nationality, regional culture, or language. For example, you might be black but call yourself Laotian, because you were born and raised in Laos. Most people born on American soil would describe themselves as American, but come from every racial background. Ethnicity pertains to all sociological factors, which mean they deal with how you were brought up and where.

An important thing to keep in mind is that an ethnicity has no color. People of every race are incredibly diverse, and can’t be contained to one cultural background or experience. No race is monolithic! Your perception of how a person should act, look, or speak is not law, and people do not have to conform for you. In short, race and ethnicity are not synonyms and should not be treated as such in any educated discussions.

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