Ethnicity vs. Race: What's in a Name?

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Difference between Ethnicity and Race

In general, some people tend to get race and ethnicity confused with one another because they seem to be the same thing. They are actually two completely different things and describe two different sets of characteristics. Both are used in the world to classify people and both have their pros and cons for classifying people. While ethnicity is what you usually fill out on school forms, tests, websites and such, race is what you truly and actually are. These two different things will be discussed further as you read along and hopefully the differences will become very clear.



Race is what we consider to be our biological subspecies. It’s defined by various characteristics including physical characteristics and a specific species. Ethnicity on the other hand has to do with cultural and physical characteristics. These characteristics are what help divide people into groups and categories which society uses to classify populations. Main categories listed as ethnic include Caucasian, African American, Latinos, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Native and Middle Eastern. Although these aren't representing all of the ethnic groups, these main groups are used on many forms and tests. If you can’t tell the difference, try thinking about it like this; race is nature while ethnicity is nurture.

Social or Biological

While some may argue that race is social it is actually biological. The only thing that is social is ethnicity and it’s a mixture of social and biological. It is because although part of it is what your race is (which is biological) other aspects of ethnicity are your location, background and culture. Race on the other hand is strictly what your body is physically made up of. Your race could be Italian, Portuguese, Asian, Chinese, Japanese, or a mixture of many different things. Some people can trace their genealogy to many races as their ancestors mated with foreigners.  


It could be a daunting task to figure out if someone is a certain race or not. While race is biological and can be proven or disproved, ethnicity is pure opinion and relies on categories made up by society. Anyone can change their ethnicity if one truly pictures themselves as fitting in with a social group. Some ethnicities are subcultures and share a body of tradition or even a language. They sometimes refer to themselves as ethnic groups. The bottom line between the two is that race is actually inherited while ethnicity is something that is learned or adopted.

Similarities and Differences

  • Race is something that is biological, that you can’t change.
  • Ethnicity is something that can be partially biological but mostly social.
  • You can change ethnicities at any time depending on how you live, your background and many other factors.
  • You can’t change your race but you can however have more then once race; you can have quite a few races mixed into your blood.
  • Each different race has defining characteristics from all of the others.


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