What Is The Difference Between Race And Ethnicity?

Race and ethnicity are terms used to group and categorise people.

While these two terms are often used interchangeably and have similar overlapping ideals, they have distinct meanings.

At some point in our lives, we might get asked, ‘Where are you from?’. Or ‘What is your ethnic background? What is your race?’

Endless faces of race and ethnicity | Weekly Photo Challenge: Elemental.

Endless faces of race and ethnicity | Weekly Photo Challenge: Elemental.

That’s when we might realise each word can be hard to define and understand.

Defining race

Race is often associated with physical traits, features and attributes. Someone’s race is usually defined based on unconscious first looks and impressions.

In other words, race relates to the way we look, associated with skin colour, eyes, hair, facial structure, height and clothes that we wear.

From a biological and anthropological perspective, archaeologist William Haviland argues race is ‘defined as a subspecies, or a population of a species differing geographically, morphologically, or genetically from other populations of the same species.’

Similarly, author Raj S. Bhopal mentioned race in the biological sciences is ‘one of the divisions of humankind based on physical characteristics’.

Commonly, race refers to a particular population or group of people who look a certain way. It is categorised in broad terms such as white, black, Asian, European, African, Hispanic, Indian and Middle Eastern.

Race and ethnicity seem similar.

Race and ethnicity seem similar.

From a young age, as a Chinese-Australian I realised people look different from each other. When I was five and in preschool in Australia, two of my Western classmates took turns picking teammates for their basketball team during PE class. White kid after white kid with fair hair were picked…until there was me with yellow skin, dark-brown-hair, shorter than everyone else, standing alone waiting to be picked.

Race has also been proposed as a social construct and there might be only one biological race. In a research article on human genetics published in 2013, four scientists hypothesised ‘there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one.’

For a decade the Humane Genome Project mapped genes and sequenced human DNA collected across different continents and suggested there is actually significantly less genes than thought. Human beings are 99.9% similar in their genetic makeup and similar at molecular level. One the other hand, this argument has always been debatable with scientists uncovering that each of us have different copies of genes.

Race and ethnicity are more complex than they sound.

Race and ethnicity are more complex than they sound.

Defining ethnicity

Ethnicity is often defined as the common cultural traits and identities shared by a group of people. These traits include customs practiced, languages spoken, religions adopted and where our ancestors lived are some markers of ethnicity.

Author Donald L. Horowitz argues ethnicity is a concept that ‘embraces groups differentiated by color, language, and religion’. Anthropologist Steve Fenton proposes ethnicity is ‘a group which fundamentally shares cultural values…a membership which identifies itself and identifiable by others’.

We might identify with a certain ethnicity or feel part of an ethnic group when we relate to the values, mannerisms and cultural practices shared by others in the group. People of similar ethnicity may find they relate to where they’ve been, where they’re from and what they’ve experienced.

Examples of ethnic groups include being labelled Chinese, Jewish, Bengali, Cambodian, Muslim, Irish, Scottish and Japanese.

Different racial and ethnic groups create hierarchies.

Different racial and ethnic groups create hierarchies.

Race vs. ethnicity

We can think of race as something we can see while ethnicity as something we feel emotionally and spiritually.

Sociologists Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartmann suggest racial identities typically encompass multiple ethnic identities. For instance, someone who is perceived as Asian could possess varying ethnic identities based on Chinese or Korean cultural attributes.

These days both race and ethnicity are seen beyond their traditional meanings – and like race, ethnicity is also seen as a social construct. Ethnic identities and categories can be time and context specific; changing factors can redefine ethnicity over time and different ethnic groups sit along different social hierarchies.

For example, practices of a cultural group, their languages spoken and dress sense can change over time. These changes can be attributed to assimilation or invention and adoption of new practices and tastes as ethnic groups go about their lives personally and professionally.

Philosopher Naomi Zack argues no single gene determines a person’s race in the context of biological sciences research and ‘a changing idea and system of behavior that human beings invent and reinvent about themselves and others’.

It has also been suggested in the US that racial categories ‘no longer exist…due to later policy changes, people from these groups began to be accepted into the wider “white” race’.

In other words, ‘race’ and ‘ethnic’ are constantly changing, fluid concepts. Racial and ethnic identities are also perceived differently by each individual.

Sometimes we feel like we don't belong to a certain racial or ethnic group.

Sometimes we feel like we don’t belong to a certain racial or ethnic group.

When I went to an international primary school in Malaysia, half of my classmates were Chinese, Malay and Indian Malaysians and the other half westerners from the US, Britain and Australia. Being part of a class of kids with different physical features and speech patterns was normal for us and most of us got along. Learning was our common goal.

Here I realised although some of us are from the same ethnic group, we might feel worlds apart. There were times when I got a taste of white privilege. During recess, my Malaysian classmates went, ‘I want to hang out with Mabel. Because she’s Australian. She has such white skin’.

Part of me felt amused (I didn’t see the sun a lot living in Melbourne before moving to Asia). Part of me felt flattered (popular!). But all of me felt too white to be Asian, too Asian to be white.

Consequently hierarchical tensions and racism manifest alongside different racial and ethnic groups. Some groups or individuals will be regarded as part of a minority in a given space. Accordingly, sociologist Louis Wirth defines a minority group as ‘any group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment’.

Where we belong, sometimes that's unknown.

Where we belong, sometimes that’s unknown.

Not everyone fits a stereotype

Certain racial and ethnic identities might be more common in a given place and time. This can be due to geographical movements in history and changing cultural practices over time.

Charles Darwin proposed the Theory of Evolution and suggested species develop through ‘natural selection of small, inherited variations to compete, survive and reproduce’. Thomas Huxley coined the term Darwinism in April 1860, a term frequently used to describe a natural kind of physical change.

Despite the heated debates against this theory, evolution of genes – and hence evolution of race and ethnicities – can happen in the most mysterious of ways. In recent years scientists discovered ‘orphan genes’ aren’t duplicated from existing genes and despite further gene sequencing experimentation, these orphans didn’t return to a particular gene family.

In Australia, the landscape of race and ethnicity has always been an evolving one. The British colonised Australia in the 1700s and 1800s and convicts from Europe were resettled here. The White Australia Policy and Immigration Restriction Act were adopted in the 1900s, restricting ‘non-white’ immigration. The policy was gradually abolished in 1973 and subsequently, migration increased. Today, Indigenous Australians are regarded as the First Peoples of Australia.

According to the 2016 Census, 26% of Australians are born overseas with England, New Zealand, China and Philippines topping the overseas-born countries. 33.5% Australians identified their ancestry as ‘Australian’ and 36.1% ‘English’.

What it means to be Australian has changed over the years. ‘Australian’ is a nationality but also encompasses myriad races and ethnicities.

In this culturally diverse world, one might feel caught in between different racial and ethnic groups.

For instance, one might not have the stereotypical features of a certain racial group yet are born into a family of that particular ‘race’ – think someone who has parents of two different ancestries. One might not fit stereotypical ethnic traits and don’t feel like they belong to a particular ethnic group.

Quite often I’ve never felt entirely Chinese. I didn’t have typical silky straight hair my Chinese classmates all had. I don’t speak Mandarin fluently. I also don’t entirely feel entirely Australian as I don’t always identify with Western values – too Asian to be Western.

The other weekday I was grocery shopping at Coles. The store was peak-hour packed, and I was trying to make my way down the spice-rack aisle. Someone with dark hair was looking at the spices, blocking my way. Two blonde-haired girls much taller than us stood next to us, looked at us. They looked at each other and one of them said, ‘Those Asians are in the way.’

And they both laughed.

I looked at them. They were engrossed in laughing. I looked back at the dark-haired girl. She was gone. I looked behind me. No one was behind me. With what sounded like condescending laughter ringing in my ears, I moved through the emptiness.

How do you define race and ethnicity?



223 thoughts on “What Is The Difference Between Race And Ethnicity?

  1. This is a very thoughtful post, Mabel. Reading through the comments on the post, it is obvious there are a range of definitions for race and ethnicity… and while we may define them subjectively (to a certain extent) there is the more important note that we all accept one another as we are, in skin color, personality, background, gender, and more. This is such a timely subject ❤


    • Perspective is always subjective, and we can really talk and think about both race and ethnicity in so many ways. Respect for each other is something that is so needed, and the need for all of us to accept differences. Much love to you, Christy. Thanks for chiming in ❤


  2. At the outset thanks so much Mabel for sharing such an insightful post and with so many new facets that we generally ignore or avoid to talk. I agree these are two different words but have been interchangeably used for long and there is a difference primarily a man-made outcome. These usage of different words under the banner of “race” to “ethnicity” we can call it as label to amplify or glorify or demean or differentiate people for no reason or rhyme, it is been part of our human existence and these keeps evolving and changing with changing time. Geographical location to the Physical structure to Color of skin to Language we speak to how we pronounce those words…have always been the epicenter of our identity and the way we express ourselves, and make our voice count and the way we adopt to proof our supremacy and predominance over others…

    There is such thin line of differentiation though we can play with words, to make the understanding little easier, the definition of race is more inclined towards look and ethnicity is more inclined towards the feel, and this two look and feel encompasses the broad spectrum of the human population and the division using so many different labels like European to African to Black to White to Hispanic to Arabic…we have created sub-species for our convenience and conversations, there should be nothing beyond this but it has managed to get the color and there is so much politics and there is powerhouse behind such divide and build their own community.

    As you have rightly mentioned all human beings have 99.9% similarity in the genetic makeup, than where the difference and what for we created that difference in our eyes and fight and sought at each other for petty things and many times we laugh at such silly thoughts and the way we have constructed such thoughts and knowing that it is nothing to do with the unity and it is does everything for the divide, and in the process the vested interest guy benefits and common people are left in the lurch and fight and the mighty sits comfortably by injecting the poisonous insect of divide and rule. It is the politicians and it is the politics that is so much behind the use and more so the misuse of the word “race” and ” ethnicity”. With blurring boundaries and massive migration across continents for growth and prosperity, the professional engagements are breaking those personal differences which are primarily artificially created and propagated. People are becoming more smart and being meaningfully engaged with so many things they now have little time for indulging in silly acts of human discrimination and spreading venom, majority of people want peace and tranquility but unfortunately few section who have cruel mind and crude thoughts are trying to hijack the majority of good thoughts and it is the fear that is deterring us from opposing such superficial barriers in the human species imposed on us by just few handful of people…

    Mabel, so many intriguing aspects you have covered, I couldn’t touch upon all in one go, it has be debated over few more stages of conversations. Now a days I have been badly pulled back by my official schedule hence not able to come early and share my thoughts and I know you understand the challenge of adhering to the business schedule. Thanks as always for your wonderful support. Hope you are having a wonderful weekend and lot of new thoughts must be brewing in our mind for the next post.


    • ‘label to amplify or glorify or demean or differentiate people for no reason or rhyme’ This is very true of the words ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’, and some of us use it as a means to put others in a box for our own ego’s sake or to make ourselves feel superior. This does us very little favours but divide us more, making the world so much more complex – and as if identity isn’t already a very personal, complex and sensitive thing already.

      Indeed there is a thin line of differentiation between the two words, but they are similar in that they are entrenched in politics. As you and I mentioned in our words, we see race, we feel ethnicity. But I think together both go hand-in-hand and create who we are, not just our identity but our stories – which in turn gives us reason to start conversations with each other and learn more about each other and the world.

      As research has shown, we all may be more similar than we think in terms of genetics and genome…but maybe not…and maybe again as new research always comes up and proves old theories otherwise. However, I do think a lot of us humans are similar in our wants and needs, especially when it comes to the basic things that we need. You touched upon the notion of greed when you speak of invested in certain benefits. There will be some of us who will do anything, even attack someone’s looks and features to get to where they are, or get together the exclusive community they want to be a part of. But you are right. In this digital age, people are becoming more smarter about this world. They are becoming more aware of what’s going on and finding out different sides of the argument. And it is these people and us who need to speak up to put a stop to discriminatory sentiments that are still very much rife today.

      Thank you for your support, Nihar. Already have posts planned for the next few months and next year 😀 It sounds like you are very busy, and hopefully it is all going well for you. Most importantly, hope you are taking care of yourself. Looking forward to popping over to yours and reading those new blog posts of yours later this week 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed Identity is such a complex subject by itself, and is is personal and we need to be careful in using and analyzing it…nobody likes to be isolated and discriminated for no fault of their still there are many who keep doing and we derive sadistic pleasure from such discriminatory practices and these cannot be without the ulterior motives of politicians and indulgence of vested interest groups around us to grab their chance at any cost.

        Building stories and narrating stories that keep happening with us, and race and ethnicity are an integral part of the modern storytelling and when we read stories where with the theme is about the “identity” as we keep moving across the world and stay in different part where we contest that very idea and we challenge the status quo and attempt create new way of thinking and looking at life.

        Yes Mabel these researchers keep changing the rules of the game, even after we start playing the game they can change the rule and reason given is based on new findings earlier hypothesis stand corrected. How much we are similar and how different we are questions remains to get its answers which can be topic in the journey of human evolution and there is so much changes happening we really don’t what was true yesterday is not true any more.
        The more we become aware of the things and happening around us and the more we look at life from a different prism rather than from a colored prism we can see so many new sides to our life and digital world is changing that counters of our living and thinking.

        My pleasure reading and learning so much from your well researched and beautifully written posts, always looking forward to. Thanks so much Mabel.
        Take Care!!!


        • True. No one likes to be isolated or discriminated against. Although we may be different from each other in how we look and in terms of personality, most of us mean well and want the best for others – so no reason to bring each other down and make assumptions about each other based on first impressions.

          Challenging the status quo is easier said than done. But as you brought up, when we change, that is when we start to look at the world as it is in a different way. You are so right to say we start creating when we change and change who we are – and that is also when we start learning about ourselves and each other around us.

          The more we look at life, the more we learn and grow. And I think, that’s also when we become more accepting of life as it is around us. With the digital world, we have so many opportunities to get more involved in different debates and immersed in whole new worlds.

          Always a pleasure chatting, Nihar 😀

          Liked by 3 people

          • I agree Mabel ultimately the perspective we develop towards life matters, there are so ground rules which makes the social engagement intact and when break those rules we are creating a disturbance. Many times people do it without knowing the rules and other interpret as arrogance as against ignorance.

            Certain times things has to be change and hence we question the status and allow the space to build a new framework for working and debating…the beauty lies in balancing and acting accordingly.

            Yes it is all about the experience and exposure we gain in life that makes us much more mature and much more adaptable to the changing things around and we become faster at our learning curve. Indeed Digital world is playing its part and the differences between race and ethnicity are getting to see a new interpretation of their meanings.

            Always a pleasure Mabel sharing thoughts and gaining so much insights from you post.


            • Disturbance never benefits anyone, but sometimes a good thing about it is that it highlights what some of us want but lack. It’s one reason I’m all for all of us speaking up against racism and working towards a world where there are more opportunities and a place where we respect each other.

              It will be interesting to see where the digital world takes us all. I am hopeful all of us will become more connected and united, like how so many of us have spoken up, reached out and connected through this blogging world 😀

              The pleasure is mine, Nihar. Weekend is coming. I think it’s time for a visit over to yours very soon 😀


              • Yes Mabel, I agree how this digital is going to shape our future is anybody’ guess and things are changing in such rapid pace that many times we are lost in placing the changes in proper perspective…
                All our endeavor is towards building an egalitarian and better society, fighting and shouting against each other will not take us anywhere, we will end up no where but the differences continues to question our identify and the way we live our life.
                Have a nice day ahead.


  3. Imortant topic, Mabel. I became awere of this difference while studying genocide. I think about race and ethnicity the same way as you. 🙂

    I have been away for some months, and focused on the baby. So now I have many posts to read trough on Your blog. Do not want to miss anything as I always find them interessing..


    • The discussion surrounding race and ethnicity are endless. Like you learnt about it while studying genocide, you can also learn about it while talking about refugees and every day racism.

      Thank you for your kind words, Han. It sounds like such an exciting time for you and your family. Enjoy it all 🙂


  4. Another power-house post, Mabel. This is a fascinating topic. I haven’t given much thought to these two words that symbolize so much. Ethnicity I have always thought of as habits, customs, celebrations, beliefs that make up a race of people. Race as the people from a geographical region in the world. You’ve opened my eyes to so much more here to think about. It’s fascinating that our genetic make-up doesn’t vary that much yet, we are all so different depending on those two words. Great post, Mabel. Very thought provoking.


    • ‘power-house post’. Now that is quite a compliment, Lisa. Thank you 🙂 I too find it fascinating that science shows us we’re genetically similar in more ways than we think – and maybe we feel the same feelings more than we think too. Thank you so much again.


  5. The subject of cultural diversity and the consequent respect is a most interesting subject… in times of Globalization, when borders seem to vanish… And yet, new (or maybe the same old) forms of Nationalism emerge… These ones might be at times associated with violence and … fascism…
    I guess Ethnicity is a more subtle concept, if compared to Race… and yet… Well it is a still a legitimizing idea for certain people. “I hope someday you’ll join us, And the world will be as one”: that´s my wish… Quoting Lennon´s song “Imagine”.
    Excellent post, linda. Hugs across the miles ⭐


    • So true that in globalised and diversified times like today, borders seem to vanish and new boundaries come up. Spot on. In a more modern world, some of us just want more and perhaps too much and that leads to competition among each other. Love the John Lennon song Imagine. Such meaningful lyrics too for such a hard topic. Hugs right back to you, linda. Hope to meet you one day ❤


  6. Race and ethnicity are such complicated labels for people. For race, I do identify as Asian, or specifically, East Asian. Ethnicity wise, this is hard to define. I would say I’m Chinese, but Chinese is also a very broad term in itself. Someone can be Mongolian but Chinese by birthright because he/she was born in China and can be classified as Chinese through nationality and citizenship rights, but also Chinese on a cultural level if he/she identifies with aspects of the culture’s customs and/or language.

    I still feel very confused about my own identity. I identity very little with my parents’ backgrounds. A big contributing part of who my dad is his birthplace (Taiwan) but also that he is Hakka Chinese. Besides the standard Mandarin, he was raised with some Hakka customs and can speak the dialect as well. Then there is the fact he considers himself Taiwanese although he (to my knowledge) has no Taiwanese aboriginal blood) and is familiar with Taiwanese culture and its dialect. I know even less about my mom’s side. She is Hokkien Chinese and grew up in Cambodia. The weird thing is other people label me as things I don’t agree with. An ex-boss of mine referred to me as “Cambodian” after learning where my mom was born, despite that I told him that she is Chinese. I also feel constant pressure to travel to Taiwan just because it’s my dad’s home. My dad even asks me all the time if I want to go and my answer is always no because I literally feel no connection to a place where I do have blood ties and relatives, but it’s almost like, what is the point when I barely saw them in the past and now I’m virtual strangers with them?

    I may look Asian but I don’t feel like I belong anywhere. It bothers me immensely when there have been times other Chinese people assume I can speak their dialect, and right off the bat, they speak to me in the language.

    I do think I am mostly Asian, but I’m also very curious about what else is in my DNA. One day I will take one of those ancestry test kits to find out.


    • You nailed it when you say ‘Race and ethnicity are such complicated labels for people.’. Identity is always more common than it seems. Identity is always changing, and a lot of the time it can be hard to put into words who we feel we actually are.

      How heritage and who we consider we are can be two different things, and you showed that very well with your family. Sometimes you only feel a sense of connection to a place when you have actually traveled there and set foot in it – that is, it’s the atmosphere and ambience of life over there that will awaken some sort of connection within you. Maybe that is what your dad os trying to allude. My parents are Chinese Malaysian, and they insisted I travel to Malaysia frequently when I was younger, and I still traveled to Malaysia as of a few years ago. However, each time I found it hard to truly connect with the place and culture 100%. Some culture, customes and languages get to me each time I go back, but other times I feel like I am on the outside looking in at how locals are going about their lives.

      I get Chinese people coming up to me all the time and start speaking straight away in Mandarin or Cantonese. Most of the time I will understand them and might even have a reply in their language. But always have no desire for a chat and just mumble a ‘Sorry’ or I just walk away.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Mabel, this is a thoughtful post. I like the personal stories you shared throughout. It is different to read a non-fiction article about the generalizations of race and ethnicity that doesn’t have this personal touch. I experience those words differently when they are shared through the lens of a person’s life experience. I cannot change what I look like and therefore my experience is narrow based on that fact. Traveling to other countries has brought some awareness but I am hungry for more. I learn so much from others who share their personal perspectives on how others treat them. Thank you for offering me a window to reflect and consider these words in new ways.


    • You are very kind, Alicia. Thank you for stopping by and reading. Hope you get to travel more in the future and have the time of your life, learning and savouring. Non-fiction is a great way to learn about the world, and as you touched upon, so is from other’s personal stories. We may never change the way we look, but we can always change the way we make others feel and perhaps, even perceive the world.

      Liked by 1 person

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