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6.4: Ethnicity and Race

Ethnicity & Race

Human beings seem to have an innate need to classify, perhaps due to the sheer volume of information that must be processed on any given day. This need extends beyond the need to classify the natural world around them, but to classify other human beings as well. In doing so, clear lines are drawn between themselves and others. These lines serve to identify to whom we have social obligations and with whom we are competing for resources. Culturally, two ways to do this is through identification of an individual’s ethnicity or race.

Ethnicity refers to an ethnic group that a person identifies with or feels a part of to the exclusion of other groups. An ethnic group shares similar values and norms defined by such things as language (e.g., Hispanics), geography (e.g., Somalis), religion (e.g., Jews), or race (see discussion of race below). While this seems like a straightforward concept, it can be murky. Children of parents of different ethnicities may perceive themselves one way and others perceive them as something else. This can occur even among the siblings of or between generations in mixed-ethnic families.

Ethnic identity is tied to social status, therefore, a person’s ethnic identity may change depending on the context, where one ethnic identity is used in certain contexts and a different identity is used in another context. This is called the situational negotiation of identity. Gezen and Kottak (2014: 215) discuss Hispanics as an example of situational negotiation of identity. “Hispanic” as noted above is an ethnic identity based primarily on language. It includes people of varying skin color and geography. When issues impacting all Hispanics arise in the United States, people who identify as Mexican American, Cuban American and Puerto Ricans may act together to address the issue. At other times, they identify as peoples with different interests; e.g., Mexican Americans may be interested in immigration reform, Puerto Ricans on statehood, and Cuban Americans on lifting of trade sanctions on Cuba. Ethnic identity is often tied directly to the sociopolitical hierarchy of a country. Ethnic groups become equated with minority groups who have less power and prestige then the majority group. Ethnic groups are frequently confused with races.

Race is a cultural construct that groups people together based on perceived biological similarities. In the biological sciences, a race is a “geographically related subdivision of a species” (Gezen and Kottak 2014: 216). This definition does not apply to Homo sapiens. Genetically, it is clear that human groups have been interbreeding for millennia as we are genetically similar to one another. This is not to say that there is no diversity in human beings; one only has to look around to see some variability, but at a genetic level the diversity we see is, well, superficial.


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This tendency to group peoples together based on a perceived similarity is not a new phenomenon. The ancient Greek philosopher, Hippocrates (460-370 BC), wrote about the essences of organisms, or humors, that determined its physical traits, temperament, intelligence, and behavior (Brown 2010: 66). Building off of Aristotle’s scale of nature, medieval Europeans created an immutable, or unchanging, “great chain of being” to categorize the world, placing themselves near the top of the chain following only angels and God, with the rest of humanity categorized below. This approach is referred to as the essentialist approach.

During the late Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, philosophers and scientists continued to try to categorize human beings. French philosopher Jean Boudin (1530-1596) followed the Greeks in using humors coupled with skin color to classify humans. In Boudin’s schema white-skinned Europeans had a predominance of phlegm and were both reflective and rational. Black-skinned Africans had black bile and were lethargic and less-intelligent than other peoples. Red-skinned Indians were savage, war-like, and associated with blood, while Asians were associated with yellow bile, yellow skin, deviousness, and slyness. Carolus Linneaus (1707-1778) used a similar system when creating his scientific classification system in the 1700s.

Anthropology has contributed to the tenacity of the race concept throughout the years. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), the father of physical anthropology, rejected external characteristics such as skin color to focus on skull shape to create five types: Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, and American. Shortly after Blumenbach published his schema, skin color was attached to each of the racial types: white, yellow, brown, black, and red. Franz Boas (1858-1942) was the first anthropologist to challenge the essentialist approach. He pointed out essentialist schemes were based on the faulty assumption that there was a connection between skin color and temperament. In fact, no biological connection between skin color and temperament had ever been demonstrated. Boas argued that natural and cultural environment were keys to shaping behavior. Conducting a study of Sicilian immigrants over a ten-year period, Boas demonstrated that both behavior and biological characteristics could change based on the natural and cultural environment. The debate on and research into the usefulness, accuracy, and efficacy of the race concept continues. While all anthropologists acknowledge the inherent flaws in the concept, primarily that there are no biological human races, forensic anthropologists continue to use the concept to help law enforcement identify human remains. Forensic anthropologists use measurements from multiple features of the skeleton to predict biological affiliation. Nonetheless, most American anthropologists support the American Anthropological Association’s position on race:

In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species (American Anthropological Association 1998).

The complete statement is available at

One may wonder that if there are no biological human races, why does the concept persist? It persists because people live the experience of race. What this means is that people discriminate based on appearance, which includes not only skin color, but language, social behavior, etc.

We tend to separate people into ethnic categories, but we often use racial terms to identify these categories. Thus, one talks about “black” culture or “white” culture as if the color of one’s skin is somehow connected to one’s behavior. While the connection is clearly not genetic, it is real nonetheless. An example can be found in the 2008 presidential election when then-candidate Obama was criticized by some leaders in the African American community for not being “black enough.” Clearly, they were not talking about his skin color, but rather his lived experiences as a person of color. Obama didn’t go through the “typical” black experience of discrimination and the social injustice that goes along with it, because he was raised by a white family in biologically and ethnically diverse Hawaii… Using racial labels like “black” or “white” as shorthand for ethnic experiences may be useful and even necessary for Americans when talking about race. However, it also keeps alive the centuries-old essentialist notions about race and behavior (Brown 2010: 74).

As we have learned, there are many things that contribute to our personal identities. Cultural concepts about ethnicity, race, and gender create boxes that we are expected to operate within. Breaking free from those expectations can be a difficult and painful process as we place others into unfamiliar territory where their cultural expectations are negated. This creates conflict for all parties involved because of fear of the unknown; however, the end result can be one of change for the whole society not just the individuals involved.


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