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Race and Ethnicity

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    There are two myths or ideas about race. The first suggests people inherit physical characteristics distinguishing race. Second, the idea that one race is superior to others or that one “pure” race exists. In actuality, scientific research mapping of the human genome system found that humans are homogenous (Henslin 2011). Race is truly an arbitrary label that has become part of society’s culture with no justifiable evidence to support differences in physical appearance substantiate the idea that there are a variety of human species. Traditionally, racial terms classify and stratify people by appearance and inherently assign racial groups as inferior or superior in society (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Scientific data finds only one human species making up only one human race. Evidence shows physical differences in human appearance including skin color are a result of human migration patterns and adaptions to the environment (Jablonski 2012). Nonetheless, people use physical characteristics to identify, relate, and interact with one another.

    Ethnicity refers to the cultural characteristics related to ancestry and heritage. Ethnicity describes shared culture such as group practices, values, and beliefs (Griffiths et al. 2015). People who identify with an ethnic group share common cultural characteristics (i.e.,nationality, history, language, religion, etc.). Ethnic groups select rituals, customs, ceremonies, and other traditions to help preserve shared heritage (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Lifestyle requirements and other identity characteristics such as geography and region influence how we adapt our ethnic behaviors to fit the context or setting in which we live. Culture is also key in determining how human bodies grow and develop such as food preferences and diet and cultural traditions promote certain activities and abilities including physical well-being and sport (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Someone of Mexican decent living in Central California who is a college professor will project different ethnic behaviors than someone of the same ethnic culture who is a housekeeper in Las Vegas, Nevada. Differences in profession, social class, and region will influence each person’s lifestyle, physical composition, and health though both may identify and affiliate themselves as Mexican.

    Not all people see themselves as belonging to an ethnic group or view ethnic heritage as important to their identity. People who do not identify with an ethnic identity either have no distinct cultural background because their ancestors come from a variety of cultural groups and offspring have not maintained a specific culture, instead have a blended culture, or they lack awareness about their ethnic heritage (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). It may be difficult for some people to feel a sense of solidarity or association with any specific ethnic group because they do not know where their cultural practices originated and how their cultural behaviors adapted over time. What is your ethnicity? Is your ethnic heritage very important, somewhat important, or not important in defining who you are? Why?

    Race and ethnic identity like other cultural characteristics influence social status or position in society. Minority groups are people who receive unequal treatment and discrimination based on social categories such as age, gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, religious beliefs, or socio-economic class. Minority groups are not necessarily numerical minorities (Griffith et al. 2015). For example, a large group of people may be a minority group because they lack social power. The physical and cultural traits of minority groups “are held in low esteem by the dominant or majority group which treats them unfairly” (Henslin 2011:217). The dominant group has higher power and status in society and receives greater privileges. As a result, the dominant group uses its position to discriminate against those that are different. The dominant group in the United States is represented by white, middle-class, Protestant people of northern European descent (Doane 2005). Minority groups can garner power by expanding political boundaries or through expanded migration though both of these efforts do not occur with ease and require societal support from minority and dominant group members. The loss of power among dominant groups threatens not only their authority over other groups but also the privileges and way of life established by the majority.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Women Falling in Line Holding Each Other. (CC BY 4.0; mentatdgt).

    There are seven patterns of intergroup relations between dominant and minority groups influencing not only the racial and ethnic identity of people but also the opportunities and barriers each will experience through social interactions. Maladaptive contacts and exchanges include genocide, population transfer, internal colonialism, and segregation. Genocide attempts to destroy a group of people because of their race or ethnicity. “Labeling the targeted group as inferior or even less than fully human facilitates genocide” (Henslin 2011:225). Population transfer moves or expels a minority group through direct or indirect transfer. Indirect transfer forces people to leave by making living conditions unbearable, whereas, direct transfer literally expels minorities by force.

    Another form of rejection by the dominant group is a type of colonialism. Internal colonialism refers to a country’s dominant group exploiting the minority group for economic advantage. Internal colonialism generally accompanies segregation (Henslin 2011). In segregation, minority groups live physically separate from the dominant group by law.

    Three adaptive intergroup relations include assimilation, multiculturalism, and pluralism. The pattern of assimilation is the process by which a minority group assumes the attitudes and language of the dominant or mainstream culture. An individual or group gives up its identity by taking on the characteristics of the dominant culture (Griffiths et al. 2015). When minorities assimilate by force to dominant ideologies and practices, they can no longer practice their own religion, speak their own language, or follow their own customs. In permissible assimilation, minority groups adopt the dominant culture in their own way and at their own speed (Henslin 2011).

    Multiculturalism is the most accepting intergroup relationship between dominant and minority groups. Multiculturalism or pluralism encourages variation and diversity. Multiculturalism promotes affirmation and practice of ethnic traditions while socializing individuals into the dominant culture (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). This model works well in diverse societies comprised of a variety of cultural groups and a political system supporting freedom of expression. Pluralism is a mixture of cultures where each retains its own identity (Griffiths et al. 2015). Under pluralism, groups exist separately and equally while working together such as through economic interdependence where each group fills a different societal niche then exchanges activities or services for the sustainability and survival of all. Both the multicultural and pluralism models stress interactions and contributions to their society by all ethnic groups.


    Research three online sources on methods and approaches to reducing ethnic conflict such as the following:

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Path to Ending Ethnic Conflicts by Stefan Wolff (

    1. What is your reaction or feelings about the suggestions or ideas for ending ethnic conflicts presented in the sources you identified?
    2. Why does type of leadership, approaches to diplomacy, and collective or organizational design matter in reducing ethnic conflicts?
    3. What is the most important idea from the sources you identified as they relate to peacekeeping and multiculturalism?

    Race reflects a social stigma or marker of superiority (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). When discrimination centers on race, it is racism. There are two types of racial discrimination: individual and institutional. Individual discrimination is “unfair treatment directed against someone” (Henslin 2011:218). Whereas, institutional discrimination is negative systematic treatment of individuals by society through education, government, economy, health care, etc. According to Perry (2000), when people focus on racial-ethnic differences, they engage in the process of identity formation through structural and institutional norms. As a result, racial-ethnic identity conforms to normative perceptions people have of race and ethnicity reinforcing the structural order without challenging the socio-cultural arrangement of society. Maintaining racial-ethnic norms reinforces differences, creates tension, and disputes between racial-ethnic groups sustaining the status quo and reasserting the dominant groups position and hierarchy in society.

    Upon the establishment of the United States, white legislators and leaders limited the roles of racial minorities and made them subordinate to those of white Europeans (Konradi and Schmidt 2004). This structure systematically created governmental and social disadvantages for minority groups and people of color. Today, toxic waste dumps continue to be disproportionately located in areas with nonwhite populations (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). It has taken over 200 years to ensure civil rights and equal treatment of all people in the United States; however, discriminatory practices continue because of policies, precedents, and practices historically embedded in U.S. institutions and individuals behaving from ideas of racial stereotypes. Think about the differences people have in employment qualifications, compensation, obtaining home loans, or getting into college. What racial and ethnic stereotypes persist about different racial and ethnic groups in these areas of life?

    Whites in the United States infrequently experience racial discrimination making them unaware of the importance of race in their own and others’ thinking in comparison to people of color or ethnic minorities (Konradi and Schmidt 2004). Many argue racial discrimination is outdated and are uncomfortable with the blame, guilt, and accountability of individual acts and institutional discrimination. By paying no attention to race, people think racial equality is an act of color blindness and it will eliminate racist atmospheres (Konradi and Schmidt 2004). They do not realize the experience of not “seeing” race itself is racial privilege. Research shows the distribution of resources and opportunities are not equal among racial and ethnic categories, and White groups do better than other groups and Blacks are predominantly among the underclass (Konradi and Schmidt 2004). Regardless of social perception, in reality, there are institutional and cultural differences in government, education, criminal justice, and media and racial-ethnic minorities received subordinate roles and treatment in society.

    Religion and Belief Systems

    The concept of a higher power or spiritual truth is a cultural universal. Like ethnicity, religion is the basis of identity and solidarity (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). People’s beliefs and faith support their values, norms, and practices. Individual faith influences one’s extrinsic motivation and behaviors including treatment of others.

    Religion is malleable and adaptive for it changes and adapts within cultural and social contexts. Human groups have diverse beliefs and different functions of their faith and religion. Historically, religion has driven both social union and division (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). When religious groups unite, they can be a strong mobilizing force; however, when they divide, they can work to destroy each other.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Architecture Art Cathedral Chapel. (CC0 1.0; Pixabay).

    Religion may be formal or informal (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Someone who is a member of an organized religious group, attends religious services, and practices rituals is a participant in formal or institutional religion. Whereas, someone participating in informal religion may or may not be a member of an organized religious group and experiencing a communal spirit, solidarity, and togetherness through shared experience. Informal religion may occur when we participate as a member of a team or during a group excursion such as camp.

    Religion is a vehicle for guiding values, beliefs, norms, and practices. People learn religion through socialization. The meaning and structure of religion controls lives through sanctions or rewards and punishments. Religion prescribes to a code of ethics to guide behavior (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). One who abides by religious teachings receives rewards such as afterlife and one who contradicts its instruction accepts punishment including damnation. People engage in religion and religious practices because they think it works (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). The connection between religious faith and emotion sustains belief playing a strong role on personal and social identity. What formal or informal religious experiences have you encountered during your life? How does your faith and spirituality conform or deviate from your family of origin and friends?

    This page titled Race and Ethnicity is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Vera Kennedy.