Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

1.4 Defining Ethnicity

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)


    A primary critique of the idea of racial groups is that people can belong to the same racial group but have very little in common and sometimes nothing at all. To demonstrate real similarities of individuals, we use the term ethnicity. Ethnicity refers to the shared social, cultural, and historical experiences, stemming from common national, ancestral, or regional backgrounds, that make subgroups of a population different from one another. An ethnic group is a subgroup of a population with a set of shared social, cultural, and historical experiences; with relatively distinctive beliefs, values, and behaviors; and with some sense of identity of belonging to the subgroup.

    People who identify with an ethnic group share common cultural characteristics (e.g., nationality, history, language, religion, etc.). Ethnic groups participate in rituals, customs, ceremonies, and other traditions to help preserve shared heritage (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). Ethnic group culture affects where and how we live (e.g., single- vs. multi-generation households). Ethnic group cuisine and dietary habits affects how our bodies grow and develop. Ethnic group lifestyle habits promote certain activities that relate to physical well-being and sport (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012).

    Ethnic Signifiers

    Mexican Americans comprise an ethnic group, and their ethnicity has been characterized by the following: speaking Spanish, celebrating holidays such as Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), eating food such as tamales, adoration of the Virgin de Guadalupe, and exhibiting values such as familism (higher emphasis placed on the family unit in terms of support and obligation). Mexican Americans comprise the largest ethnic group under the racial-ethnic umbrella group of Latinx Americans.

    Native American or American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) is also an umbrella racial-ethnic group rather than a distinct ethnic group. There are more than 500 distinct AI/AN nations or ethnicities/ethnic groups with Navajo/Dine, Cherokee, and Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Sioux being three of the largest. Each of these nations retains some aspects of their cultural heritage. For example, in Arizona, the Hopi Nation is located "inside" of the Dine reservation (which extends into Utah and New Mexico), but the Hopi and Dine nations have distinct cultural patterns, including language, religion, food, and housing.

    Another racial-ethnic umbrella group is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) with a large number of ethnic groups under this category including Chinese, Japanese, Cambodian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Asian Indian, etc. It is common for AAPI groups to maintain many aspects of their culture including language, intergenerational households, and filial piety.

    As discussed previously, not all Black or African Americans identify with specific cultural traits of their African or Caribbean ancestors. Nonetheless, signifiers of Black ethnicity may include the following: food such as collard greens, language such as Creole, Southern Baptist religion, annual family reunions, and the musical genre of jazz.

    The sense of identity many people gain from belonging to an ethnic group is meaningful to our lives. Ethnic identities can provide individuals a sense of belonging and a recognition of the importance of their cultural backgrounds. Traditional foods, customs, and traditions are often happy memories for ethnic group members.  Individuals within ethnic groups may find comfort in the cultural ties that bind them to other members of the group. The term ethnic pride captures the sense of self-worth that many people derive from their ethnic backgrounds.

    Our ethnic heritages shape us in many ways and fill many of us with pride, but they also are the source of much conflict, prejudice, and even hatred. History and current practice indicate that it is easy to become prejudiced against people with different ethnicities from our own, particularly if those ethnic groups are not White. Around the world today, ethnic conflict continues to rear its ugly head. The 1990s and 2000s were filled with “ethnic cleansing” and pitched battles among ethnic groups in Eastern Europe, Africa, and elsewhere.

    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 (1) have no distinct cultural background because their ancestors come from a variety of cultural groups and offspring have not maintained a specific culture but instead have a blended culture, or (2) they lack awareness about their ethnic heritage (Kottak & 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 and traditions came from and how their cultural behaviors adapted over time.

    In some instances, individuals may practice symbolic ethnicity, emphasis on ethnic food and ethnically associated political issues rather than deeper ties to one's heritage (Gans, 1979), such as an Irish American celebrating St. Patrick's Day as the only measure of their Irish ethnicity. What is your ethnicity? Is your ethnic heritage very important, somewhat important, or not important in defining who you are? Why?

    Race-Ethnicity and Religion

    The patterns of religious identity among major racial and ethnic groups vary significantly. According to Jones (2017) and as shown in Figure 1.3.14, nearly 70% of white Americans identify as Christian, and 3/4 of African Americans identify as Christian. More than 1/4 of white Americans are Evangelical Protestant, with 1/5 identifying as Protestant (non-Evangelical), and less than 1/5 are Catholic. Over the past few decades, the Catholic religious denomination has become less white and more Latinx. A greater percentage of African Americans identify as Protestant (nearly 70%) with only 6% identifying as Catholic. Latinx are also predominantly Christian, with almost half identifying as Catholic and only 1/4 identifying as Protestant. Amongst Asian Americans Pacific Islanders (AAPI), more than 1/3 identify as Christian and more than 1/4 are not affiliated with a religious denomination. As AAPI reflect the most religious diversity of all the groups featured in the above figure, more than 1/10 of AAPI identify as Hindu and a lesser amount identify as Buddhist or Muslim, approximately 6% in each respective group.


    69.1 % of Black non Latin x are Protestants 49.5 % of Latin x are Roman Catholic37.3 % of Asian and Pacific Islanders are Protestants48 % of White non Latin x are Protestants

    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Religious affiliation by ethnic groups in the United States. (Charts created by Jonas Oware with data from the PRRI)

    Ethnic Enclaves

    Ethnic enclaves are neighborhoods with high concentrations of one particular ethnic group, usually resulting from immigration patterns. Ethnic enclaves tend to share these characteristics: 1) live in close proximity; 2) support the traditional values customs and ways of life of that ethnic group; 3) maintain social services such as employment networks, political clubs, civic organizations and houses of worship; 4) establish retail stores where traditional foods clothing household goods and utensils are sold; 5) develop and sustain native language newspapers and sometimes radio and TV stations; 6) provide employment and social and sometimes financial support for new immigrants; 7) permit new immigrants to adapt to a new country without experiencing serious levels of culture shock and homesickness. In general, ethnic enclaves provide a safe haven with a variety of social supports for new immigrants that serve to ease their transition into a new and different culture.

    These enclaves offer economic opportunities to immigrants and mechanisms for maintenance of immigrant cultures, but also the potential exploitation of immigrant labor, often based on gender. The enclaves of Asian and Latinx immigrants emerging since the 1960s, compliments of the 1965 immigration policy, compare to earlier enclaves of Jewish and Italian immigrants at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. In recent decades, enclaves can potentially serve as agents for social mobility of immigrant populations. Enclaves may also hinder assimilation into mainstream U.S. culture. A preponderance of ethnic enclaves are found in urban and suburban parts of the country such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York. These enclaves can be characterized by a host of benefits and challenges.