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Learn the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity

By: Jessica MousseauDiversity Insights
Difference between Race and Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are common ways to categorize humans, but they are often misunderstood as most people don’t always fit neatly into these specific categories. Race is typically defined as a category of people who share similar physical characteristics.  However, this definition doesn’t always hold true, as many people may have similar skin colors or hair textures, but they identify as different races entirely. Ethnicity, on the other hand, goes beyond physical characteristics and includes shared cultural practices, language, heritage, and history.

Defining Race and Ethnicity

Race refers to dividing people into groups based on their physical appearance, while ethnicity refers to the identification of people from different geographic regions, including their religion, language, and other customs. Generally, race is something that you inherit as an identity, while ethnicity is something that you learn over time. For example, someone may identify as Black in terms of race but as Italian in terms of ethnicity.

Race Categories

Some of the most common race categories in the US are explained below. The terms used are the legal terms.


This category includes individuals who identify with one or more ethnic groups originating from Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East. Some examples of these groups include Irish, English, Polish, German, Egyptian, Lebanese, and Italian.

Black / African American

This includes everyone who identifies with one or more nationalities originating from a Black racial group. Examples include Haitian, Jamaican, Nigerian, Kenyan, South African, Ghanaian, or Ethiopian.

American Indian or Alaska Native

This category includes all who identify with any original people of North, Central, or South America and maintain tribal affiliations. Some examples include the Blackfeet Tribe, Cherokee, Nome Eskimo Community, Navajo Nation, and Mayan.


People who identify as one or more ethnic groups originating from the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, or the Far East. This includes Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, or Pakistani.

Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander

This category is for people who identify with ethnic groups originating in Samoa, Pacific Islands, Hawaii, or Guam. Examples include Chamorro, Tongan, Fijian, Marshallese, Samoan, or Native Hawaiian.

Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish

This category is for those who originate from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, or other Spanish cultures like Venezuelan, Colombian, Guatemalan, Dominican, or Spaniard.

Two or More Races

This is for those who have mixed ancestry of two or more races. This can include any of the races mentioned above as well as Creole, Metis American, Hapas, Melungeons, and Native Americans who identify as full members of recognized tribes.

Some Other Race

When someone doesn’t identify with any of the above groups, they can choose “Some Other Race” and input how they identify themselves.

Not All People Fit in These Categories

Many people identify with multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds due to factors like being raised by parents from different groups or simply not wanting to pick one single group entirely.

Understanding the Impact and Legal Terminology

When it comes to race and ethnicity, the way they are used in different areas of life, like social interactions, employment, education, and policymaking, carries significant implications. We must prioritize promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion while actively challenging stereotypes and discrimination associated with these categories.

Additionally, it’s essential to be aware that certain legal terminologies related to specific races have evolved over time, and some may not be as inclusive or appropriate as they should be. Take, for example, the term “American Indian,” which is now considered outdated and incorrect. Staying updated on appropriate language helps us show respect and consideration for diverse communities.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of these categories, the human genome project says that we are much more alike than we are different. Our DNA is about 99.9% the same, with that 1% or less accounting for the differences between us. This is a major reason why we should celebrate the differences of those around us while taking time to understand and appreciate different cultures.

To learn more about important diversity topics, visit our 2024 Diversity calendar for multicultural events.


How do you classify race and ethnicity?

Race is typically classified into several categories in the US census: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, White, or Two or More Races. Ethnicity refers to a group of people with a shared history. Some examples include Irish, Italians, Poles, Scottish, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos.

What is an example of ethnicity?

Ethnicity refers to a group of people who share a common culture. It is sometimes associated with their national origin. For example, someone may be Asian, but ethnically Vietnamese. Many countries have their own recognized ethnic groups like in China where there are 56, including the Mongols.

What defines ethnicity?

Ethnicity is the social group that someone belongs to and identifies with according to a language, religion, ancestry, or even physical features associated with their self-identified race. Ethnicity has continued to change over time, especially since many people may want to identify themselves with more than just one ethnic group. Ethnicity is different from country of origin as many countries have more than just one ethnic group.

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