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Ethnicity, Nationality, Race, Identity, Culture & Heritage (E.N.R.I.C.H.)


Ethnicity, nationality, race, heritage, culture, identity: these concepts can be confusing or misunderstood, so here we try to understand the differences.

Updated: 2019-03-31
As a traveler, I’m often approached by people.

These people ask me questions like these: Where are you from? What’s your ethnicity? What’s your race? What’s your background?

All interchangeably to imply the same question.

As a staunch champion of promoting intercultural love, I feel compelled to get it right first myself. Only then can I help others understand the nuances in their meaning, such as the difference between race and ethnicity.

I’ve been guilty of doing the same in the past, using a phrase like where are you from? to ask about one’s heritage. However, where someone is from semantically refers to nationality.

An even worse question to ask is what are you?

This borders on a cornucopia of possible rights’ violations and indignities, unless you’re from the Big Apple, and it means something else altogether, usually involving an immediate follow-up question as a rhetorical response (What’re you? Some kind o’ lawyer?).

ethnicity nationality race identity culture heritage enrich


Ethnicity. Nationality. Race. Identity. Culture. Heritage.

Let’s enrich ourselves by understanding the true meanings of these terms.

First up, it’s the most-asked of them all, the difference of race vs ethnicity:

What is Ethnicity?

Ethnicity is based on a group (called an ethnic group) that normally has similar traits, such as a common language, common heritage, and cultural similarities within the group. Other variables that play a role in ethnicity, though not in all cases, include a geographical connection to a particular place, common foods and diets, and perhaps a common faith.

Ethnic groups can further be narrowed down to ethnic subgroups. Common ethnic groups examples include Javanese (which can be broken down into such subgroups as Cirebonese, Osing, Tenggerese, Boyanese, Samin, etc.), Somalis (subgroups including Hawiye, Darod, Isaaq, Dir, Rahanweyn, Madhiban, and Yibir), and the French (some subgroups being the Walloons, Romands, Arpitans, Pieds-Noirs, Waldensians, Quebecers, and Acadians).

Race is a word with similar meaning though describing more physical traits, as opposed to the cultural traits of ethnicity.

What Does Race Mean?

Race is similar to ethnicity, but relates more to the appearance of a person, especially the color of their skin. It is no longer determined biologically, including inherited genetic traits such as hair color, eye color, bone structure, and jaw structure, among other things.

So, what is the difference between race and ethnicity? Hope that helps clear it up!

What Does Nationality Mean?

Most of the time, nationality refers to the place where the person was born and/or holds citizenship. However, nationality often can be determined by place of residence, ethnicity, or national identity.

If a person was born in Country A but immigrated to Country B with their family while a toddler, that person might identify more with the Country B nationality, having been raised there. (We’ll discuss identity in just a moment.)

Another point regarding nationality is that there are some nations which don’t have a state, or international recognition as such, yet people may still point at it as the source of their nationality, such as the Palestinians, the Kurds, and the Tamils.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a nationality.” It goes on further, saying, “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” (They’re a bit late in switching to gender-neutral pronouns!)

What is a Citizen?

A citizen is typically either born in the country, born to citizens of the country while abroad, married to a citizen of the country, or becomes so through a naturalization process. They are a complete member of the nation, able to vote and hold elected office.

However, if your parents were citizens of Germany on vacation in Colombia when they gave birth to you, you aren’t going to get Colombian citizenship that way!

What is a National?

A national is a person born in an area that is in the possession of a country, but not part of its general administrative area.

For example, American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the United States, and its people are considered US nationals. American Samoans may not vote in US presidential elections or hold elected office in the US. However, they are entitled to free and unrestricted entry into the United States.

What is Heritage?

Heritage can overlap on the ethnicity and nationality a bit at times, but it generally refers to the ancestors of a person, and what they identified with.

For example, a child born to naturalized US citizens hailing from Mexico could say they have Mexican heritage, even if they don’t share the ethnicity (perhaps they can’t speak Spanish), and they are American as far as nationality.

What is Culture?

Culture is similar to ethnicity, yet really more of a microcosm of it. It may involve one trait or characteristic, sort of like a subset of the various traits that make up an ethnicity.

Perhaps a person may be ethnically Jewish, or they could subject themselves to simply one or two things of Jewish culture, such as wearing a kippah; this person may not necessarily relate with the entire macro-ethnicity that is being Jewish.

What is Identity?

Identity is whatever a person identifies with more, whether it be a particular country, ethnicity, religion, etc.

I read this great article by Zeba Khan on MuslimMatters.org. She was born in America to a Pakistani father and an American woman of Irish descent. Zeba doesn’t identify with either Pakistan or Ireland (too white for Pakistan, too dark for Ireland), and not much with the United States (she wears the hijab and eats halal). What she does identify with is her Muslim faith, which is similar across boundaries throughout the world.

Race vs. Ethnicity vs. Heritage vs. Culture: Wrapping Up

When questions are asked in the wrong manner (where are you from?), there usually is no offensive motive intended. These are colloquial terms that have been accepted into common parlance.

Once you understand and recognize the differences between these words, such as race vs ethnicity, it is important to remember to not get offended when someone approaches you with their mis-worded question. Just as we can better ourselves by learning the politically-correct phrases to ask, we also need to understand others and look at pure intent, rather than semantics.

So, what did you think? Does ethnicity vs race, nationality vs ethnicity, and race vs heritage all make sense? Leave a comment below!

This is part of our ongoing series, “Versus: ‘What’s the Difference?’” For more like this, check out these articles:

Great Britain vs UK | Arab vs Middle Eastern | Embassy vs Consulate | Hispanic vs Latino | Saint Martin vs Sint Maarten | Oriental vs Asian | Streets vs Avenues | Tempeh vs Tofu

Also, check out our comprehensive travel glossary to get more helpful definitions.

Written by
Christian Eilers
Join the discussion

  • I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the differences between these terms. I think that you have described them better than any dictionary entry that I have seen.

    • Mike, thanks so much for your kind words! You don’t know how much they made my day. I am glad if I was able to help you in any way, though I know that my style of speaking may drone on and on and I found it difficult to define each term adequately in a sentence or two. Still, if you’re happy, I’m happy!

      • agreed with Mike, tons of research on these words for a project on what makes a nation a nation tied in with nationalism, and you pretty well summed it up better then my hours of research.

  • Christian,
    I really enjoyed your this small article of yours, and sent you a facebook friend’s request 😉 Seems like you are an expert in multicultural relations

    • Inga, thanks so much! Your comment made my day, though I am definitely no expert. Actually, writing this article helped me learn more about the differences in these terms for myself; it was as much for me as for you 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, hope you’ll come back!

      • I really like this article. Well done! I really understand the differences between all the terms now without confusion.
        Thank You!

        • Rania, thanks a lot for the compliment, and I am so happy if I was able to help you understand even a little bit 🙂

  • This just made my life a little easier. I’m always reaching to learn new things (especially things/terms that can be ambiguous) and you gave a very thorough explanation of the differences and similarities of each term. Thank you!

    • Lai, it is an honor to receive such a positive comment! I was unclear during my research of these similar terms, and writing about it and the research involved helped me to understand as well. Hope you drop back by sometime! Cheers 🙂

  • What the hell do you mean by this.
    “…especially the color of their skin. Race is determined biologically…”
    How in the hell is “race” biological. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS RACE. “Race” is a construct of your culture and the way it’s defined is different based on culture. For example in America “race” is determined by skin and blood type. I seriously think it’s wrong but look at this example. If 2 African-american have a child it would be African-american. But let’s say if A Caucasian and a African-American had a child it would be African-American even tho he is only half. And let’s say this child marries caucasian and it’s offspring does the same and it keeps happening for 7 more generations. The final child would still be 1/16 African-american since he still has “African-American blood” Seriously that is stupid since by that time he would look as Caucasian as anyone else. Race is definitely not Biological. There is NO proof or evidence for “Races”.

    • Charles,

      I sincerely appreciate your comment, and I know that the topic of “race” in general may immediately have the PC-police called on me, but first understand this: Going into writing this article, I, too, did not fully understand the overall concept of some of these terms, nor did I grasp the differences between some of them. As I stated in my article, I wrote this just as much for me as I did for others, meaning that as I researched the topic for myself, I wrote down what I learned in the form of this article.

      Another point that I’d like to make is this: whether or not the concept of race is discriminatory, ignorant, and/or oppressive, this is how my culture defines it. I agree with you that it is a definition that is different based on culture, and my society (Americans, and we have countless shortcomings!) defines race as, more or less, divisions stemming from physical characteristics and traits (biological in nature). Though I may not agree with it, I cannot change the way that it is viewed in my society, and what “race” has come to be defined. Taking that on is a political gesture that I try to stay away from on this website, though I must say that I agree with you in a general sense as to why it shouldn’t be.

      I am still quite new to this also, these various definitions between these few words (a minefield!). I in no way mean to misrepresent facts. On the contrary, I, and everything on my site, is dedicated to promoting a desire to learn about different cultures through travel.

      Charles, once again I really appreciate your comment, and I hope I’ve answered your question, at least as to why I wrote what I did. I’d love to discuss further, if you’re interested, as I am always trying to learn more about these things myself. Thanks for stopping by!


      • I would ask you to remove this article or modify it to not include your very incorrect definition of race. You say, in your culture, you view race this way, but the myth of racial categories has been widely disproven and known by the general public for a very long time. Articles that use language such as yours perpetuates the idea of race and I ask that you please remove it or edit it, otherwise you must take responsibility for your falsity and know you are part of the bigger problem,

      • Race is socially constructed. It has no basis in biology, and was invented in the American Slavery era as a way to create a class structure based on skin color. If you had done even 5 minutes of research you could have found this out.

        Please remove this misleading article.

        • Guys, he’s not saying that race is justified or that there’s a “gene” for being “African-American” or anything. He’s saying that when people refer to race, they are referring to physical traits. Physical traits could include hair color or skin color or eye color or height or anything else. Whether I was born with blond hair or black hair IS determined genetically. Someone might see my blond hair and tall height and pale skin and think I look Scandinavian. Someone might see my black hair and brown skin and think I look African-American.

          I don’t believe he’s saying race itself is genetically-based or even real, valid, or legitimate. He’s saying that people who are discussing race are usually referring to physical traits which are inherited genetically, rather than cultural traits that are learned like language or traditions or religion. You cannot deny that your genes determine what color your hair is, nor can you imply that they determine what religion you believe in.

          • Mandy, thanks for stopping by and for your excellent comment! You hit the nail on the head with what I was trying to say! Where were you when I was writing this piece?? 🙂

  • Really loved your clear cut article. It came up in a search when I was looking how to best respond to a comment on YouTube. I’ve had trouble trying to define myself when approaching the “who do I identify with” question. Being that I am bi-racial, born from parents from two different countries and cultures but having been born and raised in the Good ole U.S.; L.I., NY to be exact. This is a great article and deserves to be spread to the masses. Hopefully it helps bring clarification to the other YouTuber I responded to. Much Thanks!

    • I am humbled that I could ever write something that receives such a response 🙂 Thanks a million for the compliment, from one New Yorker (me, Queens) to the other!

  • Christian E. thanks for breaking the differences down such a clear and concise manner. The knowledge that you’ve shared will definitely make things much easier for me. I’ve struggled my entire life trying to figure out where I belong. I am black and latino (also referred to as a Afro-latino). I am born from a african american father and a afro-latino mother (Dominican heritage). Because I speak English without a Spanish accent mouths usually drop open when someone hears me also speaking Spanish fluently. As an adult I embrace both ethnicities and cultures freely. However as a child being raised in the deep south (rural NC) I was not permitted to speak Spanish outside of my family circle. It was considered a double strike – black and speaking a foreign language. I think I have it right now. Here it goes, I am a black (race), African and Latino (ethnic groups/cultures), American (nationality). Let me know if I’ve got it wrong. Many, many thanks for writing this article.

  • Appreciated your article. just two pieces of feedback:

    Another response to your exchange with Charles: Race, while biological in expression, is a human construct to categorize biologial expressions that are NOT strictly categorizable. In that way, “race” is not a real biological term, BUT social categorizing of a person’s “race” IS determined by the expression of their genetics in terms of skin and eye color, face shape, etc. Race, therefore, is VERY real in a human social context and should not be denied as such, even though there is NO such thing as genetically different “races” of people. Race is a conveient fiction we have maintained but which still has a LOT of power in our socieities. Despite the lack of scientific grounding, racial groups often have meaningful shared history, culture, or subcultures, so this is a important category of identity and was rightfully placed on your list.
    Second, I disagree with your final comment that people should just “not get offended” about the “semantics” when people ask badly worded questions such as “where are you from?” or “What are you?” As a traveler, you know that words around idenity are never JUST semantics since they are almost always politically or socially charged in some way by the cultures and societies of that area. Certainly, getting angry about wording every time is no solution, and you are right that everyone that asks a question likes this is usually ignorant of the offense they are causing. That does NOT, however, excuse them from learning. This question often has to do with assumptions (You don’t look like you’re from around here…). Often these assumptions are based on a bad premise (e.g. skin color, accent, etc.) and should be, at least, respectfully challenged. Being able to use the categories you’ve outlined above to say, “Well, I’m FROM New Jersey, but my ethnicity is Latino and Middle Eastern, if that’s what you’re asking,” is generous, but still clear that the question was mis-worded. This may cause the other person to realize their mistake, or could be stated more strongly, but there is always room to call attention to the ways we are “lazy” around our assumptions and questions and need to be more care-full in our langauge use — even as we have compassion for the fact that sometimes well-meaning people make ignorant mistakes. But we ALL need to keep learning, and that’s the point.

    Thanks again for your piece.

    • Heartily agree with you, Anna! Was going to comment something similar, but then saw that you already did it. Thanks for posting that, and thank you Christian for posting this piece.

    • Anna, thanks so much for your in-depth feedback! You really helped me learn even more than I have already with your lengthy comment. When I said that “people shouldn’t get offended” about the semantics, I was really speaking to the people reading this article to not get offended at another’s misuse of the term or a misstated question to them. I completely agree, there is no excuse not to learn, which is why I wrote this piece to begin with – to teach while I learn about it myself. Thanks again, Anna! 🙂

  • Thanks for this explanation! I’m actually reseraching for a grad school project on counseling intercultural and interracial couples and have been looking around for a concrete explanation on these terms. Yours is the best I’ve found!

    • Joy, thanks so much for the compliment, and I am flattered and humbled that I could be of help, especially on a grad school project!

  • Thanks for this insightful piece Christian! I’m “Africa-American” but I despise that term. I usually refer to myself as black. My ancestors are obviously from Africa but most “Americans” have ancestors from elsewhere. Yet we don’t call ‘white people’ “European Americans” so to me it makes no sense to call ‘black people’ “African Americans.” That’s just how I see it. I don’t understand the people who say race doesn’t exist when it’s clear that it does. While race may encompass social constructs that doesn’t make it any less ‘real.’ Biologically as a black man my race predisposes me to certain diseases. My race also protects me from certain ailments (it is impossible for me to get lice and melanoma very very rarely affects my race). When people die horrible deaths DNA/forensic testing can identify the race of the dead person even if there are visible cues to the race of the person. So yes race does exist. People who deny the existence of race subsequently deny the existence of racism, which the was US was clearly built upon. Anyway thanks again for the article,you are quite possibly the nicest New Yorker on the net!

    • Tamario, thanks for your comment; it really made my day! Regarding your statement that we don’t call white people in America “European-Americans,” I agree. However, I think it is wrong in two ways. For one, like you say, it makes it sound like black Americans are not full Americans like white ones, and blacks nowadays in America have few, if any, ties to Africa other than ancestry from long ago. You are American, just like I am, so I can see how it can be offensive in this way. Another way to see it is that perhaps “white” America wanted to use this term as a way to be more politically correct than other terms. In America, because of our horrible past (which unfortunately is not buried yet), many of us try to do things to “make up” for the wrongdoings of our forefathers, such as coming up with PC terms for races and backgrounds that we’ve hurt in the past; yet, sometimes this slightly-misguided good will can hurt, as well, as in this case with the “African Americans.” But at least it works out (IMHO) for Native Americans, who were surely not “Indians.” 🙂 Tamario, thanks so much, once again, for your comment and compliment; words like yours keep me certain that I’m heading in the right direction!

  • I would like to propose that you consider that nationality does not change and it hat you get your nationality from your country of origin no matter where you have current citizenship. You are what your forefathers were. Example: an Italian does not stop being an Italian because of immigration Is he not an Italian American. and so on for Korean, Greek, Irish , Moroccan , Nigerian etc. Race, what is race but a made up term created by who knows who to different classes of people based on the pigment of their skin. I propose that we all belong to one race which is the human race. There is no black , colored, or whit race.

    • Please forgive the typo’s in my earlier post. The font was so light and small for my aging eyes.
      I did enjoy your article.

    • Trish, thanks for your comment! Though I am no expert, I do believe that what you are referring to is considered ethnicity. Nationality usually means the country where one holds their citizenship, though I have seen some definitions actually defining nationality as ethnic groups based on countries of origin. To be safe, it might be best to consider nationality as the country where you hold citizenship. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Figured I would jump in the discussion, so this is as good a spot as any!. I think I know why we are so hung up on the word race, as that is the usual term we have used on questionnaires when filling out forms of one type or another. Stock question, which race are you?
        Like Trish said, we are the “human race”. I remember what the “Elephant Man” (Merrick) said when caught out in public without his covering. He cried out to the terrified on lookers; “I am a human being” over and over. This was to show he was not an animal. Which (ironically) is how today he is remember by, an animal name.
        But, there are 4 major “races”? Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid, and Australoid. Which relates to the song “Jesus loves me”; whether yellow red black or white, we are precious in his sight! No truer way to see it! God looks on the heart! Thanks

  • I’m filling out paperwork for adoption. It asked me what race am I. I am confused maybe you can help me. My father is Puerto Rican, my mother is 1/2 Guyanese, 1/4 English, 1/4 Irish. I always have people ask me if I am 1/2 black and 1/2 white, or middle eastern. HELP.

    • Maritza, thanks for stopping by! I am definitely no expert on the matter, but could you tell us a bit more as to the format the question is in? For example, are there check boxes, or do you need to fill in the blank? If there are check boxes, I think you can fill in (“check”) two or more boxes, as I would (my mother is from Indonesia, my father is a Caucasian American of German & Russian descent). I have checked both “Caucasian” as well as “Asian/Pacific Islander” on these kinds of forms before. Hope that helps!

  • Hi Christian, this is a great article. I think you could better define Race though. In the current context, Race does have discriminatory meanings, specifically the Eugenic evolutionary theory of Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid. The term Race is externally applied, often stereotypically by the Caucasoid to imply superiority, whereas ethnicity is more welcome as a tool for self identification. Race is not so much “determined biologically”, but “determined by superficial appearance, but understood as biological in nature”.

    • Mark, thanks for dropping by! I do understand how the underlying definition of “race” seems to be ever-shifting, almost liquid in nature. And thanks for these terms (Mongoloid, etc.), I had had no formal education on this, that I can recall. Also, I guess it is hard to separate where race being biologically-determined and where superficial appearance without a biological instrument is; this is tough, and the whole concept of these terms are quite arbitrary. I am encouraged by the comments on this article, though, and will continue to educate myself to better shape my knowledge about these things, so I do thank you, sincerely for your comment!

  • First, I must complement your for your maturity and you kindness in your replies. I just wanted to encourage you to continue with your diplomacy, your respectful attitude, your curiosity to search for answers and your love to share with others. At the end of the day what matters is what’s inside and that my dear is why you are special. Kudos to you! Keep up the hunger for knowledge. Signed – a wonderful mix of ethnicities, cultures, races, nationalitilies, heritages and identities. I am a Child of God and that’s all that will matter when I am done here on on earth. Alba

    • Alba, thanks so much for your comment! I am still humbled each and every time someone tells me that they found this article to be helpful 🙂 Your words mean more than you could understand, and I do promise you that I will sustain my hunger for knowledge 🙂

    • This is the best response! Qiestions about this topic can’t offend you if you don’t allow them to, or if you choose to interpret them in a positive way. Some people are just curious. Everyone is ignorant before that moment of enlightenment, so why be offended or be harsh when we have all been in that position and continue to be ignorant in some way.

  • As a “ethnic” Persian whose nationality is Australian and as someone who constantly gets asked “But where are you really from?”…THANK YOU!

  • Christian, thanks for writing this article, it was just what i was looking for. I appreciate your maturity and sensitivity in the way you handled your replies to comments. Great job, keep it up!

  • Ethnicity and nation issue is interesting and has too much complications. Let me give you an example,
    What is Pashtun? We know that Pashtun in itself is an ethnicity and we also know that we can call all Pashtuns living in any part of the world as a single nation. Now can it be both an ethnicity and a nation at the same time? If yes, then where is this difference between the two?
    Secondly, If Pashtuns living on both sides of Durand line is a single nation, then what about Punjabis living in both India and Pakistan, Tajiks and Uzbeks living in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan etc.? We can understand that they are Punjabis, Tajiks, and Uzbeks by ethnicity but what about their nation? Are they a single nation within their selves by having the same language, culture and traditions? or we cannot call them a nation as they are not living in a single state or territory?
    We also know that Nation is not just about nationality as we have a very few number of “Nation States”.
    Looking forward to hearing form you with some clarifications

  • “Race
    Race is similar to ethnicity, but relates more to the appearance of a person, especially the color of their skin. Race is determined biologically, and includes other inherited genetic traits such as hair and eye color and bone and jaw structure, among other things.”

    Race is not a biological term and never has been! Please you should not be spreading this kind of mis-information. Race is a sociological construct – please read more about it.

    by Audrey Smedley
    Anthropology Newsletter, November 1997

    Contemporary scholars agree that “race” was a recent invention and that it was essentially a folk idea, not a product of scientific research and discovery. This is not new to anthropologists. Since the 1940s when Ashley Montagu argued against the use of the term “race” in science, a growing number of scholars in many disciplines have declared that the real meaning of race in American society has to do with social realities, quite distinct from physical variations in the human species. I argue that race was institutionalized beginning in the 18th century as a worldview, a set of culturally created attitudes and beliefs about human group differences.

    Slavery and the Coming of Africans

    Race and its ideology about human differences arose out of the context of African slavery. But many peoples throughout history have been enslaved without the imposition of racial ideology. When we look at 17th century colonial America before the enactment of laws legitimizing slavery only for Africans and their descendants (after 1660), several facts become clear.

    1). The first people that the English tried to enslave and place on plantations were the Irish with whom they had had hostile relations since the 13th century.

    2) Some Englishmen had proposed laws enslaving the poor in England and in the colonies to force them to work indefinitely.

    3) Most of the slaves on English plantations in Barbados and Jamaica were Irish and Indians.

    4) Many historians point out that African servants and bonded indentured white servants were treated much the same way. They often joined together, as in the case of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) to oppose the strict and oppressive laws of the colonial government.

    In the latter part of the 17th century the demand for labor grew enormously. It had become clear that neither Irishmen nor Indians made good slaves. More than that, the real threats to social order were the poor freed whites who demanded lands and privileges that the upper class colonial governments refused. Some colonial leaders argued that turning to African labor provided a buffer against the masses of poor whites.

    Until the 18th century the image of Africans was generally positive. They were farmers and cattle-breeders; they had industries, arts and crafts, governments and commerce. In addition, Africans had immunities to Old World diseases. They were better laborers and they had nowhere to escape to once transplanted to the New World. The colonists themselves came to believe that they could not survive without Africans.

    When some Englishmen entered slave trading directly, it became clear that many of the English public had misgivings about slave-trading and re-creating slavery on English soil. It was an era when the ideals of equality, justice, democracy, and human rights were becoming dominant features of Western political philosophy. Those involved in the trade rationalized their actions by arguing that the Africans were heathens after all, and it was a Christian duty to save their souls. By the early part of the 18th century, the institution was fully established for Africans and their descendants. Large numbers of slaves flooded the southern colonies and even some northern ones. Sometimes they outnumbered whites, and the laws governing slavery became increasingly harsher.

    • Rachel, firstly, I’d like to thank you for reading my article and for taking the time to comment. Now, I understand that I invite the contempt and ire of everyone as I try to put in my two cents about this controversial issue.

      I know that there is debate as to race, and what kind of construct it is. From a sociological standpoint, race seems to help scientists deal with problems such as why one group may score better on tests than another. But historically, I’ve seen that the definition of race was based on points that are purely biological. In 1899, William Ripley wrote a book, The Races of Europe, in which he categorizes by different head shapes (!) : “The shape of the human head by which we mean the general proportions of length, breadth, and height, irrespective of the ” bumps ” of the phrenologist is one of the best available tests of race known.”

      I understand that these biological differences used to categorize races is a concept full of faults, but I also believe that race as a sociological construct grew, or evolved, from a more basic, biological one. In the end, there is no perfect definition of race; there is no definitive answer as to what race entails. I wrote this piece as I was trying to understand more about it myself, and I continue to grow as I do. Again, thanks for the input; I value it immensely for keeping this topic fresh in my mind.

  • Loved the article, just want to point out one thing: Palestinians did have a state. When you claim them to be people without a state, you perpetuate Israeli propaganda to keep people unaware of the issue. The truth is that the land was referred to as Palestine and populated by Palestinian Arabs until 1948 (when the Zionist regime and other forces took a large piece of their land). Even today, Gaza and the West Bank are still technically Palestine so please take this into consideration in the future.

    • Yousef, thanks for the compliment, but I’m not sure how I am “perpetuating Israeli propaganda.” I am very sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. All I said in my post above was that Palestinians are one example of a people who don’t enjoy unanimous recognition of their state – and this is true, whether we like it or not; the US and most of Western Europe remain opposed to granting Palestinian recognition.

  • First and foremost I would like 2 say good article .. One thing I would like to address is a comment on this post of a young lady calling herself black.
    Adjectives, as applied to people
    Adjectives describe, they do not identify. The words, negro. black, and colored are adjectives and have been used to label ppl who have been reduced to servitude, by European Colonists.
    These words, in spite of their popular acceptance, CANNOT BE PROPERLY USED TO IDENTIFY ANY HUMAN BEING. This fact alone should end any continued argument on behalf of the fictitious names and the state of the persistent Identity crisis.

  • I’m always trying to figure out the differences between ethnicity, nationality, heritage, race.

    I was born in America and my family hails from Italy and England. I identify strongly with my Italian roots because growing up in NY (Brooklyn) these culturally were the people who most influenced me. Although, I was also exposed to many ‘ethnicity’ and appreciate diversity. The English side of my family ended up emigrating to the South (Charleston) and I also lived there for a time. Talk about culture shock (Brooklyn to the South!), even as a child I saw the differences – but each enriched my life and exposed me to a variety of foods, lifestyle, practices and mindsets. Today, I’m in Seattle and though a very diverse and wonderful place, I do miss my old stomping grounds in Brooklyn as well great memories of visits to Manhattan because this is where it all began. Now, having said all of this, I am a person who does not like to use skin color to describe a people. I myself am very pale skinned, though my sister is very very dark, with dark hair and eyes. At times she’s been taken for black, latino or even middle eastern. We have similar looks feature-wise except for the color of our skin, hair and eyes. We look like sisters but at a glance we appear to be of a different ‘race’…

    Being in NY and living in the South, I lived among Puerto Rican, Irish, Jewish, African American, Italian, Scottish people – all of which brought me a great deal of ‘cultural’ exposure and education and I guess I resent that people are being reduced down to the appearance of their skin, which can be exploited by individuals with agendas both sides of the racial divide.

    As a ‘white’ or ‘caucasoid’ in appearance person…I’d rather say, I’m an Italian American whose ancestors hail from Italy and England. I think when people ask “where are you from” or “what are you” it’s an opportunity to connect and bring understanding and interest to the exchange. It’s natural to be curious about other people different from yourself! If for e.g., I detected an accent in a person who is black, I might ask…’where are you from’ because in that accent I heard a certain sound that reminded me of my Charleston relatives; same is true if the person has a heavy Brooklynese accent. Or if I come across someone who is white and they sound ‘east coast’, I would not assume they are necessarily from NY, as they may be from New Jersey or Rhode Island. All East coast, but different states. I’ve seen Indian people with British accents, Puerto Ricans with NY accents so you see….it’s the ‘sound’ of a person that identifies the difference and it’s THAT influence which opens the conversation up to the broader context of any social interaction which enriches the connection. Though temporary it may be – I think we should look at the HUMAN BEING and the beauty of that individuality rich with ethnic and cultural experiences that brings people together to appreciate one another even more. Which leads me to this: regardless whether an accent is detected or what a persons skin color is, or the features of a persons face…we are not cookie cutter mock ups of one another, therefore WE ALL have something interesting and special to offer each other. One need only to be open to it!

  • First of all, wonderful article. I admire you for taking on this complex and controversial subject. I could go on, and on with my ideas and questions. What prompted me to look up this subject tonight is that I have been listening to a lot of comics from different countries, ethnicities and backgrounds, wanting to clarify their stance, through humor, come out on the stage and say, “where are the white people in the audience?” OK, I guess I’d clap and say I’m definitely white, but then that’s identifying me by skin color. I know the established, politically correct term for many dark skinned people in the U.S. Is Afro-American. Some prefer to be called Black; also skin-color based. He is two questions: Are we saying that all dark skinned people originate from Africa? I know the answer, but how was it agreed upon that this would be the term used? Also, I know many people prefer to be called Black.

  • People of African descent have referred to themselves as Africans after they leave the continent. Our ancestors were Igbo, Ijaw, Malinke, Mandinka, Vai, Banmara, Balante. Akan , Wolof etc.. We are a composite people made of many from West/West Central Africa, That were part of the kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhai. When our ancestor had been here for well over a century and were born in America they called themselves African. This is while speaking English fluently. During the 1700s, the free Africans cream mutual aid societies to help those that were emancipated from slavery to be educated and become members of society. There was Free African Schools, Freemasons African Lodge, African Baptist, African Methodist churches and so on.

    During the mid 1800s, about 1856, at the National Negro Convention, it was decided to stop using the term African on our organizations and churches. In the late 1800s a former slave came up with the newspaper called the Afro-American which still exists in Washington DC today. Also the Afro American League in the late 1800s also. There was once a magazine called the Anglo African as well. there are still churches today that came from the 1700s like the AME Zion church (African Methodist Episcopal).

    During the Black Power Movement of the 60s when Black became popular Afro American was used an talked about but didn’t fully take. When I was a kid you could get stickers with our colors red, black and green and at the top it would say Afro. Short for African. Which is where the name of the Afro hairstyle comes.

    We gave up the term African because we all didn’t agree, but more importantly the American ColoniL Society wanted to send free people of African descent to Africa. Now many of us have gone back to embrace our African heritage. The Afrocentric Movement of the 90s. Wearing kente cloth etc.. Not only kept some of the cultural items on the continent of Africa alive, but those on the continent embraced who they were even more. Check out Fela Kuti who came to America from Nigeria and was impressed with us trying to preserve our heritage, so much so he took it back to Africa.

    You have to know the history. Then maybe people won’t keep asking why white people done call themselves European American, it’s not the same thing.

  • If a stranger has the lack of manners to ask an invasive, personal question or make rude statements, they should be shut down right away. What are you? Where are you from? You don’t seem like you’re from here. Who do they think they are? Seems to me that they are guilty of profiling, and deserve an appropriate answer to put them in their place.

  • I’ve read much of this article/thread and at no time does anyone say “Human Race; made up of multiple ethnicities.” So I’ll reflect on a short story I heard in a movie when I was a child.
    -There was a forest filled with gray squirrels. They all looked the same except the females had slightly bigger eyes and the males had bushier tails. One day (such a cliché story climax, LOL) the earth shook and a large crack split the forest in two. Over the years the crack widened to the point that the squirrels could no longer cross back and forth. Today, the squirrels east of the crack are dark brown with thick bushy coats. The females still have bigger eyes than the males. The squirrels west of the crack are light-brown with gray underbellies and the females still have slightly bigger eyes than the males. All of the squirrels still forage food, hibernate during winter, scurry throughout their parts of the forest and raise up their offspring.
    The forest is still a forest, even with a large crack in it. The squirrels are still the same squirrels just slightly modified due to their respective environment. But no matter what we argue, they will inevitably be squirrels.
    So my point is the definition of race does not coincide with the biological attributes of a species. You are inevitably a human being; therefore you are a species of the human race. It is ethnicity that defines a person’s physical traits; its not race.

  • Both my parents are African Malien but they moved to Poland to study and I was born there and raised to today and I find myself as polish with an African background

  • There’s no such thing as race. It’s a social construct, which is why a light-skinned African American is considered black in America and white in Brazil.

  • I am on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at The Bush School at Texas A&M University, and have been charged with proposing action items to promote diversity and inclusion. I ran across this blog, “Ethnicity, Nationality, Race, Identity, Culture & Heritage (E.N.R.I.C.H.)” and LOVED it! I particularly think the acronym is perfect, and would like permission to possibly use it in a campaign?

    I also saw the negative comments on your definition of race. I always thought a forensic specialist could determine race. I have discovered this is not true. I also thought certain races were more susceptible or more likely to have certain diseases, and, while this is true to a point, it is not absolute.

    I wonder if you could re-word your definition as follows, to make it more accurate? “Race is similar to ethnicity, but relates more to the appearance of a person, especially the color of their skin. It is determined subjectively based primarily on physical appearance, and includes other inherited genetic traits such as hair and eye color and bone and jaw structure, among other things.”

  • “and not much with America (she wears the hijab and eats halal)”
    Just curious,who qualify as american in your opinion ?

  • Don’t answer accurately to the question what is your nationality when posed by a visitor, they will get anger. And trying to explain nationality vs. ethnicity will get them even more angry.

    • Hey Paige, thanks for stopping by!

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by the question, but it sounds like you are asking for a demonym; is that right?

  • what do you mean by saying this, “Another point regarding nationality is that there are some nations that don’t have a state, or international recognition as such, yet people may still point at it as the source of their nationality, such as the Palestinians,”, Palestinians are from Palestine. You should have mentioned the State-Terrorists Israelis who parasite on the Palestinian Country, Palestine. Shame on you.

    • I’m sure people have these different opinions on Israeli-Palistani dispute that has been around over the decades. But this article is not meant to address the political differences.

    • Yes very different opinions apparently…. Unbelievable that that’s what they took from it. But all “self-righteous ignorance” aside, I really appreciated this article and found the clarification helpful, so thank you for taking the time to write and share it.

    • Hey Ezra, thanks for writing in! To answer your question, neither one, exactly. Where you were born may definitely determine your nationality and citizenship, while where your parents are from may also refer to those terms. However, perhaps you do mean ethnicity, based on your parents ethnic background 🙂

  • Very interesting, everyone up in arms over their race or ethnicity. Are you ashamed. People from the south are called Hillbillies, to some a derogatory term, others could care less. People from the south call people from the north Yankees, so what, should we draw sides and fight about it we are still Americans. Yet people
    from the south are considered as deplorables or scum based on your political view. There is so much bias
    everyone is so thin skinned and get there feelings hurt so easily. Everybody hates America, but every wants to come here, why if it is hated so.

    They sure like to reap all it free benefits that the American citizens don’t have access . Free schooling, Government assistants, medical and you name it.

    I a interested in gineiology I want to know where my ancestry came from, would like to know my root’s
    very body (may or) would like to know where their original decendent’s came from. They are not trying to
    degrade they want answers. A child born out of wed lock will seek to find his idenity and his place in the world. So why are so many hung up on race, you are what your are we are all identified as Humans.
    Bottom line be Happy you catch more fly’s with Honey than sour grapes, life is better when claim it.

  • Hey Christian Good read, thanks for writing it, even got a laugh with the lawyer joke…(“Hey what-re those? Khaki showrts??).
    What word do you think is best for a resume? e.g. Compose & photograph groups up to 25 people ,of all ages and backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures…hmmm…
    I recently heard someone use geneologies? (or something like that). Thoughts?
    Thanks again! Oh and I also love how respectful, caring, and accessible you are with your responses. Kudos.

    • Awww, thanks a lot, Barbara! That’s very kind of you!

      Wow, it’s funny you mention resumes, because I actually write about career advice for another website 🙂

      So, I’d love to help you out, but could you tell me first, is that line going on a resume? Perhaps it’s one of the bullet points filed under the responsibilities of one of your work history entries?

      Or is it some other part of the resume?

      Let me know, and I’ll get back to you ASAP!

      And thanks so much, once again!

  • Wow.!! This article made my day. I was so confused about the differences between them. You summed it up pretty neatly. I was researching in several websites but this is the last stop for me. Thanks for the great article. !!

    • Wow, thanks so much Naveen! I’m so happy if it helped! Thanks for your comment, it really made my day!

      • Hi Christian,

        It took me a while to realize how long ago this article was actually written (then updated) in the heat of the issues today how people identify based on ethnicity, heritage, and nationality is an incredibly complex and interesting topic. I was recently speaking with my Puerto Rican friend about whether or not it’s incorrect for someone to identify as Puerto Rican without having been born or even ever visited the island. He speaks about how she’s internalized the negative stereotypes that Americans have created about what a Latina should look and act like that does not accurately represent his culture or his friend and family who where born and raised on the island. It’s also an issue because who are we to tell someone how they can and can’t identify?

        As someone who was adopted from China and raised by a conservative Dutch/Irish family I’ve decided that it’s correct to identify by my nationality which is American because I was raised in an american culture with American Christian values from before I could remember anything else. However by racial features, heritage and genetically I am clearly and fully Chinese I would never expect a culturally chinese person to consider me Chinese (though some think I am until they realize I don’t speak the language) nor would I tell a white person to not say that I was Asian. I don’t identify as Chinese because I have no knowledge of the culture nor do my mannerisms or values reflect their culture. How do we integrate our understanding of race, heritage, nationality and culture to identify ourselves and others? Do the indigenous/native people (those born and raised in the culture and location) have a right to tell someone whose heritage is the same but upbringing was not that they cannot identify as someone of that nationality? Is there a line that’s crossed that makes you one or the other? Self Identification vs how we are identified by others. (Blacks vs African American for example)

        Just posting for a discussion topic 🙂

        Thanks again for the great article!

  • I was getting confused about my ethnicity,nationality,race, culture and etc. Since I’ve immigrated to another country it makes it harder to answer people’s questions when they ask about one of the terms. Your explanation about this topics were beyond amazing! However, what I don’t get is this: if I was born in country A and immigrated to country B at the age of 9, as I grow up, how do I identify more of country B since I wasn’t born there?
    Also, I’m considered an Arab Australian (although my ethnicity is different) but if I were to go overseas for example, USA, I would be considered white, even tho I don’t share the same privilege as a white person in the USA. So, if for example I’m asked if I’m a person of colour what would my most suitable answer be? Yes or no?

    • Hey Dima, thanks for writing in!

      Your questions are quite tough, but I’ll give them a shot 🙂 So, identity is all about you, how you feel, how you “identify.” In your example, you moved to country B at age 9. I would say you would likely easily identify with country B, as you assimilate throughout your school years, make friends in country B, eat country B’s food, and “come of age” in country B. Half of your life prior to moving there, you likely can’t recall anyway. Does that make sense?

      As for the term “people of color,” this one may be fraught with danger. It still can be an accurate term, but in many cases, it may not be the ideal one. However, if you consider yourself to be such, then of course that is fine. I’d like to pass on this article to you which may provide more clarity: https://slate.com/human-interest/2019/02/people-of-color-phrase-history-racism.html

      Hope that helps, Dima!

  • Hi Christian,
    an interesting point of view, but I have to point out that you try to explain the terms using common sense, not linguistics. This is a tricky path, because essentially you attribute whatever meaning you want to words according to your beliefs, not what they actually mean.

    I’m greek, I tend to use a lot the etymology of the words before I use them (note that many greeks, being influenced by their foreign languages studies don’t do that and fall in the same trap as most non-greeks) and this is what etymology (the origin/meaning of the words) has to say:

    Nation – see the explanation of ethnicity right below. Nation is the latin-derived word for the greek word “ethnos”.

    Ethnicity – comes from the word ethnos, which in greek means nation. Ethnos comes from the word ethos (have you heard in english the expression “professional ethos”?) – which means that ethnos (nation) and ethnicity refers to all the people that have the same social behaviour. In greek, same social behaviour is meant by the same language, same culture and same religion (although, globalisation currently presses to change this definition, but let’s not talk politics). The difference between ethnicity and ethnos is that ethnos refers to the nation of a whole country, whereas ethnicity refers to people of the same nation living somewhere else (i.e. do not occupy a whole coutry, e.g. greeks in america).

    Nationality – what is your nation. See above for a description.

    Race – it is *definitely* not about skin colour. This is a huge violation of the language. Race comes from the french word race, which comes from the italian word razza, that means “people of common descent”. In greek we use the word genus to refer to this. Not all people with the same skin colour belong to the same race. Obvious examples are white europeans (not all europeans have the same ancestors) and black tribes in africa.

    Heritage, culture etc – attributes of a nation (ethnos) or ethnicity.

    The importance of using the language correctly is that since the language is specific, it does not let fanatism and political extremism to get in the way of communication. Unfortunately, it’s not the language itself that creates friction among people, but our tendency to be fanatical about our ideas and violent in imposing those ideas to others.

    Kind regards,

  • Hey I would just like to correct what you said about French ethnicities, the only common point between these “ethnic” sub groups you mentioned is the language. But the culture isn’t the same at all ! These groups aren’t even from the same countries or continent. I don’t even think French is an ethnicity because it was made of very different ethnic origins and sub groups : Celtic, frank, German, viking… It’s only a nationality. It was even very hard to make it a unified country because of how different the regions were, there are still so many differences between the south and north of France (lculture, traditions, even language). And I’m only talking about Metropolitan France! As for the pieds noirs, they were for example Spanish people who came to Algeria and then came to France, therefore their ethnic backgrounds is Spanish, but their nationality is French. And for the wallons, they are from Belgium, even if they speak French, they do not have the same culture at all! Otherwise your article was very good! But I think you’re still a bit confused about ethnicity, at least it’s far more complicated than you think. (sorry for any mistakes, English isn’t my first language)

    • Sarah, thanks for your insightful and constructive comment! I definitely have a long way to go as I try to understand culture and ethnicity, and your comment is an eye opener. Thank you so much, Sarah, and I hope you have a wonderful day!

    • Thank you Cassandra, both for your comment and for stopping by! I’m so happy if it was able to help!

  • I identify as pasty or very pasty. Not fortunate enough to be ethnic fluid where I am able to live on monument blvd and also appear middle eastern

  • This was written at least 9 years ago, and I still learned a lot from it. Race and ethnicity were always confusing to me, so thanks for this.

Dauntless Jaunter