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