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Race vs. Ethnicity vs. Nationality: All You Need to Know


With all the recent controversy surrounding immigration in the news, you're probably hearing a lot of talk about race, ethnicity, and nationality. But what do these terms mean? While you probably have a general idea about what these terms mean, the truth is that the concepts can be pretty complicated. Like, how exactly do you define race? Are race and ethnicity the same thing? If not, what's the difference? And can you be racist against someone for the country they come from?

All of these issues are at the heart of the United States dialogue lately, but it seems like people rarely start at the beginning with how you define race vs ethnicity vs nationality. In this article, we're going to walk you through nationality, race, and ethnicity, including:

  • Defining each term
  • Explaining each term with examples
  • Providing a table that compares and contrasts race vs ethnicity vs nationality
  • Giving examples of race vs ethnicity

There's a lot to talk about when it comes to this topic, so let's get started!



Race vs Ethnicity vs Nationality: A Handy Table

While we're definitely going to talk a lot about race vs ethnicity vs nationality, we wanted to give you a handy table with definitions and examples of each term right off the bat. As you read this article, you can refer back to this table to help keep things straight. (Trust us: it can get kind of complicated!

Race Physical characteristics that define a person as being a member of a specific group Skin color, hair color and texture, eye color, facial features, physical build
Ethnicity Cultural characteristics that define a person as being a member of a specific group Language, accent, religion, styles of dress, hairstyles, social customs, food and dietary preferences or restrictions
Nationality The legal sense of belonging to a specific political nation state Citizenship (birthright or naturalized)



Race is based on a person's physical traits.


What Is Race?

First, let's define race. To put it simply, race is a person's physical qualities that make them fit into distinct groups. Groups of people who share similar physical and behavioral characteristics are grouped together in racial categories.

Generally speaking, people are assigned to different racial categories by their physical, unchangeable traits, like skin color, hair texture, eye shape, and facial features. So, in the United States, a person with dark skin and very curly Black hair is going to be racially categorized as Black, and someone with pale skin and straight blonde hair is going to be assumed to be Caucasian.

It's important to understand that while people used to think that race was biologically determined, science has now proven that race is a social construct. But what does that mean, exactly? Well, at one point people thought that when you were of a certain race, you were significantly biologically different from people of other races. This was often used as a means to oppress people. For instance, one of the justifications for American slavery was that Black people were inherently genetically inferior to white people, making the latter the superior race.

Recent science has shown that race is actually something developed and assigned by society. That is, scientists have discovered that a person's race doesn't make them significantly genetically different than anyone else. That means that race is a way for societies to differentiate people based on common physically expressed traits.


Racism Defined

Like we just mentioned, race is based on a person's physical traits. That means racism is the act of discriminating against (or being prejudiced against) a person or group of people based on race. Racism is also the belief that a person's own race is superior or makes them superior to others.

Racism also happens when people assume that a person's race makes them predisposed to certain behaviors. Believing that all Black people are violent or that Latina women are sexually promiscuous are examples of racism that uses a person's race to assume negative things about them and their behavior.

Keep in mind that while individuals can have racist opinions or beliefs, racism can also exist on a larger level. When social and political systems operate on racist assumptions, it's called institutionalized racism. This type of racism is often harder to detect because we believe it's normal or acceptable. For example, the fact that Black and Hispanic people with a college degree will make less money than a white or Asian person with the same degree from similar universities is an example of institutionalized racism.



Ethnicity is someone's distinct cultural heritage.


What Is Ethnicity?

If race is based on a person's physical appearance, then what is ethnicity? Ethnicity, put simply, is someone's regional cultural heritage. This includes a person's native language, their religion, the holidays they celebrate, and their cultural practices. In this case, ethnicity is tied much more closely to geographical region and culture than physical appearance.

Let's take a closer look at ethnicity. Someone from, say, the Appalachian region of the U.S. will have a cultural background that might involve bluegrass music and Protestant Christianity. Another person from the bayous of Louisiana might have a background that involves Zydeco music and Catholicism. These are ethnic differences. What is ethnicity vs race? Ethnicity, unlike race, is not visible on the surface.

If both of the people in our examples above are Caucasian, you would likely not be able to tell who was from Louisiana and who was from Appalachia unless you heard the difference in their accents. However, not all people from the Appalachian mountains who have a background in bluegrass are Caucasian, nor are all Louisianans who listen to Zydeco. In fact, both of these regions have a large number of African Americans who also fit those same ethnic characteristics. Furthermore, both also have a population of indigenous Native Americans who also fit those ethnic characteristics.

Now that you know the definitions of race and ethnicity, let's take a closer look at how the two differ from one another.


Ethnocentrism Defined

Ethnocentrism happens when a person judges another culture based on the values and standards of their own culture. The problem with this is that cultures vary widely, so the result of ethnocentrism is that a person thinks their culture is better than other people's cultures. Ethnocentrism leads to a person or a group of people thinking their way of life is natural and correct--and that cultures that don't share the same practices and values are dangerous, backwards, and uncivilized.

Like racism, ethnocentrism leads to discriminatory practices. For example, take this story about students being asked to remove their hijabs at one Virginia school. A hijab is an important part of some Muslim women's religious practice. The teacher who asked the girl to remove her hijab assumed that her cultural practices and values--in which hijabs aren't required--were superior. In this case, the teacher's actions were based on a false assumption that one ethnicity is somehow superior to all others, and that others should assimilate.



The differences between race and ethnicity are confusing at first, but we're here to help you understand the distinctions a little better.


Race vs Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity aren't the same thing, so you can't use the terms interchangeably. That's because race is defined by a person's physical appearance, whereas ethnicity is defined by a person's culture.

Let's take a look at an example using the languages people speak. Latinos are people whose roots are in Central and South America (or "Latin America"). Hispanics are people whose first language is Spanish. Not every Latino speaks Spanish—people from Brazil speak Portuguese, and tons of people speak only their indigenous language. Additionally, Hispanic people are not all Latino, since people from Spain might speak Spanish as their first language but aren't from Latin America. The language a person speaks falls into the category of ethnic distinction, since it has nothing to do with a person's physical appearance.

Ethnically, you can be Hispanic or Latino and be of many different races, including Black, indigenous, and Caucasian. For instance, people from Spain can be both Hispanic (ethnically) and Caucasian (racially), while people from the Dominican Republic can be both Latino (ethnically) and Black (racially).

The truth is that people have both a race and an ethnicity...and these usually aren't the same things! Additionally, many people identify with multiple races and ethnicity depending on their heritage. For example, someone who is biracial and lives in Haiti might identify as racially Black and Asian, while considering themselves ethnically South Asian and Latino.


Race vs Ethnicity and National Context

Fascinatingly, race and ethnicity exist within the cultural context of a specific national environment. In other words, races and ethnicities differ between countries, and they even differ within countries!

So, for instance, someone with an Algerian background who lives in France occupies a specific ethnic role that depends completely on the history of occupation and colonization between France and Algeria. In France, the ethnic distinction of "Algerian" carries specific connotations.

But that ethnic role disappears once they move to the United States.

Once in the U.S., this person would gain a new and/or different ethnicity, since their national context changes when they move. Now, they fit into American racial and ethnic categories. So while this person might be Algerian in France, they may be categorized as Muslim in the United States. While this person would personally continue to personally identify as ethnically Algerian, they would be perceived and treated as a Saudi or Iraqi might be treated based on American national perceptions of ethnicity. They would perhaps even be called "Middle Eastern," even though they are actually North African.


Race vs Ethnicity Examples

We've already talked about some examples above, but it's probably helpful to see a race vs ethnicity list, too. In the table below, you'll see a race in the left column, then some associated ethnicities in the next two columns.

Keep in mind that this is a very small sample of the different race and ethnic combinations that exist. You can be more than one race and more than one ethnicity! These definitions also differ significantly between countries, too.


Black North African
African American
Asian South Asian
East Asian
Han Chinese
Caucasian European Scot


Again, these are not all the ethnicities that exist. (There are hundreds, if not thousands, of ethnicities.) And there are even more combinations of ethnicity and race! For instance, you can be ethnically Latinx, but racially black, Asian, or Caucasian. 

The big takeaway is that race and ethnicity are separate categories, and a person's ethnicity often depends on both cultural and national contexts. 



Nationality is all about where you were born.


What Is Nationality?

While race and ethnicity are a tangled mess that becomes more difficult to understand the harder you try, nationality is fairly simple. Nationality is defined as the legal citizenship of a nation state, pure and simple. It's pretty straightforward, too: you either are or are not a citizen of a nation state! In the United States, you can attain citizenship either by being born here (birthright citizenship) or by being granted legal citizenship by the United States government (naturalized citizenship). When you obtain your citizenship, your nationality becomes American.

So, that's simple, right? You belong to a nation once you have legal citizenship, and your citizenship defines your nationality. Oh, but hold on! Here's where it gets tricky. Once you are a citizen, do you then automatically receive all the privileges and protections of citizenship? Legally, yes, but's complicated. While you may be a legal citizen, how you are actually received and the treatment you are afforded can be affected by your race and ethnicity. This leads us to the phenomenon of nationalism.


What Is Nationalism?

Nationalism is the belief that one's one nation state is to be prioritized, and the well-being of that collective is more important than, well, anything else really. Nationalism emphasizes the setting aside of individual differences or interests for the good of one's own state. That sounds okay, right? Well, it can be. There's definitely a positive side to it. Sometimes, nationalism means that people are treated more equally. Instead of being considered Asian American or Japanese American or African American, nationalism can sometimes mean you're treated just like everyone else regardless of race and/or ethnicity.

But nationalism can also mean that one's national identity should come before everything else. This is particularly problematic when a person's culture comes in conflict with national identity. This shows up when questions arise such as whether or not English should be the national language of the United States. The Nationalist belief would be that once you are an American citizen, you should conform to an American identity--one that happens to be English-speaking. This would require people who speak other languages to speak English, and when they don't, they can be considered to be "less American" and become subject to prejudice.




Next Steps

We talked a lot about the ways in which society shapes the definitions of race vs ethnicity vs nationality. If you think this is interesting, you might enjoy studying political science or sociology

Understanding the differences between these terms is key to succeeding on both the U.S History AP exam and the World History AP exam. Learn more about the U.S. History AP exam by clicking here (and the World History AP exam by clicking here).

It might sound strange, but race, ethnicity, and nationality are key concepts in IB Geography, too. We have tons of resources for IB Geography students, including the best free IB Geography study guides, every IB Geography past paper, and a complete IB Extended Essay guide. These will help you tackle your IB exams like a pro.


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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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