As we begin important discussions about race and racism in America, many people are left wondering what the difference between race and ethnicity even is. After all, when someone asks the age-old question, “What are you?” and then our “favorite” follow up question (that deserves a major eye roll), “No, where are you really from?” it can be confusing to know exactly how to respond. Like, are you talking about my race or my ethnicity? And do you want to know both? (Oh and for the record, I’m from the Bronx, thank you very much.) It’s also problematic when people try to rope all BIPOC people together in one group or expect everybody who hails from the same country to identify the same way. Still unsure what’s the difference between race and ethnicity? Let us explain.
What does race mean?
The U.S. Census Bureau defines race as a “person’s self-identification with one or more social groups.” The social groups include White, Black, African American, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders. But it’s not always that easy to fit into one category. Before, people were identified as a specific race solely based on physical (i.e. skin tone, facial structures), behavioral and/or cultural attributes. While these factors can play a role in how you identify, it can actually be more complex than you realize. Some may identify as multiple races or (with the long history of race in this country) may choose to ignore or still be confused by what race they “fit” in.
Hold on, Black and African American are different? Yes. Black can be used as a universal term while African-American is a person of African origin. Many choose not to identify as African American, since the term kind of ignores Black people who live in or come from all over the world (i.e. Black Parisian, Afro-Latino, etc.) Also some may feel more connected to their American background more than their family’s African roots and hence will consider themselves just Black.
So, what is ethnicity?
Ethnicity is how you identify based on nationality, language, culture and religion. It can also be based on your geography or your family's origin. While the census just provides two categories: “Hispanic or Latino” and “Not Hispanic or Latino,” ethnicity is way more than that. You can describe yourself as multiple ethnicities like Chinese American, British Samoan or just Polynesian, Italian or Jewish, to name a few. Some also choose to identify as simply American because they don't engage in any of the cultural traditions and customs of their family’s nationality. Others even go as far as to identify based on region, so they might be Italian but consider themselves Sicilian.
Wait...Hispanic and Latinx are different too? Yes. If a person is Latinx, they have Latin American origin (i.e. Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, to name a few). But if they're Hispanic, they have Spanish-speaking origin or can consider themselves native Spanish-speakers. Some Latin American countries—like Puerto Rico—fall into both categories, meaning Puerto Ricans often consider themselves Latinx and Hispanic. Alternately, Brazilians (for example) are only Latinx (since they speak Portuguese).
Bottom line: Race and ethnicity may be different, but they can’t exist without the other. It helps a person identify, connect and understand their background, and each also comes with a long history of discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping. So, the next time someone asks you, “What are you?” we hope they have time for you to really explain.