Race and Ethnicity
Distinguish between ethnicity and “race”. What does it mean to say that “race” is a social construction?
Race and Ethnicity
Race and ethnicity are common terms and often used interchangeably to refer to categories of people. The terms, however, differ significantly in meaning. The discussion seeks to distinguish the two terms while expounding on the statement that race is a social construction.
The Distinction between Race and Ethnicity
Race and ethnicity are common terms used regularly but without making a clear distinction between the two terms. There is widespread confusion about race and ethnicity in the American culture. Race is often viewed as something inherent in biology, inherited across generations. The race is usually associated with physical characteristics such as hair texture or skin color. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is understood as something that is acquired and is influenced by factors in the surroundings and the culture shared between people in a particular community or society. Ethnicity is more broadly defined based on a common race, linguistic, religion, origin, or cultural background. According to Flanagin et al. (2021), the two terms are social constructs with no biological or scientific meaning. In American and Japanese culture, race is perceived as more biological than social. Most Americans believe that the country’s population has biologically based races, which are assigned various labels. Major racial terms used include Black, White, African American, Native American, Asian Americans, and others. Race in the United States is viewed on a biological basis. Individuals in the United States are classified using hypodescent rule and fail to uphold the view of race being more about genetics (Kottak, 2014).
What It Mean to say that “Race” is a Social Construction
The statement that race is a social construction implies that there are no biological factors or gene clusters that can be used to categorize race. According to Ifekwunigwe et al. (2017), race is not a scientifically reliable metric for measuring human genetic variations. The racial identity can be fluid, meaning that the perception of race can shift with experience and time. The race is shaped by societal views and beliefs. For example, in the United States, the race of a person is constant and is assigned automatically by hypodescent. The basis of race in the country, however, is more influenced by social structure rather than biological factors. An individual with one parent who is white and the other Black are more likely to be classified in the Black race, yet based on genetic predisposition, the individual qualifies to be White. An attempt to add a ‘multiracial’ category in the United States Census has been opposed (Kottak, 2014). This shows that biological factors are not the basis for categorizing people into races. The race is more influenced by social factors. In other countries such as Brazilian, a racial label of a person may change due to environmental factors. People from the country may change their race by changing their dress code, location, language, or attitude. The social concept of race shapes human experiences for most of the population. Racial bias triggers discrimination, social exclusion, and violence against certain social groups.
Race and ethnicity continue to categorize populations despite the incorrect usage and application of the two terms. Although race is more associated with biological factors while ethnicity is linked to cultural expressions, the two factors are social constructs. This means that categorizing people based on race and ethnicity is impacted more by social factors and no genetic predisposition.
- Flanagin, A., Frey, T., Christiansen, S. L., & AMA Manual of Style Committee. (2021). Updated Guidance on the Reporting of Race and Ethnicity in Medical and Science Journals. Jama, 326(7), 621-627.
- Ifekwunigwe, J. O., Wagner, J. K., Yu, J. H., Harrell, T. M., Bamshad, M. J., & Royal, C. D. (2017). A Qualitative Analysis of How Anthropologists Interpret the Race Construct. American Anthropologist, 119(3), 422-434.
- Kottak, C. P. (2014). Mirror For Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.