Terms for Multicultural Studies: Defining “Race,” “Ethnicity,” and “Nationality”
By Professor Gregory Jay | University of Wisconsin
An arbitrary and disputed classification of modern humans, usually based on a combination of various physical characteristics such as skin color, facial form, hair, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups. Race populations may originate when they are partially isolated reproductively from other populations; consequently, their members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other population groups. Though a race may be defined by genetic commonalities, interracial reproduction renders strict categorization by this definition quite problematic.
Modern racial classifications took hold in the nineteenth century as “scientific” explanations for white supremacy and as justifications for colonial imperialism. The categories widely promulgated then were
- the Caucasian, or white race, to which belong the greater part of the European nations and those of Western Asia
- the Mongolian, or yellow race, occupying Eastern Asia, China, Japan, etc.
- the Ethiopian, or black race, occupying most of Africa (except the north), Australia, New Guinea, and other Pacific Islands
- the American, or red race, comprising the Indians of North and South America
- the Malayan, or brown race, which occupies the islands of the Indian Archipelago
These categories were much debated, with the latter two often conflated with the Mongolian. This schema greatly influenced 20th-century racial politics as practiced by the Nazis in Germany, by white supremacists in the United States, and by the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
Typically, classifications of people by “race” quickly slide from biology to culture: it is asserted that race determines culture and behavior, or that people with a particular appearance have “by nature” specific cultural characteristics or qualities (hence the employment of racial stereotypes). There is no valid scientific basis for such assertions.
Comment: Though put forward as biological truths, racial classifications are largely socio-political constructions used by a dominant group to distribute rights, wealth, power, status, and values among populations based on superficial appearances. The effort to make “race” identical with “culture” was highly popular as a way of creating a hierarchy of races, from those deemed the “most civilized” (the whites) to those described as “primitive” (the “savage Indians,” the “barbaric Africans,” etc).
…Despite its problematic basis, “race” can be a powerful reality for organizing social, political, and cultural activity that affirms a group’s identity and furthers its interests. Thus groups victimized by white supremacist racism nonetheless often object to suggestions that we “get beyond race,” since this strategy would appear to again render them invisible. “Race,” then, can be socially constructed by marginalized groups as a vehicle for self-understanding, political resistance, and cultural affirmation. “Celebratory multiculturalism” tends to affirm racial experience in this way, while “critical multiculturalism” tends to critique the use of race by focusing on issues of power. (See
An “ethnic” group consists of a population of persons who practice a common culture (language, religion, food, beliefs, customs, etc.) and share a common ancestry. Examples include Italian-Americans (USA), the Hmong (USA, Laos, Thailand, China), the Basque (Spain), Bantu (African continent), Serbs (European Balkan area), Ojibway (USA, Canada), etc.
Comment: note that an ethnic group is smaller than a race, and may not be the same as a nation. Ethnic groups may have a number of racial groups mixed into their ancestry (Puerto Ricans are black, brown, and white), and may occupy territory in more than one nation. The group’s cultural practices may shift as it absorbs influences over time from racial intermixture, movement to new territories, or borrowings from other cultural groups. A national group (people from Ireland or China or India, for example) may give birth to an ethnic group if they move in substantial numbers to a different nation where they constitute a minority group (for example, Japanese in the U.S., Turks in Germany, Algerians in France, Afrikaners in South Africa, Chinese in Australia).