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What is the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity?

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Race and ethnicity are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but they actually describe different aspects of human identity. While they both refer to the diversity of human populations, they do so in distinct ways. When we think of identity, we might consider skin color, language, cultural traditions, nationality, religion, or family ancestry. Both race and ethnicity encompass many of these descriptors, but each one emphasizes different features.

According to Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist and paleobiologist at Penn State University, "Race is understood by most people as a mixture of physical, behavioral, and cultural attributes. Ethnicity recognizes differences between people mostly on the basis of language and shared culture." In other words, race is often seen as a biological characteristic that is passed down through generations, whereas ethnicity is viewed as something that we acquire or self-identify based on our cultural experiences and surroundings.

However, these definitions are not as clear-cut as they may seem. The question of race versus ethnicity exposes major flaws in how we define these two traits, particularly when it comes to race. The concepts of race and ethnicity have had a significant social impact on human history, and it is important that we understand the complexities and nuances of these terms.

It's worth noting that the distinction between race and ethnicity is not always straightforward. While ethnicity typically refers to shared cultural experiences, it can also be influenced by factors such as religion or nationality. Similarly, race can encompass a range of physical, behavioral, and cultural attributes that are not necessarily inherited. These nuances make it difficult to define race and ethnicity in absolute terms, but it also highlights the importance of understanding the impact these concepts have had on society.

Ultimately, the question of race versus ethnicity is one that requires thoughtful consideration and nuance. By understanding the complexities of these terms and how they have been used throughout history, we can work towards a more equitable and inclusive future for all.

Is Skin Color an Illusion?

Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist and paleobiologist at Penn State University, has dedicated much of her research to understanding the evolution of human skin color and its social implications. Her work challenges the flawed principle that different races have inherent biological differences. Jablonski has published multiple books, including "Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color" and "Skin: A Natural History," and she has given a TED Talk titled "Skin Color is an Illusion."

The concept of race originated in the 18th century when anthropologists and philosophers used physical characteristics like skin color to categorize people into different racial groups. This led to the belief that some races were superior to others, which was used to justify the slave trade and colonialism. This flawed principle has had long-lasting effects on society, including global power imbalances and the perpetuation of racism.

Today, the underlying assumption that physical characteristics like skin color or hair texture have unique biological and genetic underpinnings for different racial groups still persists. However, there is no scientific basis for this premise. Genetic variation within racial groups is actually greater than the average difference between any two racial groups. Additionally, there are no genes that are unique to any particular race.

It is important to recognize the historical and economic context in which race and racism developed. Capitalism and the accumulation of wealth were driving forces behind the triangular trade, which included slavery. To challenge racism and its effects, it is necessary to have discussions and events that promote racial healing and transformation. As Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe, a medical anthropologist at Duke University, stated, "We can't understand race and racism outside of the context of history, and more importantly economics."

Race vs Ethnicity in Definition

Although people visually identify each other's race as "Black," "white," or "Asian," there are no genetic variants that occur in all members of one racial group but not in another. According to various studies, genetic variation within any racial group is greater than the average difference between any two groups. Nina Jablonski's work on skin color shows that skin color evolved along a spectrum and encompasses so much variation within different skin color "groupings" that it's impossible to definitively separate people into races according to their biology.

Race is a social construct that emerged from anthropologists and philosophers in the 18th century who used physical traits such as skin color to categorize people into different racial groups. Unfortunately, this belief led to the idea that some races were superior to others and that these differences were biologically based. As a result, this thinking justified the slave trade and colonialism, which have led to power imbalances that still exist today.

While race is ascribed to individuals based on physical traits, ethnicity is frequently chosen by the individual and encompasses everything from language to nationality, culture, and religion. Ethnicity can enable people to take on several identities, but it has also been used to oppress different groups, as seen in the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Ethnicity and race are intertwined, as someone's ascribed race can be part of their chosen ethnicity, and social factors often determine whether someone is racialized before being allowed access to their ethnic identity.

It's important to acknowledge that these issues are complex, and discussions about race and ethnicity require nuance and critical thinking. Recognizing race as a cultural and social construct is a growing movement, according to the RACE Project. However, dismantling the deeply ingrained beliefs and practices associated with race and ethnicity requires a commitment to ongoing education, dialogue, and action. By understanding the nuances and complexities of these terms, we can work towards a more equitable and inclusive society.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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