Race and Ethnicity

My Facebook friend, VXA who is a disgruntled Afghan immigrant but quite smart some of the time asks this question: What’s the difference between race and ethnicity?

I am a sociologist by trade and I think I know the answer.

Both are vague terms. Race is a well established habit to classify people according to certain selected physical characteristics. The physical features are selected generally according to their usefulness within a given social agenda. Thus the presence or absence of  hair on the second knuckle of the index finger never is selected because it’s not useful. Skin color and hair shape often are because they allow for quick classification.  Medieval Europeans had no category “negro.” They would describe people in physical terms without assigning them to a  social category “Du Guesclin, the Marshall, was very dark of skin and hair.” It turns out that famous French historical figure was probably a man of some African blood. He would have been considered “colored” in Georgia in 1850. Same goes for Pushkin, the Russian national poet.

Europeans began assigning people to groups on the basis of physical features only with the advent of large-scale slavery and only where slavery was common or familiar. The Arabs went further. I am told (repeatedly) that the common term for a black person in Arabic, “abid” or “abed” or “abd, ” is the same as the term for slave. Race serves the purpose of racism. No racism, no race.

Ethnicity can be anything in connection with people who think of themselves as a group in relation to their neighbors.  Race can be the supporting scheme of ethnicity but it does not have to be. It can be religion and often is: Muslims are an ethnic group in India. The Sikhs, also of India, created their own ethnicity, away from Hindus, with great deliberateness.  Starting as a religious splinter, they imposed certain martial behaviors on their young men. Ultimately, with the help of endogamy, they managed to become their own “ethnic” group. It means that their neighbors thought of them as significantly different. (Endogamy: marrying within the group.) The Cossacks thought themselves as different from other Russians although they speak Russian, are Orthodox Christians, and look just like everybody else. Their ethnic identity ultimately came from an administrative decision under the Czars relieving peasants of the condition of serfdom if they would settle on the frontier.

The key is this: Ethnicity means differentiation from neighbors. No neighbors, no ethnicity.

4 thoughts on “Race and Ethnicity

  1. It’s not really meaningless word because it’s a quality that can be measured in degrees. “Race” itself is socially constructed. It’s real the way social constructed things are real,” elegance”, for example. People respond to elegance (whatever that is) and people respond to race (whatever that is). These responses alone make both elegance and race real and meaningful, I think.

  2. […] I think the nationalism is wholly fueled by Beijing (the government). In this respect Chinese nationalism is different than the nationalism of Europe and more like the nationalism of pre-war Japan. I think Beijing is doing this for a couple of reasons. Reason number one is that the economy of China is not as good as analysts say it is. China’s superb economic growth over the past few decades is not all that surprising when one thinks about where it started from. Nationalism is as good  tool as any for governments to use. Reason number two is that Beijing is still in the process of nation-building within its borders. That is to say, Beijing is still trying to mold a Chinese identity out of numerous kinds of ethnic groups. […]

  3. […] ** I use conventional words such as “race,” “white,” “African-American,” “black,” because they are broadly understood social terms in the US in 2017. This usage does not imply I espouse the idea that races are real in a biological sense or as anything but social constructions. (You may want to see my essay “Race and Ethnicity.”) […]

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