There are few situations where word choice matters more than in discussions of race and ethnicity. Such topics are often politically-charged minefields of taut emotions and flared tempers. Even small mistakes can be distracting and even unintentionally insulting—things serious writers should seek to avoid at all costs. In everyday speech, these words are used interchangeably, but, in formal writing, the difference can be important. Knowing whether race or ethnicity is a more appropriate choice for a given context is one step on the road to culturally competent writing.
The word race originated from late Old English, from Old Norse rás ‘current’. It was originally a northern English word with the sense ‘rapid forward movement’, which gave rise to the senses ‘contest of speed’ (early 16th century) and ‘channel, path’ (i.e. the space traversed). The verb dates from the late 15th century.
Ethnicity as noun:
Race as noun:
People of all races, colours, and creeds participated in the contest.
Race or ethnicity:
Race and ethnicity are two systems of human affiliation. Race refers to physical characteristics. Ethnicity refers to cultural characteristics, like language and religion, and can include race as well. Now, how can you easily keep these two term separated in your mind for future writing? Here’s a helpful mnemonic to remember ethnicity vs. race. Ethnicity and culture each contain the letter T, so you can mentally link them that way.