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Race vs. Ethnicity

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  Angbeen Chaudhary  —  Grammar Tips
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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.

In this post, I will discuss the differences between these two words. I will use both of them in sentences, so you can see them in context.


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:

Ethnicity is used as a noun in English language which means the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.

The interrelationship between gender, ethnicity, and class is vague for some people.

Race as noun:

Race is used as a noun which means each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.

People of all races, colours, and creeds participated in the contest.


Race vs. Ethnicity

Though Barack Obama never made his race a part of his presidency, he has become a national Rorschach test on the topic just by being. [NPR]

[H]is good old boy Southern persona and impolitic remarks about race presented problems. [Telegraph]

The one radical thing about Barack Obama is his race, his name. [New Yorker]

His comparison of “Chinese” versus “Canadian” culture and his perplexing preoccupation with details of ethnicity might be belied by his background. [Vancouver Sun (now offline)]

The crowd, diverse in both age and ethnicity, waved American flags, snapped cell phone pictures of the scene. [Star-Ledger]

The footpath ahead was thick with hikers of every shape, size, age and ethnicity. [Guardian]

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.


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