Perhaps no two other words get conflated incorrectly more often than race and ethnicity. The difference is a bit hard to explain, but I shall valiantly endeavor to set right what has gone wrong.
Does the difference matter? Well sort of. It’s important that we use words for what they mean, there can be deep seated ethnic conflict between people of the same race, and consistently conflating the two isn’t helpful. In a country like the United States, race and ethnicity do share similar boundaries, but even at that there are miles of difference within the races based on religion and geography. A White New Englander and a White Texan, can discover a vast degree of difference in the culture and ethics they were raised in, especially if you consider different classes for each. Are they fully different ethnicities? not quite, but American culture is so divided you could split the country into several different nations.
Race is a social construct entirely artificial, usually based on approximate origin and issues of skin color and other physical artifices. For example someone is “black” if they appear to be so and have African descent.
For example Allen Iverson and Desmond Tutu are both black, even though the only thing they actually have in common is an approximate region of ancestry and a few features of appearance.
I’m white, as is the Queen of England Elizabeth the second. This is actually a closer relation than Iverson and Tut, QE2 and I at least share “German” ancestry.
At the end of the day race is an utterly meaningless and artificial construction of society that serves as an approximate sorting matrix. The limits on a racial grouping rarely make sense and there is no appropriate way to argue for the inclusion or exclusion of certain groups.
For example: What do you do with Jewish people? well first things first there are three ethnic jewish groups (approximately) are they the same race or separate ones. For those of you not currently up to date on the intricacies of Jewish ethnicities:
Ashkenazi- are central European Jews mostly. The name derives from the Hebrew word for Germany. Many things we as Americans associate with Judaism are because of the population density of Ashkenazi in the United States. An example of the cultural penetration of Ashkenazi in the US is the fact that Yiddish is considered generically Jewish, as compared to a cultural feature of a specific subset of Jews. Generally American and western perceptions of Jews are based on the Ashkenazi to such a great extent that many westerners don’t realize there are multiple Jewish ethnicities.
Sephardic- Sephardic Jews are from the Iberian peninsula, for those weak in geography, where Spain and Portugal are. Sephardic Jews were largely expelled from their homes generations ago and carry that persecution with them.
Mizrahim: Middle eastern or Arabic Jews. They actually make up the majority of the Jewish population in Israel, but not the ruling class which is largely Ashkenazi.
Was there a reason for this diversion? Surprisingly yes. How do we define Race? Lets examine how the three tribes of Jews can foil racial paradigms.
Are Jews white? Based on appearance perhaps the Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi are, but that’s debatable for the Sephardic. In terms of origin they all claim descent from the same locale.
Well which Jews? It’s hard to pin it down, especially if we’re looking at the history of race and racial oppression Jews have suffered from what would appear to be racial oppression, while mostly looking white.
If the Mizrahim are white why not other middle easterners?
Have you seen where the Caucus mountains are? No really go grab a map.
There’s no real basis for race other than what we think might be an approximate grouping.
For example, my family is mostly Polish, it wasn’t too many generations ago that Poles were not considered actually white. Now if you’ve seen my rather pale and light haired family, you’d realize that “white” wasn’t a skin tone issue but a matter of other things tied to class, culture and upbringing.
Ethnicity almost is real, it is still inherently false, a sort of imagined community, similar to that which Anderson claims Nations are, but still, considerably more real than race. It’s based on a myth of common descent like race, but the markers are different. People of different ethnicities can look approximately the same, the signifiers are culture. The language you speak, the values you hold, the religion you were raised in, the customs and traditions you follow: all these things are a part of ethnicity. Appearance can play a role as ethnicities are based on ethnies or small cultural groups. They are somewhat bound geographically, but you could very well make the argument that Irish Catholic Americans (who by origin are 100% Irish) are a different ethnicity from Native Irish Catholics.
The Irish Catholics in America speak a different version of English, they have different cultural values and beliefs, they were raised in what is still a predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture whereas Irish Catholics were raised in a Gaelic/Celtic catholic culture.
Is it possible that I am splitting hairs?
Absolutely, but that’s the nature of ethnicity you can divide it as much as you want, but it’s based on things you can argue and define. Race is based mostly on appearance, it’s utterly meaningless.
One of my best friends is black, but he isn’t African American, his family is from Jamaica and the culture he was raised in was different from that of African Americans. His mother had Jamaican cultural heritage, and he grew up in different circumstances, even going back to Jamaica for part of his life. The culture he was raised in was different from that of many African-Americans, and as such he doesn’t consider himself one, but instead a Jamaican-American.
For example here’s how you can nitpick ethnicity:
Slavic is an ethnicity. The Slavic ethnic group refers to a collection of cultures and “nations” in eastern europe, in general they share religious linguistic and cultural traits. The slavic groups the average American is likely to know much about are the Poles and the Russians. America has a large number of Polish immigrants and their descendants (yours truly) and has had interactions with Russia which to this day remains a world power despite diminished circumstances.
Poles are Catholics, most other slavic nationalities and sub-groupings are Orthodox. For those not up on the minutiae of non-protestant denominations: Catholics swear fealty to the Pope, the Orthodox swear fealty to a national leader. There are differences of belief as well, but the genesis of the split was that after the popes had fled east during the Sacking of Rome the Greeks got used to having the head of the church in house, when the pope went back to Rome the decision was that they’d have a patriarch of the faith in Greece, then the Russians eventually decided they needed their own patriarch. I have simplified a lot of religious history in the past sentence so take it with a grain of salt.
Poles use the Latin Alphabet, others use Cyrillic. I’m not going to go too much in depth on the alphabet differences but Latin is the alphabet in use here and Cyrillic is the one that the Russians use.
So Poles are West Slavic, or Latin-Slavic. What about Lithuania? it uses Latin as well but is more protestant? What about Estonia? is it Nordic or Slavic? it uses the Latin alphabet, and is mostly Atheist/Protestant now, but Estonia has long been a part of other Slavic empires and nations?
See, here at least we can discuss the fine points and come to an decision that can sort of make sense. It will never be perfect, and you can always divide things down to a finer level, but at least you can present a justification for your decisions and how you sorted things through. We can say that Poles are Slavic because they share a linguistic tradition with the other Slavic groups and shared cultural and historical roots due to their position in eastern Europe. We can then classify Estonia as a Nordic state, saying that it doesn’t’ belong to the Slavic cultural linguistic tradition. Is it perfect? by no means is it even acceptably wrong, however, it’s more meaningful than making a decision off of phenotypes which ultimately tell you little about the person, the life they’ve lived, or the culture they grew up in.
Then there’s race, which rarely makes any sense as a tool for identification. People of the same race share so little in common it’d be laughable if not for the atrocities committed in the name of race.