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 ethncity?

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 not 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 tem 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.


About Jacques Delacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
This entry was posted in Socio-Political Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Race and Ethnicity

  1. Sam says:

    I refuse to use any term other than race because of political correctness. The supposed accuracy of using “ethnicity” over “race” in certain circumstances is overshadowed by the act of submission to the liberal intellectual tyranny of invented politically correct terms. Cossacks be damned.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Sam: Are you off the reservation? Again? You must not have read my short, short essay if you are able to deliver yourself off this tirade on my blog. Or is this humor that escapes me? “Race” means one thing; “ethnicity” means another. Read the piece, please.
      Looking at it again, I would guess it’s humor but it was lubricated by too much of some funny substance.

      • Sam says:

        Attempt at humor in reference to our (much) earlier exchange regarding “sex” & “gender”, two words with a similarly obscure yet important difference in definition with meanings defined primarily by interested parties and academia.

      • jacquesdelacroix says:

        It had slipped my mind, of course. The comparison is absurd. The use of gender to mean sex is confusion. It simply demonstrates the lack of general culture of radlibs. The difference between race and ethnicity is a difference, not a confusion. The difference is useful, as I explain.

  2. Sam says:

    The difference between gender and sex is equally important. If a Cossack is angered because someone refers to him as a Russian, imagine his anger at being labeled a woman.

    Your (and my) POLITICAL preference to accommodate the wishes of ethnic groups with the language you use and desire to be as precise and accurate as possible in your language should equally apply to the gender/sex distinction. To recognize race/ethnicity is to tacitly support ethnic groups who wish to be recognized as such. To recognize gender/sex is to tacitly support individuals who wish to be recognized in a certain way as well. I don’t think your choice is based on any measure of accuracy but on a conscious choice to support the former and not the latter. The choice is (un)informed by your lack of exposure to people for whom the sex/gender distinction is important.

    Race and sex are (as they are usually defined) picked out solely by physical characteristics. Ethnicity and gender are sociological classifications.

    You make 2 points: 1) that the difference between race and ethnicity is useful (implying that the difference between sex and gender is not) and 2) that the difference between sex and gender is a confusion.

    A term is useful (in a situation such as this) if it can be used in any situation with greater accuracy than alternatives. Gender (the term to which you objected) is not just the most accurate but the only term available when discussing certain topics about transgendered people, among others, and therefore qualifies as useful. I’m honestly confused as to why you would dismiss a word which would bring greater accuracy to your speech. It is akin to refusing to use the color-word “magenta” because you believe it draws no distinctions in the world (i.e. means purple).

    I’m not sure what the confusion is. The two sets are clear with clear definitions to me. If an individual is confused by the difference between words it is not a failing of the words.

    I’ll just add that if you are claiming (though I don’t believe you are) that what “gender” describes is non-existant you would be empirically incorrect.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      “Gender” is a grammatical distinction, as in “he” and “she.” The other thing you refer about, “have vagina” and “have penis,” was called “sex” for about five hundred years of the English language. Same thing but longer in other European languages. To suddenly change this well-used term by debauching another word, “gender,” shows a silly political agenda. The agenda is silly because it starts with bad English. In addition, I probably object to the agenda so, why should I help?

      For the same reason, I refuse to use the term “gay.” It’s the name debauched by homosexual activists with an agenda to which I object in part. Example of objection: The “gay” leaders will not take ownership of the thousands of child-molesting priests who, somehow direct their attentions exclusively to boys. Those priests, are not “gay.” The same “gay” leaders will generally refuse to examine publicly the behavioral causes of HIV which caused the completely avoidable deaths of thousands of young men. That is also unacceptable. So, the objective term “homosexual,” is the right one for me. So, your explanation of my usage is correct.

      The distinction between race and ethnicity is not rooted on any social or political movement. It’s a distinction made by social scientists long ago. It carries no more agenda than the distinction between “chair” and “table.” You are just wrong on that one.

      As for the trans-gender people, my heart goes out to them but there aren’t enough for them to justify torturing language on their behalf
      How do I know there are very few although it’s grotesquely popular in some circles to claim to be it? Because so very few agree to go under the knife. That’s a good test, in my book.

      • Sam says:

        The gay/homosexual issue is not really applicable as the two terms pick out the same people and have (possibly) different meanings only in terms of animals. However, in general, the actions of the group in question should not influence the word you use to refer to them. If your choice is based on what you believe to be the more accurate term that’s fine. If its motivated by a negative value judgement then its a slur. If it is motivated by a positive value judgment its equally biased but not intentionally hurtful. Perhaps it is impossible in the gay/homosexual case to choose unbiasedly, but why be intentionally hurtful? A word is not an argument.

        The history of a word is irrelevant. Every new way in which language is employed is a bastardization of the old way. Its how language evolves. Saying that a new term is a bastardization of an old term is not a good reason for rejecting it as a real definition or, more importantly, rejecting the difference it highlights.

        The issue here is not the string of letters and how it evolved to mean what it does now. The issue is the concept the string represents. It’s the concept that I’m claiming is useful and accurate in certain circumstances. To refute the concept based on the string of letters that represents it is not valid.

        As for measuring the value of the agenda by the terms they employ, I think you were mostly joking. In case you weren’t though, agendas should be supported or not based on their content, not style. More than that though, any person attempting to be accurate and intellectually honest should disregard what terms an agenda uses, abuses, or refuses and simply use the most accurate language possible. I admit that it is hard, if not impossible to recognize and eliminate these little biases but you seem to be touting yours in this case.

        You may be correct (you would know better than I) that social or political movements did not play a part in the development of the race/ethnicity distinction, however I find that very hard to believe. I have no idea where to find the information but I’m willing to bet that the first time the distinction is documented in history is in the context of a social or political movement whom considered itself, as a group, to not be adequately expressed by the terms “movement”, “party”, “race”, or any other terms. Regardless of its first use, though, it is now used to discuss such groups. A term describing social groups cannot be divorced from being influenced by political developments and beliefs. The mere fact of the word existing has political implications and the choice to use it or not use it has political implications. The more credence is given to ethnicity the more, say, Kurds are empowered.

        As for why the transgendered persons you speak of have not changed their sex to match their gender I can give you three reasons. 1) Operations are quite expensive and some may have to wait a very long time, even indefinitely, to be able to afford one. 2) There is a lag time between the realization of gender/sex discrepancy and the act of surgery. 3) Because they do not wish to.

        All that’s relevant are that there are such people, who are of one sex and the other gender. That is enough for the terms to both be useful. Their reasons are irrelevant to this judgment.

        As for your test, how many members of ethnic groups would be willing to cut their penis/vaginas off in order to fulfill the requirements of the ethnic group? The test being an unfair one is hardly the issue though. The issue is that gender is knowable through words and actions (conscious and unconscious). The test is already defined (about as precisely as a test of ethnicity) by psychologists and sociologists. The test defines the definition, and you are simply proposing to make the test the same as the test for sex. This is just you urging for the disappearance of the concept of gender, not giving evidence for why it should disappear.

      • jacquesdelacroix says:

        I give up. You are not paying attention to the argument. “Homosexual” is an objective description. Everything else is not.

  3. Lawrence Marcus says:

    Don’t give up, I was enjoying this argument!

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      I don’t need to argue. Sam is always welcome on my blog. He can use it to write whatever he wants that happens to be distantly related to what I actually say.

  4. Pingback: Race and Ethnicity « Notes On Liberty

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