Racial and Ethnic Groups

Racial groups and ethnic groups are oftentimes confused with one another or are treated as interchangeable terms.

Contrary to what others may believe, racial and ethnic groups vary in many ways, one of which can be seen in terms of the concepts of “race” and “ethnicity” from which these terms are coined after. “Race” in particular refers to the division of individuals into groups or populations based on characteristics which include biological descent and the more visible traits such as facial features and skin color (Winant, 2000, p. 173). “Ethnicity” on the other hand entails several shared behavioral, cultural, religious and linguistic traits among a group of people (Jacobs & Labov, 2002, p. 634).

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Racial groups, therefore, are groups of people who share similar biological characteristics and genealogy whereas ethnic groups are groups of people who share the same culture, behaviors, religion and language to name a few. Nevertheless, it can be said that both racial and ethnic groups can share within their respective group the aspect of kinship or family lineages to a certain extent.Members of racial groups often identify themselves in terms of shared physiological features such as skin color and notable facial features that are distinct or separate them from other groups of individuals. For example, some African slaves during the years before the twentieth century were labeled as “black slaves” whose race is primarily seen as the “black race” or the “African race” (Blakey, 2001, p. 389). The same can also be said about a number of Asians living in other parts of the world; they are often perceived as Asians in a foreign setting by virtue of their yellowish skin color and smaller eyes although within Asia there are still quite a number of physical distinctions among the people. In any case, it can be said that belonging to a specific racial group primarily implies belonging to a set of people having the same identifiable biological characteristics which, oftentimes, become associated with historical and cultural events through time.On the other hand, members of ethnic groups identify themselves in terms of linguistic features that are known only to them or, at the least, linguistic devices that they use on a daily and regular basis.

For instance, the members of the Igorot ethnic group in the Philippines make use of their own dialect and several other linguistic devices in the form of chants and hymns usually used during ceremonial events and other rituals (Antolin & Scott, 1990, p. 201). Moreover, members of ethnic groups also share the same set of patterned behaviors that are customary to their identity. For example, some of the few remaining tribes in Africa still practice animal sacrifices as an integral part of their beliefs in the purification of their well-being. Such practice is not exactly observed in several other parts of the world such as the urban areas of Europe and America, which makes it reasonable to say that animal sacrifices are not integral parts in their identities. What makes such a behavior integral to these African tribes is that when that practice is taken away or stops from being observed from within these tribes, a portion of their cultural identity is also lost in the process.Apart from the differences, there are also similarities among ethnic and racial groups, especially in terms of genealogy or family history. A group of individuals under the same racial group may come from a lineage of similar ancestors; the same can also be true among several other ethnic groups.

For one, the Igorot tribes in the Philippines are small communities where marriages within these communities have been going on for centuries. It is not surprising to note, therefore, if we are able to trace a common genealogy among the members of these tribes. On the other hand, the larger racial groups such as the European race may have come from a distinct ancestry that can not be found elsewhere in the world. Since human genes play a crucial role in the physical features of individuals, and since these genes serve as the carriers of biological features passed on from one generation to the next, it is reasonable to say that racial groups such as the European race may have come from a line of ancestors that can be traced from the smaller to the smallest groups of early Europeans. Apparently, it is the case that the rest of the European race is a pure breed of individuals living without faint traces of external biological features that are not originally their own.

Through the years, different races have intermingled and have created a “crossbreed” of races, such as the case with Asians marrying Europeans thereby giving birth to a mix of races.Interestingly, some members of ethnic groups can come from a certain racial group, and that some members of racial groups can also be a member of some other ethnic group. For example, a Chinese who happens to come from an Asian race can also be a part of a whole new ethnic group. An individual with Chinese genes from the parents who migrated to, say, the United Arab of Emirates a few decades back can become accustomed to the linguistic modes and the cultural practices of the host country, thus paving the way for a person of a strictly Chinese racial background to become a person involved in the cultural and linguistic practices of the Arab country. On the other hand, the opposite can also be maintained; a Japanese individual who is predominantly Asian by virtue of physical characteristics can also become a devout member of a religion other than the ones practiced in his home country. That is, the individual is Asian first and a member of another religion second; he was born an Asian with the distinct Asian physical features, eventually embracing a religion that is commonly practiced elsewhere, like Zoroastrianism.Essentially, racial and ethnic groups are not synonyms or equal terms due to their major differences. However, certain racial groups can also practice the culture and language of yet another group such as the tribal, ethnic groups living in the outskirts of a distant country.

ReferencesAntolin, F., & Scott, W. H. (1990). Notices of the Pagan Igorots in 1789. Asian Folklore Studies, 29, 201.

Blakey, M. L. (2001). Bioarchaeology of the African Diaspora in the Americas: Its Origins and Scope. Annual Review of Anthropology, 30, 389.Jacobs, J.

A., & Labov, T. G. (2002). Gender Differentials in Intermarriage among Sixteen Race and Ethnic Groups.

Sociological Forum, 17(4), 634.Winant, H. (2000). Race and Race Theory. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 173. 

Author: Bridget Frazier


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