Ethnicity, Nationality, Race, Heritage, and Culture

Ethnicity, Nationality, Race, Heritage, and Culture

As a traveler, as well as when I am just walking through my own city, I have often been approached by people asking me where I’m from, what’s my ethnicity, and what’s my race, using them all interchangeably to imply the same question. As a lover of travel, as well as a staunch champion of promoting love towards every culture, I feel compelled to get it right first myself, before I can help others understand the differences in each word’s meaning.

I am guilty of doing the same thing in the past, using the now colloquially-accepted phrase, “Where ya from?” to ask about someone’s heritage. However, where someone is from semantically refers to nationality. An even worse question to ask is, “What are you?,” as this is bordering on all sorts of possible rights violations and indignities, unless you’re from New York, like me, and this question has another meaning which usually involves an immediate second question used as a rhetorical response for the answer (“What’re you? Some kind o’ lawyer??”). Let’s take a look at the real meanings of some of these words:

Ethnicity

Ethnicity is based on a group (called an ethnic group) that is normally based on similar traits, such as a common language, common heritage, and cultural similarities within the group. Other variables that play a role in ethnicity, though not in all cases, include a geographical connection to a particular place, common foods and diets, and perhaps a common faith. Race is a word with similar meaning though describing more physical traits, as opposed to the cultural traits of ethnicity.

Race

Race is similar to ethnicity, but relates more to the appearance of a person, especially the color of their skin. Race is determined biologically, and includes other inherited genetic traits such as hair and eye color and bone and jaw structure, among other things.

Nationality

people world90% of the time, nationality refers to the place where the person was born and/or holds citizenship. However, often times nationality can be determined by place of residence, ethnicity, or national identity. If a person was born in Country A but immigrated to Country B while still a toddler (yes, with their family), he or she might identify more with the Country B nationality, having been raised there. Another point regarding nationality is that there are some nations that don’t have a state, or international recognition as such, yet people may still point at it as the source of their nationality, such as the Palestinians, the Kurds, and the Tamils.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to a nationality,” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

Let me throw these in to add to the confusion:

Citizen – A citizen is typically either born in the country, born to citizens of the country while abroad, married to a citizen of the country,  or becomes a citizen through the naturalization process. A citizen is a complete member of the nation, able to vote and hold elected office.

National – A national is a person born in an area that is in the possession of a country, but not part of its general administrative area. For example, American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the United States, and its people are considered U.S. nationals; American Samoans may not vote in U.S. presidential elections, or hold elected office in the U.S., but are entitled to free and unrestricted entry into the United States.

Heritage

Heritage can overlap on the ethnicity and nationality a bit at times, but it generally refers to the ancestors of a person, and what they identified with. For example, a child born to naturalized U.S. citizens hailing from Venezuela could say they have a Venezuelan heritage, even if they don’t share the ethnicity (perhaps they can’t speak Spanish), and they are American as far as nationality.

Culture

Culture is similar to ethnicity, yet more of a microcosm of it. Culture may involve one trait or characteristic, sort of like a subset of the various traits that make up an ethnicity. Perhaps a person may be ethnically Jewish, or they could subject themselves to simply one or two things of Jewish culture, such as wearing a kippa; this person may not necessarily relate with the entire macro-ethnicity that is being Jewish.

Identity

Identity is whatever a person identifies with more, whether it be a particular country, ethnicity, religion, etc. I read this great article by Zeba Khan on MuslimMatters.org: she was born in America, to a Pakistani father and an American woman of Irish descent; she doesn’t identify with either Pakistan or Ireland (too white for Pakistan, too dark for Ireland), and not much with America (she wears the hijab and eats halal). What she does identify with is her Muslim faith, which is similar across boundaries throughout the world.

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When questions are asked in the wrong manner (Where are you from?), there usually is no offensive motive intended. These are colloquial terms that have been accepted into common parlance. And once you understand and recognize the differences between these words, it is important to remember to not get offended when someone approaches you with their mis-worded question. Just as we can better ourselves by learning the politically-correct phrases to ask, we also need to understand others and look at pure intent, rather than semantics.
Update: If this topic is close to your heart, please check out this pertinent new article of mine about keeping it in mind as we travel that we are representatives of our cities, friends, family, etc.A Plea to Every Traveler: Remember, You Are An Ambassador

This is part of my ongoing series, “Versus/What’s the Difference?” With this series, I am to promote a better understanding and love of the differences that make us unique while at the same time casting out doubt; hopefully, this will make us better travelers, better citizens, and better people. For more, check out the “Versus/What’s the Difference?” category ->

45 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the differences between these terms. I think that you have described them better than any dictionary entry that I have seen.

    • Mike, thanks so much for your kind words! You don’t know how much they made my day. I am glad if I was able to help you in any way, though I know that my style of speaking may drone on and on and I found it difficult to define each term adequately in a sentence or two. Still, if you’re happy, I’m happy!

  2. Christian,
    I really enjoyed your this small article of yours, and sent you a facebook friend’s request ;) Seems like you are an expert in multicultural relations

    • Inga, thanks so much! Your comment made my day, though I am definitely no expert. Actually, writing this article helped me learn more about the differences in these terms for myself; it was as much for me as for you :) Thanks for stopping by, hope you’ll come back!

  3. This just made my life a little easier. I’m always reaching to learn new things (especially things/terms that can be ambiguous) and you gave a very thorough explanation of the differences and similarities of each term. Thank you!

    • Lai, it is an honor to receive such a positive comment! I was unclear during my research of these similar terms, and writing about it and the research involved helped me to understand as well. Hope you drop back by sometime! Cheers :)

  4. What the hell do you mean by this.
    “…especially the color of their skin. Race is determined biologically…”
    How in the hell is “race” biological. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS RACE. “Race” is a construct of your culture and the way it’s defined is different based on culture. For example in America “race” is determined by skin and blood type. I seriously think it’s wrong but look at this example. If 2 African-american have a child it would be African-american. But let’s say if A Caucasian and a African-American had a child it would be African-American even tho he is only half. And let’s say this child marries caucasian and it’s offspring does the same and it keeps happening for 7 more generations. The final child would still be 1/16 African-american since he still has “African-American blood” Seriously that is stupid since by that time he would look as Caucasian as anyone else. Race is definitely not Biological. There is NO proof or evidence for “Races”.

    • Charles,

      I sincerely appreciate your comment, and I know that the topic of “race” in general may immediately have the PC-police called on me, but first understand this: Going into writing this article, I, too, did not fully understand the overall concept of some of these terms, nor did I grasp the differences between some of them. As I stated in my article, I wrote this just as much for me as I did for others, meaning that as I researched the topic for myself, I wrote down what I learned in the form of this article.

      Another point that I’d like to make is this: whether or not the concept of race is discriminatory, ignorant, and/or oppressive, this is how my culture defines it. I agree with you that it is a definition that is different based on culture, and my society (Americans, and we have countless shortcomings!) defines race as, more or less, divisions stemming from physical characteristics and traits (biological in nature). Though I may not agree with it, I cannot change the way that it is viewed in my society, and what “race” has come to be defined. Taking that on is a political gesture that I try to stay away from on this website, though I must say that I agree with you in a general sense as to why it shouldn’t be.

      I am still quite new to this also, these various definitions between these few words (a minefield!). I in no way mean to misrepresent facts. On the contrary, I, and everything on my site, is dedicated to promoting a desire to learn about different cultures through travel.

      Charles, once again I really appreciate your comment, and I hope I’ve answered your question, at least as to why I wrote what I did. I’d love to discuss further, if you’re interested, as I am always trying to learn more about these things myself. Thanks for stopping by!

      Christian

  5. Really loved your clear cut article. It came up in a search when I was looking how to best respond to a comment on YouTube. I’ve had trouble trying to define myself when approaching the “who do I identify with” question. Being that I am bi-racial, born from parents from two different countries and cultures but having been born and raised in the Good ole U.S.; L.I., NY to be exact. This is a great article and deserves to be spread to the masses. Hopefully it helps bring clarification to the other YouTuber I responded to. Much Thanks!

  6. Christian E. thanks for breaking the differences down such a clear and concise manner. The knowledge that you’ve shared will definitely make things much easier for me. I’ve struggled my entire life trying to figure out where I belong. I am black and latino (also referred to as a Afro-latino). I am born from a african american father and a afro-latino mother (Dominican heritage). Because I speak English without a Spanish accent mouths usually drop open when someone hears me also speaking Spanish fluently. As an adult I embrace both ethnicities and cultures freely. However as a child being raised in the deep south (rural NC) I was not permitted to speak Spanish outside of my family circle. It was considered a double strike – black and speaking a foreign language. I think I have it right now. Here it goes, I am a black (race), African and Latino (ethnic groups/cultures), American (nationality). Let me know if I’ve got it wrong. Many, many thanks for writing this article.

  7. Appreciated your article. just two pieces of feedback:

    Another response to your exchange with Charles: Race, while biological in expression, is a human construct to categorize biologial expressions that are NOT strictly categorizable. In that way, “race” is not a real biological term, BUT social categorizing of a person’s “race” IS determined by the expression of their genetics in terms of skin and eye color, face shape, etc. Race, therefore, is VERY real in a human social context and should not be denied as such, even though there is NO such thing as genetically different “races” of people. Race is a conveient fiction we have maintained but which still has a LOT of power in our socieities. Despite the lack of scientific grounding, racial groups often have meaningful shared history, culture, or subcultures, so this is a important category of identity and was rightfully placed on your list.
    Second, I disagree with your final comment that people should just “not get offended” about the “semantics” when people ask badly worded questions such as “where are you from?” or “What are you?” As a traveler, you know that words around idenity are never JUST semantics since they are almost always politically or socially charged in some way by the cultures and societies of that area. Certainly, getting angry about wording every time is no solution, and you are right that everyone that asks a question likes this is usually ignorant of the offense they are causing. That does NOT, however, excuse them from learning. This question often has to do with assumptions (You don’t look like you’re from around here…). Often these assumptions are based on a bad premise (e.g. skin color, accent, etc.) and should be, at least, respectfully challenged. Being able to use the categories you’ve outlined above to say, “Well, I’m FROM New Jersey, but my ethnicity is Latino and Middle Eastern, if that’s what you’re asking,” is generous, but still clear that the question was mis-worded. This may cause the other person to realize their mistake, or could be stated more strongly, but there is always room to call attention to the ways we are “lazy” around our assumptions and questions and need to be more care-full in our langauge use — even as we have compassion for the fact that sometimes well-meaning people make ignorant mistakes. But we ALL need to keep learning, and that’s the point.

    Thanks again for your piece.

    • Heartily agree with you, Anna! Was going to comment something similar, but then saw that you already did it. Thanks for posting that, and thank you Christian for posting this piece.

    • Anna, thanks so much for your in-depth feedback! You really helped me learn even more than I have already with your lengthy comment. When I said that “people shouldn’t get offended” about the semantics, I was really speaking to the people reading this article to not get offended at another’s misuse of the term or a misstated question to them. I completely agree, there is no excuse not to learn, which is why I wrote this piece to begin with – to teach while I learn about it myself. Thanks again, Anna! :)

  8. Thanks for this explanation! I’m actually reseraching for a grad school project on counseling intercultural and interracial couples and have been looking around for a concrete explanation on these terms. Yours is the best I’ve found!

  9. Thanks for this insightful piece Christian! I’m “Africa-American” but I despise that term. I usually refer to myself as black. My ancestors are obviously from Africa but most “Americans” have ancestors from elsewhere. Yet we don’t call ‘white people’ “European Americans” so to me it makes no sense to call ‘black people’ “African Americans.” That’s just how I see it. I don’t understand the people who say race doesn’t exist when it’s clear that it does. While race may encompass social constructs that doesn’t make it any less ‘real.’ Biologically as a black man my race predisposes me to certain diseases. My race also protects me from certain ailments (it is impossible for me to get lice and melanoma very very rarely affects my race). When people die horrible deaths DNA/forensic testing can identify the race of the dead person even if there are visible cues to the race of the person. So yes race does exist. People who deny the existence of race subsequently deny the existence of racism, which the was US was clearly built upon. Anyway thanks again for the article,you are quite possibly the nicest New Yorker on the net!

    • Tamario, thanks for your comment; it really made my day! Regarding your statement that we don’t call white people in America “European-Americans,” I agree. However, I think it is wrong in two ways. For one, like you say, it makes it sound like black Americans are not full Americans like white ones, and blacks nowadays in America have few, if any, ties to Africa other than ancestry from long ago. You are American, just like I am, so I can see how it can be offensive in this way. Another way to see it is that perhaps “white” America wanted to use this term as a way to be more politically correct than other terms. In America, because of our horrible past (which unfortunately is not buried yet), many of us try to do things to “make up” for the wrongdoings of our forefathers, such as coming up with PC terms for races and backgrounds that we’ve hurt in the past; yet, sometimes this slightly-misguided good will can hurt, as well, as in this case with the “African Americans.” But at least it works out (IMHO) for Native Americans, who were surely not “Indians.” :) Tamario, thanks so much, once again, for your comment and compliment; words like yours keep me certain that I’m heading in the right direction!

  10. I would like to propose that you consider that nationality does not change and it hat you get your nationality from your country of origin no matter where you have current citizenship. You are what your forefathers were. Example: an Italian does not stop being an Italian because of immigration Is he not an Italian American. and so on for Korean, Greek, Irish , Moroccan , Nigerian etc. Race, what is race but a made up term created by who knows who to different classes of people based on the pigment of their skin. I propose that we all belong to one race which is the human race. There is no black , colored, or whit race.

    • Please forgive the typo’s in my earlier post. The font was so light and small for my aging eyes.
      I did enjoy your article.

    • Trish, thanks for your comment! Though I am no expert, I do believe that what you are referring to is considered ethnicity. Nationality usually means the country where one holds their citizenship, though I have seen some definitions actually defining nationality as ethnic groups based on countries of origin. To be safe, it might be best to consider nationality as the country where you hold citizenship. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. I’m filling out paperwork for adoption. It asked me what race am I. I am confused maybe you can help me. My father is Puerto Rican, my mother is 1/2 Guyanese, 1/4 English, 1/4 Irish. I always have people ask me if I am 1/2 black and 1/2 white, or middle eastern. HELP.

    • Maritza, thanks for stopping by! I am definitely no expert on the matter, but could you tell us a bit more as to the format the question is in? For example, are there check boxes, or do you need to fill in the blank? If there are check boxes, I think you can fill in (“check”) two or more boxes, as I would (my mother is from Indonesia, my father is a Caucasian American of German & Russian descent). I have checked both “Caucasian” as well as “Asian/Pacific Islander” on these kinds of forms before. Hope that helps!

  12. Hi Christian, this is a great article. I think you could better define Race though. In the current context, Race does have discriminatory meanings, specifically the Eugenic evolutionary theory of Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid. The term Race is externally applied, often stereotypically by the Caucasoid to imply superiority, whereas ethnicity is more welcome as a tool for self identification. Race is not so much “determined biologically”, but “determined by superficial appearance, but understood as biological in nature”.

    • Mark, thanks for dropping by! I do understand how the underlying definition of “race” seems to be ever-shifting, almost liquid in nature. And thanks for these terms (Mongoloid, etc.), I had had no formal education on this, that I can recall. Also, I guess it is hard to separate where race being biologically-determined and where superficial appearance without a biological instrument is; this is tough, and the whole concept of these terms are quite arbitrary. I am encouraged by the comments on this article, though, and will continue to educate myself to better shape my knowledge about these things, so I do thank you, sincerely for your comment!

  13. First, I must complement your for your maturity and you kindness in your replies. I just wanted to encourage you to continue with your diplomacy, your respectful attitude, your curiosity to search for answers and your love to share with others. At the end of the day what matters is what’s inside and that my dear is why you are special. Kudos to you! Keep up the hunger for knowledge. Signed – a wonderful mix of ethnicities, cultures, races, nationalitilies, heritages and identities. I am a Child of God and that’s all that will matter when I am done here on on earth. Alba

    • Alba, thanks so much for your comment! I am still humbled each and every time someone tells me that they found this article to be helpful :) Your words mean more than you could understand, and I do promise you that I will sustain my hunger for knowledge :)

  14. As a “ethnic” Persian whose nationality is Australian and as someone who constantly gets asked “But where are you really from?”…THANK YOU!

  15. Christian, thanks for writing this article, it was just what i was looking for. I appreciate your maturity and sensitivity in the way you handled your replies to comments. Great job, keep it up!

  16. Ethnicity and nation issue is interesting and has too much complications. Let me give you an example,
    What is Pashtun? We know that Pashtun in itself is an ethnicity and we also know that we can call all Pashtuns living in any part of the world as a single nation. Now can it be both an ethnicity and a nation at the same time? If yes, then where is this difference between the two?
    Secondly, If Pashtuns living on both sides of Durand line is a single nation, then what about Punjabis living in both India and Pakistan, Tajiks and Uzbeks living in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan etc.? We can understand that they are Punjabis, Tajiks, and Uzbeks by ethnicity but what about their nation? Are they a single nation within their selves by having the same language, culture and traditions? or we cannot call them a nation as they are not living in a single state or territory?
    We also know that Nation is not just about nationality as we have a very few number of “Nation States”.
    Looking forward to hearing form you with some clarifications

  17. “Race
    Race is similar to ethnicity, but relates more to the appearance of a person, especially the color of their skin. Race is determined biologically, and includes other inherited genetic traits such as hair and eye color and bone and jaw structure, among other things.”

    Race is not a biological term and never has been! Please you should not be spreading this kind of mis-information. Race is a sociological construct – please read more about it.

    ORIGIN OF THE IDEA OF RACE
    by Audrey Smedley
    Anthropology Newsletter, November 1997

    Contemporary scholars agree that “race” was a recent invention and that it was essentially a folk idea, not a product of scientific research and discovery. This is not new to anthropologists. Since the 1940s when Ashley Montagu argued against the use of the term “race” in science, a growing number of scholars in many disciplines have declared that the real meaning of race in American society has to do with social realities, quite distinct from physical variations in the human species. I argue that race was institutionalized beginning in the 18th century as a worldview, a set of culturally created attitudes and beliefs about human group differences.

    Slavery and the Coming of Africans

    Race and its ideology about human differences arose out of the context of African slavery. But many peoples throughout history have been enslaved without the imposition of racial ideology. When we look at 17th century colonial America before the enactment of laws legitimizing slavery only for Africans and their descendants (after 1660), several facts become clear.

    1). The first people that the English tried to enslave and place on plantations were the Irish with whom they had had hostile relations since the 13th century.

    2) Some Englishmen had proposed laws enslaving the poor in England and in the colonies to force them to work indefinitely.

    3) Most of the slaves on English plantations in Barbados and Jamaica were Irish and Indians.

    4) Many historians point out that African servants and bonded indentured white servants were treated much the same way. They often joined together, as in the case of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) to oppose the strict and oppressive laws of the colonial government.

    In the latter part of the 17th century the demand for labor grew enormously. It had become clear that neither Irishmen nor Indians made good slaves. More than that, the real threats to social order were the poor freed whites who demanded lands and privileges that the upper class colonial governments refused. Some colonial leaders argued that turning to African labor provided a buffer against the masses of poor whites.

    Until the 18th century the image of Africans was generally positive. They were farmers and cattle-breeders; they had industries, arts and crafts, governments and commerce. In addition, Africans had immunities to Old World diseases. They were better laborers and they had nowhere to escape to once transplanted to the New World. The colonists themselves came to believe that they could not survive without Africans.

    When some Englishmen entered slave trading directly, it became clear that many of the English public had misgivings about slave-trading and re-creating slavery on English soil. It was an era when the ideals of equality, justice, democracy, and human rights were becoming dominant features of Western political philosophy. Those involved in the trade rationalized their actions by arguing that the Africans were heathens after all, and it was a Christian duty to save their souls. By the early part of the 18th century, the institution was fully established for Africans and their descendants. Large numbers of slaves flooded the southern colonies and even some northern ones. Sometimes they outnumbered whites, and the laws governing slavery became increasingly harsher.

    • Rachel, firstly, I’d like to thank you for reading my article and for taking the time to comment. Now, I understand that I invite the contempt and ire of everyone as I try to put in my two cents about this controversial issue.

      I know that there is debate as to race, and what kind of construct it is. From a sociological standpoint, race seems to help scientists deal with problems such as why one group may score better on tests than another. But historically, I’ve seen that the definition of race was based on points that are purely biological. In 1899, William Ripley wrote a book, The Races of Europe, in which he categorizes by different head shapes (!) : “The shape of the human head by which we mean the general proportions of length, breadth, and height, irrespective of the ” bumps ” of the phrenologist is one of the best available tests of race known.”

      I understand that these biological differences used to categorize races is a concept full of faults, but I also believe that race as a sociological construct grew, or evolved, from a more basic, biological one. In the end, there is no perfect definition of race; there is no definitive answer as to what race entails. I wrote this piece as I was trying to understand more about it myself, and I continue to grow as I do. Again, thanks for the input; I value it immensely for keeping this topic fresh in my mind.

  18. Loved the article, just want to point out one thing: Palestinians did have a state. When you claim them to be people without a state, you perpetuate Israeli propaganda to keep people unaware of the issue. The truth is that the land was referred to as Palestine and populated by Palestinian Arabs until 1948 (when the Zionist regime and other forces took a large piece of their land). Even today, Gaza and the West Bank are still technically Palestine so please take this into consideration in the future.

    • Yousef, thanks for the compliment, but I’m not sure how I am “perpetuating Israeli propaganda.” I am very sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. All I said in my post above was that Palestinians are one example of a people who don’t enjoy unanimous recognition of their state – and this is true, whether we like it or not; the US and most of Western Europe remain opposed to granting Palestinian recognition.

  19. First and foremost I would like 2 say good article .. One thing I would like to address is a comment on this post of a young lady calling herself black.
    Adjectives, as applied to people
    Adjectives describe, they do not identify. The words, negro. black, and colored are adjectives and have been used to label ppl who have been reduced to servitude, by European Colonists.
    These words, in spite of their popular acceptance, CANNOT BE PROPERLY USED TO IDENTIFY ANY HUMAN BEING. This fact alone should end any continued argument on behalf of the fictitious names and the state of the persistent Identity crisis.

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