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Understanding Where the Concepts of Race and Ethnicity Originated

by Hannah Bohn

When comparing race and ethnicity, we come to terms with what we understand—and misunderstand—about how they each function in society. The concepts of race and ethnicity both play an enormous part in framing individual human experiences.

If somebody asked you to explain your self-identity, would you start with the color of your skin and your nationality? Or, would you describe your cultural traditions, experiences and religion? Race and ethnicity force us to split up who we are into separate pieces to define ourselves through arbitrarily crafted methods that were built by changes in society over time.

While people are often categorized and defined through these terms, we don’t always ask questions about what they really mean and how they came to be.

For the most part, race is loosely defined as a group identity based primarily on shared physical traits. Race is often wildly misunderstood as inherently a part of a person’s biological makeup and DNA. In actuality, race is really just a man-made means of sorting different groups of people into brackets based on the their presenting features.

Race is socially constructed, not biologically attributed.

Because race is such a prominent aspect of life today—carrying so many meanings, consequences and experiences—we sometimes ignore the fact that it is a social framework that did not always exist.

Originally, the notion of race came largely from Western colonialism and was used to sort and rank the people in the English colonies. The conquering and enslaving of foreign people was backed by white colonists through the notion of separatism. Westerners turned to labeling physical characteristics and attaching arbitrary meaning to them in order to assert authority.

Race was specifically and intentionally assembled to aid the pursuit of controlling others. Used for justifying the abuse and exploitation of different groups of people, race was simply a tool.

Therefore, the idea of race comes from the idea of racism. Race was coupled with an ideology of inequality or inferiority.

It is important to acknowledge that although race was deliberately imposed upon people and came from an artificial place, its presence is very real. Race is woven into the fabrics of our country’s makeup, it dictates the way our society operates, and it has endless, everyday implications for individuals. The presence of race in society deserves to be acknowledged.

This way of understanding race is rejected and misinterpreted time and time again, especially in places like our public school systems. The notion of colorblindness—which basically says that paying attention to race is a racist thing—blocks people from grasping the impacts of race, what it means and how it penetrates every part of our society.

While race is a classification that has been imposed largely by white Europeans who developed the concept as they were seeking to justify colonialism, ethnicity is a natural group identity that people usually claim for themselves.

Ethnicity is based on shared cultural characteristics, such as language, religion, customs or holidays. It is usually looked at as something we acquire based on our location on the map and the culture we share with others. It is personal and self-imposed. Often times, race and ethnicity can overlap in different ways; multiple ethnicities can exist within a race, and multiple races can exist within an ethnicity.

Ethnicity is also malleable. People may conceptualize it differently based on their own individual experiences and connections since it is linked to cultural expression and identification. It also enables individuals to take on several identities because it encompasses various factors of life and provides people with access to a dynamic sense of self.

Although both race and ethnicity are used to characterize distinct populations, they come from separate places and often carry different meanings to the individual. However, they have been inevitably intertwined throughout history.

Although the distinctions between race and ethnicity may seem straightforward, the question of one versus the other actually exposes serious and persistent errors in how we define people, especially given the social impact the two factors have had on human history.

If you have a minority position in society, you are—more often than not—subject to being racially profiled before you have even come to terms with your own ethnicity. The ways in which we have misunderstood race and ethnicity, confused them and manipulated their meanings for political, social or economic power, affects so much of the world we know today.

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