Unpopular Opinion

Race, Culture, Nationality, and Ethnicity: Knowing the Difference

Recently I’ve gotten into a lot of “arguments” that could have been easily avoided if people understood different forms of identity. So in an attempt to spread knowledge and avoid these kinds of “arguments” in the first place, I thought I’d help out a little bit.

Disclaimer: This is my opinion based on experience and knowledge as a Black woman in America.


Race is a social construct largely based on physical appearance. Skin color, facial features, and hair texture, most notably help determine your race. Fair skin, thin nose/lips, fine/straight hair typically means white. But you can be fair skinned with kinky hair and full lips and be Black. Black Albinos never get confused for white folks. But folks with mixed heritage who get a little more of their European features can pass as white. And if you pass, that means you are given the privileges afforded to you by the system of racism. If your proximity to non-whiteness is known, you may lose those privileges. But for the most part, if you look white, you receive white privilege. No questions asked. Typically there are 5 or 6 different races used to identify people: white, Black, Asian, Native/Indigenous American, Asian Pacific Islander and sometimes MENA (Middle East North Africa).


Culture is created by social conditions as well. Groups who live in close proximity develop social traditions based on their environment. In this instance, a passing person can be white racially, but Black culturally. Culture is typically shaped by shared experience so often people of the same race, share a culture. Black American culture was greatly shaped by slavery. Upon arrival, most Africans were stripped of their culture and forced to create a new one influenced by African, European and American traditions. Although culture is often influenced by race, many other social identities shape culture as well. There is queer culture, church culture, femme culture, academia culture, etc. Basically any group of people you belong to can have its own culture formed by said group’s traditions and social norms.


Nationality should be the easiest to understand. What country are you from? That’s your nationality. Nation = country. Simple? Okay.


Ethnicity is most often confused with race. A lot of people hear “Latino” and think race, but it’s actually an ethnicity. In fact, most census forms only have two options for ethnicity: Hispanic/Latino or Non-Hispanic/Latino. Even looking at the two terms Latino and Hispanic, one means you’re from Latin America (the parts of the western hemisphere colonized by Latin countries like Spain and Portugal) and the other means you’re from Spanish speaking countries. A good way to remember the difference is that Brazilians are Latino but not Hispanic and Spanish people are Hispanic but not Latino. Colonizer politics aside, ethnicity is somewhat a combination of race, culture and nationality. Ethnicity is usually the first half of the hyphenated identifier with nationality as the second, i.e. African-American, Arab-American, French-Canadian.

When we understand the differences between these terms, most importantly when we understand race, we avoid a lot of pointless debates. It is important especially for those who are not ethnically European but are racially white to understand the privilege that they receive and how it plays against non-white folks who may share their culture, nationality and/or ethnicity. Having a son who is read racially as white, I make it a point to help him understand this. I am Black, I am his mother. He belongs to Black culture and is African-American (as well as Native and European-American) but his whiteness in the absence of that knowledge means that he benefits from the system that oppresses the members of his family who do not pass. It is important to me that he uses that to fight for us and not waste time denying the privilege he has.

I would never attempt to deny folks’ heritage. Be proud of where you are from. Be proud of your culture and ethnicity. Just understand what race is, how it works to privilege and oppress people and where you stand in the mess.

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