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

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

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

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

Ethnicity

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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Posted on April 27, 2017, in Unpopular Opinion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Great explanation! I agree with you, people need to stop mixing these terms up.

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  2. I agree with this to an extent. What’s considered what race is always changing every few decades. Like anyone from LA is considered Latino. Portuguese speakers or lusophones are not Hispanic because they don’t speak Spanish. But back in the day, anyone that was of LA origin regardless of race was a SPIC and the US wasn’t fucking with them. Which is why white Latin people like Martin Sheen, Desi Armand, and Rita Moreno had a hard time in Hollywood. White people didn’t like anyone that wasn’t a WASP. Which is why JFK was the first catholic president. But during the mass arrival of Latinos in the 50s and 60s the country was going through a lot of changes. They just started mainstreaming Italians as white – who for a long time weren’t and they didn’t know what to do with these mostly mixed people that spoke Spanish or Portuguese from LA. So they classified them as Latino because they had to be categorized. Many state governments hated and feared Latino people because they didn’t want intermixing to be a thing here and wanted to keep interracial marriage illegal something that wasn’t a problem in LA. They called us mongrels – regardless of color. But as the years went on and more Latinos came and it was cool to be Latino white people became more accepting. Because they had begun intermixing with us etc. I think you would be surprised that in some places in this country white people wouldn’t consider you Black although you identify as that. I share traits to yours and I get put down as white by them on legal things and I have to change it lol. But you’re only considered black because of the one drop rule and the attempt to keep the white race pure in America because they didn’t want the lighter slaves that were mostly products of rape to tarnish their pureness and “perfection.” So they classified these mixed babies as octaroons, quadroons, etc. But the standard for white is ever changing. Used to be a time it wasn’t acceptable for a white person that was mixed with Native American to be considered white now they always talking about the .8 Cherokee they are… But even though you’re black here in MOST places outside of here you would not be. You would be white or mixed. Race, culture, ethnicity all that are vary worldwide.

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  3. But whenever white people are running out is when what is white changes here. But back then if you weren’t a WASP you weren’t right. Which is why once Italians bought their whiteness after the Irish and Jews bought theirs, they portrayed Latinos in movies. For example, Al Pacino as Scarface and Carlito because they couldn’t have a Latino play lead at that time. But now that Latinos are in such large numbers and moving up in society and mixing with the WASPs, Irish, Italians and those that are acceptably white in this country the term. White Hispanic has emerged. And now more passing is happening and people are abandoning their culture. Because Hispanics are buying that whiteness so to speak. The same thing is happening with other mixed Americans basically as long as darker skinned people and those that carry mostly sub-Saharan features remain at the bottom white people are cool. It’s never going to go away what’s going to happen here is that it will get just like LA and people will just favor light over dark. Which is why you have your Steph Curry’s, Drake’s, Weeknds, and lighter mixed people that are the poster children for acceptable beauty and blackness. They may have kinky hair but it’s cool because they look visibly mixed and aren’t theatening to white people. And as time goes on race, culture, ethnicity will keep changing. Usually happens with whatever group white Americans hate the most will be at the bottom and up from there.

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  4. Because the same stuff happened in LA just much faster because they didn’t have as many white immigrants to the colonies like here. Then they started bussing in white people from Europe especially in South America more specifically, Brazil because MOST of Brazil was black and clearly mulatto even more than it is today. But once that stopped working money really became the only color that mattered. In LA you could buy your whiteness from the monarachy or governments. So you could literally be dark skinned and as long as you had money could buy percentages of whiteness or whiteness all together. And they would give you a certificate so you could own land, go to school etc etc. The problem is aint no more white people like there used to be because they expanded their empires too far. And those people from the different colonies got mixed or came to the place of origin where the empire was – US, UK, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Spain etc. And now they gotta change what white is again because they can’t stand to be the minority or relinquish the power they’ve had for so many centuries.

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  5. And here in America they are super scarce because now people like you and I and even more so like your son, aren’t fitting the stereotype for what things once were. Because they kept classifying mixed people as black for so long now that these light “black” people are mixing more with white people are offspring doesn’t fit the description because octaroon, quadroon, mulatto, are extinct terms in this time. Which is why white people dk what to do with people like Rashida Jones, who without her dad let’s be honest, would probably passed for white. That’s why you’re seeing white people be more accepting of people like Zendaya and mixed black hair textures. Because I’m sure you remember the time when curls that weren’t one white people weren’t cute and even us lighter black girls had to get perms and wash and sets to be considered beautiful. Now it’s curly this, curly that just- not kinky curly. Now you see more people like Tracee Ellis Ross, setting the new standard of beauty. Which is you can be black and beautiful if you look more like this. When did Halle ever wear her hair curly ?! Not ever ! But now it’s acceptable. But notice the Lupita’s and those with darker skin and kinkier hair are still being pushed to the back. They have to have their hair look like the New acceptable standard looser mixed looking textures or wear it straight. Times are changing. They’re already saying by 2050 everyone will mostly be mixed. Race, culture, all that stuff is going to keep changing with the times. But to protect Euro blood for as long as it can. The US UK LA are just the new Roman Empire it never went away just changed with the time.

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    • So all of that was a lot. I could have added into my definition of race the fact that whiteness is subjective and has changed over time to assimilate as needed.
      Also I’ve traveled the country and the only time I wasn’t ID as Black was in Hawaii where they often read me as API. I am certain there is nowhere in the world where I’m read as white. I just want to be very clear on that.
      Thank you for reading and engaging.

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  6. In Latin America, especially in places like DR, Panama, and Brazil where there are more dark black people you would be considered White and parts of Africa. And def in the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean. In Haiti anyone with visibly Euro blood is considered White. I remember vacationing in places like Martinique as a child and was considered White. Just saying from experience. I’m not sure where you’re from but in some parts of the South and in NY you’d be surprised what people would mistake you for.

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  7. And if you weren’t white you wouldn’t be considered black like at all. You would be mixed. Which you are, although you ID as Black and I understand why you do because so do I. But In Guyana where my dad is from you would be considered Portuguese – White.

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  8. In South Africa you would be considered coloured. Like I said l, from experience it’s different in other parts of the world.

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  9. And I’m not trying to discredit your blackness or tell you you’re mixed because I’ve read your stuff and feel where you’re coming from. I’m just saying I’ve seen situations where I wasn’t considered Black and it’s weird lol. Because blackness for us is a way of life our culture beyond phenotypical attributes. But in other places it’s really about the outside and mostly skin color and maybe hair texture.

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