In today’s world, the word ‘ethnicity’ is usually linked with concepts of race. The reason for this was mostly because, in older times, people were generally confined to small geographic areas where everyone was the same color. At the same time, though, they usually had similar interests, shared values, and common concerns. These elements of their culture went largely unnoticed, though, as the idea of ethnicity came to be related to skin color as a determinant of how an individual might behave, believe or react to a given situation. Ethnicity is much more than race, though, as the following discussion will prove.
One of the important elements of ethnicity is a shared culture. “For many people, ethnic categorization implies a connection between biological inheritance and culture. They believe that biological inheritance determines much of cultural identity” (O’Neill, 2008).
This is a flawed means of determining ethnicity, though, as elements of culture are not passed down through genetic links but are instead learned elements of behavior from the child’s parents and close community. Not all black people share the same beliefs and culture even when they all come from the same continent. People from Nigeria might have a very different outlook on life than people born and raised in Ethiopia for instance even though their skin color may be the same shade of dark.
Ethnicity is more appropriately understood as a shared connection among people of a given group. “An ethnic group exists wherever this distinctive connection – this belief in common descent – is part of the foundation of community, wherever it binds us to one another to some degree” (Goulbourne, 2001: 78). This distinctive connection can be based on race as people from the same village in Nigeria may consider themselves a particular ethnic group, but it can also apply to issues of religion, as members of a Greek Orthodox church may consider themselves an ethnic group. This differs from the socio-cultural group because of this common descent.
A particular culture, such as people living in the same poverty-stricken neighborhood may begin to identify themselves as members of a particular socio-cultural group, but they are not an ethnic group unless they also share a common historic heritage and biologic connection.
Finally, ethnicity is often considered to be a negative element of society as it tends to isolate groups from the majority, leading to divisiveness and contention. However, this is not always the intention of the individual identified with an ethnic group nor is it necessarily true that ethnicity must lead to divisiveness and contention. “It is doubtless true that groups who ‘look different’ from majorities or dominating groups may be less liable to become assimilated into the majority than others, and that it can be difficult for them to escape from their ethnic identity if they wish to” (Eriksen, 2002: 6).
Even where ethnic groups form, such as in areas of heavy Latin growth within an English-speaking city, they can often become helpful to the micro and macro level society. English-speaking long-term residents of these communities, who have learned English through their interactions with individuals outside of the Latin community, can help newly arrived Spanish-speaking people cope with the changes they face in their new environment. By serving as interpreters, helping with new vocabulary, or through other functions, these individuals serve as a cushion to facilitate understanding between the English-speaking community and the Spanish-speaking community so that they can grow closer together.
Ethnicity means much more than simply a shared skin color. It can include any element of human existence that implies a shared connection between people. While it is often considered to be a negative element of society, ethnicity should be celebrated as a means of understanding what makes each individual different from and similar to the world around them. Rather than presenting a means of blind definition for a person, ethnicity should be used as a process of discovery to understand more about the individual rather than attempting to confine him or her within a set concept of race
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. Pluto Press, 2002.
Goulbourne, Harry. Race and Ethnicity: Critical Concepts in Sociology. Taylor & Francis, 2001.
O’Neil, Dennis. Ethnicity and Race: An Introduction to the Nature of Social Group Differentiation and Inequality. San Marcos, CA: Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College, 2008.