What is Culture, What is Ethnicity, and What is Race? 

Although many people use these terms interchangeably, they are not the same thing. 

In this post, you will learn:

  • How to define culture.
  • How to define ethnicity.
  • How to define race.
  • The origin and history of "race."
  • The differences among the three terms.

Knowing the different will give you the vocabulary and understanding you need to have inform conversations about race, ethnicity, and culture. What is culture?


Nations or societies have broad patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. Those patterns are called culture.

Every nation or society has sub-cultures within them. Some of those sub-cultures are called ethnic groups. Ethnic groups are groups of people who collectively identify themselves as a distinct group on the basis of sharing a common language, history, belief system, and customs.  African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Italian Americans, for example, are are all ethnic groups, or subcultures, that exist within the larger culture of the United States. 


So while each ethnic group, or sub-culture, shares some similarities with the larger, macro, culture, it has distinct patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Ethnicity, then, refers to an ethnic group’s distinct patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. 


Furthermore, race, unlike culture and ethnicity, is a social construct created in the 13th by Europeans to justify the exclusion, oppression, colonization, and the eventual enslavement of other ethnic groups. 

In his book, Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford persuasively argues that race as an organizing idea- a lens through which much of the world is seen today- was remarkably absent in the ancient world. The idea of ethnicity goes back thousands of years, but "race" does not.

The Origin of "Race"

Hannaford says the seed of the idea of race did not emerge until the 13th to 16th centuries. However, it was not until the 17th century that the idea of race was legitimized by the scientific community. For example, European scientists, basing their research on Darwin’s theory of evolution, developed the theory of Unilinear Cultural Evolution, which is the theory that all cultures evolve from simple to complex along a single trajectory of progress. They argued that societies that had social and political systems such as market economies or democracies had “higher development” while cultures that did not have market economies or democracies had “lower development.” 

Not surprisingly, the northern European scientists who developed that theory defined northern Europeans as having progressed to having the “most Culture,” while non-European people were seen as less evolved, living in a simpler, less civilized, less “cultured” state. For decades European and U.S. Anthropologists used Culture to classify societies as higher or lower on a scale of cultural development. This led people to believe that one person could have more “Culture” than someone else.

With the scientific authority behind them, Europeans saw race as a means by which to justify the exclusion, oppression, colonization, and the eventual enslavement of ethnic others. In fact, scholars have pointed out that the very idea of race emerged as an informal ideology that legitimated slavery and oppression of African and indigenous people. 

Race in the United States

It was in Jamestown, Massachusetts that we catch a glimpse of the nascent stages of race in the United States. When the British began to settle in the New World and sought to make a profit, they initially hired indentured servants from Europe to work the land. However, because those indentured Europeans knew the language and looked like their overseers, they could escape and blend in with people who had settled in other colonies, the British quickly realized that they needed another plan.

At that point, the British turned to Native Americans, forcing them into indentured servitude. However, because Native Americans knew the terrain better than their European masters, they, like their European predecessors, escaped and returned to their families. 

Race and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

With no labor force in place, and with the trans-Atlantic slave trade becoming increasingly efficient, the British decided to purchase African slaves. Because African captives did not know English, the language of the settlers, they did not share the same British culture, and because they did not look anything like the British settlers, African slaves had a much harder time trying to escape. After all, they could not blend in with other settlers. Therefore, Africans were deemed the perfect solution to the British problem regarding labor. 

The British became so dependent on those African slaves that they created categories to make their arrangements permanent. In his book, In the Matter of Color: Race and The American Legal Process: The Colonial Period (1978), Higginbotham explains that 

“This preference for African labor was institutionalized in custom and law. Within thirty years of Jamestown’s founding, color terms began to appear in colony legislation. For example, ‘negro’ servants could be held for life, but not ‘whites.’ The idea of race, or color, then, was created to subjugate African slaves and make sure that their enslavement ended in death only."

Race as a Banner of Social Status

With these arrangements in place, race became a marker, a banner, for social status. What those in power did not realize is that the meanings they attributed to race were a mirror of the political and social realities that they had created. Of course, because Africans and people of African descent were denied the opportunities to get educations and develop culturally, it would make sense that they could not read, write, or excel in other, more culturally refined areas. 

Their realities were the consequence of the social and political conditions under which they lived, not their biological make-ups. Blind to their own ethnocentricity, the British equated “black” as someone who was inferior, undeserving of rights, and incapable of being civilized. 

Black symbolized savagery, ignorance, lacking intelligence, and uncivilized.

Race Has Had Consequences

Although almost no scientist or anthropologist today would argue that race, as we have described it, exists ontologically (in real life), the consequences of such an ideology pervade the world today and have shaped what we see and how we see people. 

There is so much more that could be said, but I just wanted to give a brief overview for those interested in having an informed opinion or discussion about race, ethnicity, culture, or even "color." If we are going to have a conversation about something, let us at least make sure we are talking about the same things. Race, culture, and ethnicity are not the same things.  

Thanks for reading AND thinking AND having courageous conversations about these things. 

For a better world,


P.S. If you would like to learn more about race, ethnicity, and culture, check out my book R.E.A.C.H. In that book, I wrote a whole section about it that I believe can add significant value to your life as an educator.

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