Why We Confuse Race and Ethnicity: A Lexicographer’s Perspective


Why We Confuse Race and Ethnicity: A Lexicographer’s Perspective




Using dictionaries, this article traces the origins and use of the words 'race' and 'ethnicity' and our evolving understandings of racial categorization and cultural identity. Race is the older word and ethnicity the newer one. race was the preferred word until it got "skunked" meaning it had negative connotations, and both are problematic. The author concludes:

So when should you use race and when should you use ethnicity? A survey of the major dictionaries of English gives some basic guidance when talking generally about race and ethnicity. Most of them agree that the word ethnicity is most often used of a person’s cultural identity, which may or may not include a shared language, shared customs, shared religious expression, or a shared nationality (especially outside that nation’s borders). And most dictionaries agree that race is often used to describe one of several very broad categories that people are divided into that are biologically arbitrary yet considered to be generally based on ancestral origin and shared physical characteristics (especially skin color).

There’s one more thing that dictionaries tell us, though it’s mostly subtext and only apparent in qualifiers like often and generally and especially. Race and ethnicity as labels can change not just from speaker to speaker but from context to context. Someone born to Japanese parents in the Bay Area of California and raised in San Francisco may identify racially as Asian (a broad category based on ancestral origin and some shared physical characteristics) but ethnically as Japanese, American, Japanese American, or maybe even San Franciscan (a cultural identity that can include shared customs, religion, nationality, or language). Or none of the above. The answer depends on who the speaker is talking to and why the listener is asking.


Communications Justice


Kory Stamper

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Kory Stamper, “Why We Confuse Race and Ethnicity: A Lexicographer’s Perspective,” Anti-Racism Digital Library, accessed May 6, 2021, https://sacred.omeka.net/items/show/333.