Race vs. Ethnicity – What’s the Difference?

There are few situations where word choice matters more than in discussions of race and ethnicity.

Such topics are often politically-charged minefields of taut emotions and flared tempers. Even small mistakes can be distracting and even unintentionally insulting—things serious writers should seek to avoid at all costs.

Here, more than ever, then, it is important for writers to choose their words carefully. One relatively benign misstep in writing can cause you to lose readers.

In everyday speech, these words are used interchangeably, but, in formal writing, the difference can be important. Knowing whether race or ethnicity is a more appropriate choice for a given context is one step on the road to culturally competent writing.

What is the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity?

In this post, I will discuss the differences between these two words. I will use both of them in sentences, so you can see them in context.

Plus, I will show you a mnemonic device that can help you decide whether to use ethnicity or race in your next piece.

When to Use Race

race versus ethnicityWhat does race mean? The word race has several meanings, one of which is a contest of speed.

In this article, however, we are primarily concerned with race as human affiliation based on shared physical characteristics. The word is a noun in this sense—the adjective form is racial.

Here are a few examples,

  • Greg felt he was being discriminated against based on his race.
  • The law should treat people equally—regardless of their race or religion.
  • Attorneys also asked if race might influence their verdict, or if they’ve heard arguments that race was a factor in the investigation. –The Washington Post

In most cases, people use race when referring to physical characteristics of humans, although advancements in human genetics have disproved many of the traditional classifications, making the word race more vague and less precise.

In everyday speech, race is usually a polite term for skin color.

When to Use Ethnicity

Definition-of-ethnicity-definition-and-definition of race definitionWhat does ethnicity mean? Ethnicity is also a noun. It refers to human affiliation based on shared cultural characteristics, like language, religion, or other aspects of culture.

Here are a few more examples,

  • Anders threw a party celebrating cultural aspects of his Scandinavian ethnicity.
  • One of my coworkers tried to explain to me the difference between Eritrean and Ethiopian ethnicity, but I still did not understand.
  • Hispanics make up 39 percent of the new cadet class, in a department that is 27 percent Hispanic, while Asian and Pacific Islanders make up 21.9 percent of the new cadets, or triple the percentage of current officers of that ethnicity. –New York Post

In most cases, people use ethnicity when referring to cultural characteristics of humans. As such, ethnicity, generally speaking, is a more useful idea than race, as it encompasses racial characteristics in addition to aspects of culture.

Race vs. Ethnicity – How to Decide

Define ethnicity and define race Both race and ethnicity are accepted terms for human categorization, and, in everyday language, they are often used interchangeably, since both terms have some overlap in people groups. Still, for formal writing (and linguistic precision) you will need to know how to choose between them.

Race refers to the physical characteristics of someone. In this sense, race is something that is outwardly manifested. For example, the color of someone’s skin would be described as his or her race, not ethnicity. Since race deal with physical characteristics, it is a much more limited idea than ethnicity.

Ethnicity refers to the cultural characteristics of someone. In this sense, ethnicity is something that is not always visible. Looking at an individual, you will not always know the language he speaks, the religion he practices, the country he comes from, etc.

This is because ethnicity doesn’t deal with physical attributes.

Now, how can you easily keep these two term separated in your mind for future writing? Here’s a helpful mnemonic to remember ethnicity vs. race.

Ethnicity and culture each contain the letter T, so you can mentally link them that way.


Is it race or ethnicity? Race and ethnicity are two systems of human affiliation.

  • Race refers to physical characteristics.
  • Ethnicity refers to cultural characteristics, like language and religion, and can include race as well.

Ethnicity and culture each contain the letter T, so remembering this fact can help you decide when to use ethnicity to describe categories of humans.

Language has the power to both clarify and confuse, but by choosing words carefully you can be sure that your point is always understood. Be sure to check this site any time you have questions about difficult writing topics.