As a multi-racial person, I’ve become accustomed to answering the question “What are you? You don’t seem totally white” from classmates to coworkers. I’ve also become accustomed to checking multiple boxes when filling out a survey, job application, or census. Occasionally running into the issue of deciding which part of me I represent when I’m only allowed one box to check. Race, ethnicity, and nationality are fundamental parts to what makes you, you. But what do those questions truly mean? And how does this affect our day-to-day lives?
Nationality is the most straightforward of the three. Merriam Webster’s first definition is simply, “national character” but provides the additional definition, “National status, specifically: a legal relationship involving allegiance on the part of an individual and usually protection on the part of the state”. There are also instances where nationality is used as a euphemism for your nation of origin or “the place you’re really from”. Being born in America as a citizen, my nationality is American. My coworker, who was born in Australia, despite now living in the United States, would classify her nationality as Australian. Not all countries have “jus soli” or birthright citizenship though, and people from those places may define nationality differently. There are currently just over 30 countries where a child is granted citizenship by the country they are born in, the United States being one of them.
Ethnicity tends to be less about the physical characteristics of someone and more about the culture and customs they were brought up in. Simply defined as “a particular ethnic affiliation or group” by Merriam Webster, the language you spoke growing up, the religion you were raised in, and the social customs you follow can each inform your ethnicity. “Ethnicity, unlike race, is not visible on the surface” says Robinson in her breakdown of Race and Equity for Prep Scholars blog. For example, Kurdish, Punjabi and Tibetan are ethnicities from various Asian regions, each with rich linguistic and cultural heritage. However, they currently do not possess their own nation states, and therefore, cannot be nationalities. Meanwhile, Arabs and Latinos are some of the most racially diverse ethnicities that encompass entire nations and span multiple continents, even to the point of being notoriously difficult to name. Are they “Hispanic”? What about “Middle Eastern”? The sheer size of these broader ethnic groups means that they almost always overlap with nationalities or other ethnicities, such as Peruvian or North African.
Race is defined as “any one of the groups that humans are often divided into based on physical traits regarded as common among people of shared ancestry” (Merriam Webster). Typically, your race is assigned to you based on certain relatively unchangeable traits that most people within a racial category commonly have, like facial features and hair texture. Given the more “visible” nature of race, you might be quick to think it’s the most straightforward. Nowadays in the U.S., you might assume someone with blonde hair and fair complexion to be Caucasian, or white. However, American history has shown us that where we draw the line in terms of racial groups is oftentimes arbitrary. For example, German, Irish, Italian, and Jewish people were all at different points not considered white because they were seen as outsiders and a threat to society due to stereotypes about their character. Because they weren’t black, Asians were briefly considered white until the cases Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) deemed these groups as “non-white” and therefore ineligible for citizenship at that time. Throughout history, race has been used to restrict access to resources, divide groups of people, or even incite mass genocide. One thing is clear: race is not a black-and-white issue.
Despite being terms with different definitions, Jennifer Brody, the Stanford University's director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity, claims that one cannot live without the other since they have a large influence with how we deal with race within the U.S. (Oprah Mag).
"You can't really define them separately because they are intimately related... Sometimes people mistakenly think that ethnicity is reserved only to whites or Europeans, but really it just means one's language or culture," she says. "This is why they're kind of interchangeable. There are two ways of understanding. You can think of one: the idea of race earlier in the world—and sometimes now—works like ethnicity in terms of one's cultural ideas.
More often than not, ethnicity is used as a proxy for race in everyday communication and vice versa. For instance, when we refer to the Asian race in the U.S., you may picture a person of East Asian descent with a certain eye shape, hair texture or skin tone, whereas in the U.K. the term Asian is commonly associated with a person of South Asian descent. Now consider that this race would have to account for well over 20 very distinct ethnicities, some of which were mentioned earlier, with a wide range of physical features, religions, and languages. Then, we begin to see how “Asian” in a way breaks the definitions of both race and ethnicity.
No matter what race and ethnic grouping you identify as, the intersectionality of these categorizations deeply affect how you view your world, make choices, and live your life. They also affect how others perceive you which can, in turn, affect how you view yourself and the groups you identify with.
The most interesting thing about race and its definition, is to see how it has changed over the years through a scientific lens. Over 100 years ago, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois spoke out against the use of race as biological explanations for things, when he believed they were simply social and cultural differences. Today scientists are confirming his theory. After 5 years of work, they are saying that racial categories are weak proxies for genetic diversity and need to be phased out. “That is, scientists have discovered that a person's race doesn't make them significantly genetically different from anyone else. That means that race is a way for societies to differentiate people based on common physically expressed traits” (Prep Scholar). They’ve also asked that the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine form a panel of experts in the biological and social sciences areas to create ways for researchers to move away from racial concepts in genetic research, and they noted that “assumptions about genetic differences between people of different races have had obvious social and historical repercussions, and they still threaten to fuel racist beliefs”(Scientific American). This is something we can still observe today.
Remember my Australian coworker who lives in the U.S. now? Let’s say she decided to become a U.S. citizen. Once she is a U.S. citizen, she should have access and protection as if she was born here right? Absolutely, but sometimes culturally, the idea of Nationalism can creep up. Nationalism is a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations. It is the idea that as soon as one becomes an American citizen, they must stop speaking any other language but Standard American English and forgo the culture, practices, and ideas of the place they are coming from and assimilate to the elusive notion of mainstream America. Failure to do so can result in prejudice towards that individual.
When the U.S. census was first created in 1790, there were merely 3 categories: Free White Males/Free White Females, All Other Free Persons, and Slaves. It took almost one hundred years for Asian representation in the census, and even then it was just “Chinese”. A category for Japanese was added in 1890, with an additional category of “Other” in 1910 along with “Filipino,” “Korean,” and “Hindu”in 1920. Finally, in 1960, the additional Asian ethnic categories were put in place that we see today. (You can check out all of the changes to the census since its creation in an interactive infographic here.)
Last year, the U.S. conducted their decennial survey for all those living within the U.S. The census has grown and changed along with our country. There are currently 6 broader race categories: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and Some Other Race. The Asian and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander categories have an additional breakdown for those who might identify as more than one of those races.
But it wasn’t until the year 2000 that individuals filling out the survey could self identify as more than one race. The ability to identify as multiple races is hugely important as this data is used for the next 10 years to inform Federal and State lawmakers when funding more than 100 programs, including school lunches, highway construction, and education. It also helps business owners make decisions on where to open stores, what products and services to offer, and where to recruit employees. But outside of regulations and funding, it’s vital for those who are trying to answer the questions around race and ethnicity for themselves.
The feeling of uncertainty I experience when I have to decide what race to represent, that hesitation that comes from not having all types of identities represented, is known as “social identity threat”. Joshua Aronson, a professor of applied psychology at New York University says, “Anything that makes you conscious of your identity in a way that is confusing or upsetting or makes things high-stakes for you in some way can represent a problem.” Real generational trauma can arise from this feeling from having your identity misrepresented or devalued, further emphasizing the importance of proper representation in these spaces.
At the end of the day, only you can claim your race and ethnicity and determine how that makes you unique. I can say I’m a unique multi-racial person of German, Japanese, and Mexican descent, an American and my ethnicity is a bit of a mix of those four identities. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of race, ethnicity, and nationality and can share who you are with those around you. As a takeaway, ask your family, partner, or children if they’ve ever reflected on their race or ethnicity and thought about how that affects the way they view the world.
Candace works in supply chain and is passionate about learning more about her Japanese ancestry and culture. Located in Portland Oregon, she enjoys reading, baking and spending time with her husband and their cat.
Andy is a language professional from Long Island, New York. He’s passionate about language justice, AAPI representation in national and international media, and scrutinizing Eurocentric narratives about BIPOC. By drawing from his experiences working and studying abroad, he reflects on the East Asian American identity in various contexts.