How to Tell the Difference Between Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality

Lately, non-white people have been spending a lot of time learning (or at least hearing about) the impact of their whiteness on the rest of the world

drugstore beauty

Photo: Unsplash/@kimberly123

Lately, non-white people have been spending a lot of time learning (or at least hearing about) the impact of their whiteness on the rest of the world. And admittedly, people of color have also begun to look more deeply at themselves and the long-held beliefs we’ve had about ourselves, as a result of whiteness and white supremacy. The outcome? Many of us have begun to understand our own identities in deeper and more nuanced ways, which has led many of us to the often confusing conversations around race, ethnicity, and nationality.

With so many people identifying as Afro-Latinx, Black (but not African-American), or Latinx but not Black, it’s time we break down all the top resources to help you understand the key nuances between race, nationality, and ethnicity.


Affinity Explains What the Core Racial Groups Are

Back in 2106, Affinity Magazine broke this down beautifully. In the simplest terms, your race is who you are by genetics, while your ethnicity is essentially your culture. According to the outlet, one can be of the Negroid race (Black) but if they were raised in Latin American or in a family with strong Latin roots, they would be Black by race and  Latinx by ethnicity or nationality — hence Afro-Latinx.

Or, perhaps one might be of the Mongoloid (Asian) race and raised in Jamaica; thus, you’d be an Asian-Caribbean (we’ve seen people be called “Blasian,” but this is not that, as Blasians are actually bi-racial—Mongoloid and Negroid). Or, you can be of the Black race and born and raised in America, with strong ancestral roots in America, which would make you African-American.


Why Some People Say Race is Just a Construct

Despite the prevalence of Black culture, many scholars argue that the concept of race is something less technical and scientific and more a construct developed to oppress and control. It is critical to understand for example, why diversity educator Jane Elliot suggests that we are “all one human race.” She is technically correct, as once upon a time, we were not “Black” and “White” and “Asian” and so forth. The scholar and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me” certainly makes the required reading list on this topic, as he explains this clearly:

“Perhaps, the Irish too had once lost their bodies. Perhaps being named ‘black’ had nothing to do with any of this; perhaps being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah… There was nothing holy or particular in my skin; I was black because of history and heritage… And still and all I knew that we were something that we were a tribe — on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real.”  

Coates explored the dizzying reality of the truth about race: once upon a time Irish people were treated similarly to “Black” people, they were, in terms of their treatment, the “Black people” of the country. So maybe this whole “Black” thing was just an invention to control people; call them “Black” and that means they can be used and abused. But still, Black people can’t be just made up, right? Look at all the similarities and culture they have! The entire exploration was a major mind blow for Coates, per his book, but also an important discovery.


What Makes Someone A Culture Vulture/Appropriator

While we’ve all heard the terms “culture vulture” and “cultural appropriation” thrown around, it can become fairly confusing to understand who is allowed to use aspects of culture and who is not.

For example, much has been said about the Kardashian/Jenner squad’s penchant for literally appropriating Black and brown women’s bodies. Kim’s claim, according to this video, however, is that it’s also an Armenian thing to have the body type her family has claimed.

A recent video where rapper Murda Mook implored a white influencer, Yes Julz, to use the n-word because she was basically “Spanish” (when, in reality, she is Italian American) also caused an Internet firestorm.

Always one to be counted on when putting people in their place about when and where folks can and cannot access other cultures’ traditions, Van Lathan ultimately schooled Mook on his missteps on his podcast “The Red Pill.”

While there are countless resources that breakdown who can and cannot use certain cultural traditions, Van’s podcast certainly helped shed more light on the issue.


How to Become 100% Clear on Ethnicity — Yours and What It Means

“Ethnicity is the understanding that a group of people has a shared cultural origin,” is the clear definition laid out by this video on Origin of Everything. The explanation clearly defines why people share things like language, fashion, beauty choices, and more — and why sometimes those things can overlap within a racial group or nationality.

The video also breaks down why some people have sub-cultures or an ethnic group within a larger ethnic identity (such as identifying as “Afro-Latinx” but also identifying as “Dominican” or identifying as “Indian” but also “Punjabi”).

An important distinction, however, is that ethnicity is about shared culture and heritage — thus drawing a clear line between who is allowed to use a culture versus who is allowed to appreciate a culture from the outside.


Why Claiming a Nationality Can Be Tough

A recent meme expressed why many African-American people (meaning, Black people whose ancestry traces back to U.S. slavery) struggle with claiming their American nationality. On another side of the coin, breakout tennis star Naomi Osaka recently found herself in the spotlight for a difficult decision she will have to make about whether she is Japanese or American.

While it may seem like the easiest identifier for some, defining one’s nationality can also be fraught with conflicting emotions. Still, according to, your nationality ultimately is where you have legal citizenship — either by birthright or inheritance — and is purely geographical. Still, in a world where xenophobia is very real, there have been many cases for why even that simple definition can become blurred.

In this Article

Ethnicity identity Identity politics Nationality race Racial politics
More on this topic