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Author: Dinelia Rosa
Editor: Caroline S. Clauss-Ehlers
Date: 2010
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Dinelia Rosa

An ethnic group is a human population whose members identify with each other, usually based on a presumed common genealogy or ancestry. Ethnic groups are also typically united by common cultural, behavioral, linguistic, or religious practices. Members of an ethnic group generally claim a strong cultural continuity over time. Ethnicity focuses more upon the connection to a perceived shared past and culture. “Ethnic,” derived from the Greek ethnos, meaning people, was used to refer to non-Greek peoples, or foreigners.

The original term of ethnicity was associated with earliest forms of kinship-based ethnic group, most closely corresponding to the term “tribe.” Members of an ethnic group procreated only with members of their ethnic group. Partly because of invasions, migrations, and religious crusades, people began to procreate outside of their own kinship; this contributed to a further evolution of new ethnic groups.

Ethnicity should be distinguished from nationality. Whereas nationality refers only to citizenship of a given state or country, the concept of ethnicity is rooted in the idea of social groups, marked by shared nationality. However, because many countries have multiple ethnic groups living within them, one's nationality does not necessarily correspond to one's ethnicity.

Ethnicity and race should also be distinguished. Race refers to the categorization of people by genotype and/or phenotypic traits, whereas ethnicity concerns group identification. They both bring a unique set of experiences and worldview that would have an impact on the way the individual relates in the world. However, both terms have been erroneously interpreted as equivalent and used interchangeably. For example, whereas Blacks can be perceived as one group, they may also have membership in diverse ethnic groups. A Black Hispanic Caribbean who self-identifies as Hispanic rather than as a Black person may encounter great conflict when identified by others as being Black. This erroneous interchange of race and ethnicity may cause feelings of unfair discrimination.

Collectives of related ethnic groups are typically denoted as “ethnic.” For example in the United States (U.S.), the various Latin American ethnic groups and the Spanish are typically grouped as “Hispanics.” Similarly, Asian ethnic groups are grouped as “Asians,” and African ethnic groups in the U.S. are grouped as “African American.”

One's ethnic/racial identity may result from self-identification or from an imposition by others. Identifying other people's ethnicity can be a powerful political tool for controlling and marginalizing. Political and economic powers have usually defined their ethnic/racial group as superior to the others. Being “White” has been associated with being intelligent and successful. This idea was reinforced through social systems, the educational system being the most influential. Being “Black” was identified with the opposite. Other ethnic groups such as Mexican American, Arab American, and Southeast Asians have also been labeled negatively.

Ethnic identity has a powerful effect on the way people relate to others. Adolescents (of all ethnicities) are especially faced with challenges associated with processing their ethnic identity. For example, Whites are often not included in educational systems of information related to their own ethnicity and are then confronted when they are included in curricula covering how “Whites” have been unfair to people of color. In many instances, this can promote a negative image of their ethnicity and consequently of themselves; this may partly explain why many Whites identify with and adopt traits of other ethnic groups (e.g. music, style of dress, and slang language). Children of other ethnic groups confront different challenges such as distancing themselves from behaviors and customs that would identify them with their own ethnicity. They may prefer to speak English rather than their parents' native language, or choose to dress and act like their American peers. Schools are an appropriate setting to teach students about ethnicity and ethnic identity. Therefore, teachers and other school professionals are faced with the challenges of themselves becoming sensitive to issues of ethnicity, to promoting class

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discussions, and creating opportunities for their students to experience different cultures.

Suggested Reading

Abizadeh, A. (2001). Ethnicity, race, and a possible humanity. World Order, 33(1), 23–34.

Smith, A. D. (1987). The ethnic origins of nations. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3041400170