Race vs. Ethnicity vs. Nationality: What Are The Differences?

Demonstrators in Philadelphia participate in a rally against white nationalism and other forms of racism and hate organized by the interfaith advocacy organization. Image credit: Michael Candelori/Shutterstock.com
Demonstrators in Philadelphia participate in a rally against white nationalism and other forms of racism and hate organized by the interfaith advocacy organization. Image credit: Michael Candelori/Shutterstock.com
  • The term, race, first appeared in the English language in the late 16th century.
  • Ethnicity can include several characteristics, such as race, language, and religion.
  • Nationality usually implies that a person is from a specific country or a territory dominated by a certain ethnic group.

Race. Ethnicity. Nationality. These are concepts that can bring people together, but they are also concepts that can tear people apart. Some believe that these concepts are purely human inventions, while others believe they are as real as the sun and the moon. Regardless of how one sees them, however, the fact of the matter is that they are concepts that have influenced our past, our present, and very likely our future. To complicate matters, there is no universal consensus on how to define each of these concepts individually. It all depends on one’s ideology. In some ideologies, race, ethnicity and nationality are all one and the same. Other ideologies hold that nationality simply means your country of citizenship and that race and ethnicity have no significance. Here are some of the key differences and similarities between the three concepts:


International friendship. Image credit: View Apart/Shutterstock.com

The definition of race has not been consistent throughout history, nor is it consistent today, based on people’s beliefs. But generally speaking, many people today think of a race as a group of people having certain physical characteristics. And the most distinguishing physical characteristic has historically been skin color. As for the science behind the concept, the growing consensus among scientists is that there is no way to divide homo sapiens, the scientific name for our modern human species, into races, and that the physical differences between people are the products of evolution and the adaptation of groups of human beings to the environments in which they lived.

There are, however, still scientists that do believe there is a correlation between physical characteristics and things like intelligence and morality. This belief was very prevalent among Europeans during the colonial era, in which European powers colonized and subjugated multitudes of different peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas. They often justified their ill-treatment of the conquered lands’ native inhabitants based on their belief that those inhabitants were racially inferior to white Europeans. This same belief was often the justification used by white Americans for the institution of slavery in the U.S., and later, the Jim Crow Laws that led to the segregation of blacks and whites in the South.

According to some, race can be synonymous with a person’s ethnic or national identity. In Nazi ideology, for example, Jews and Slavs were considered races unto themselves, and inferior races at that, while the so-called Aryans, were at the top of the Nazi racial hierarchy. But simply being white didn’t make someone Aryan. They had to be considered descendants of Europe’s ancient Germanic tribes. In early U.S. history, the Irish were often considered a race separate from Americans of British descent, despite the fact that they were also white.


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Like race, a person’s ethnicity derives from their origins. Unlike race, however, ethnicity can also denote a person’s language, culture, or even their religion. Jewish people, for example, are commonly identified as such based on their religious affiliation. Indeed, there are many cases of people who may have Jewish origins, but do not practice Judaism, and therefore, more often than not, do not consider themselves to be Jewish, nor would they be considered Jewish by the vast majority of Jews.

In addition, just as it is possible to be of mixed racial heritage, it is also possible to be of mixed ethnic heritage. Say, for example, that your parents came from different ethnic backgrounds. One was of French origin and the other of Italian origin. Your family would likely carry on customs and traditions of both ethnicities. This is the case for many if not most U.S. citizens.

Some believe that ethnicity does, and even should, overlap with race, nationality, or even both. There are Americans, for example, who hold the belief that one is only a true American if they are of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant origin. Some people in both the U.S. and Canada do not want to welcome new immigrants of non-European origin into their countries based on the belief that they won’t hold so-called Western values. There are also many countries in which a person must meet certain ethnic criteria to qualify for citizenship.


The word nationality can have different meanings. It can denote a person’s relationship to a specific nation-state. To say, for example, that someone is an American national would indicate that the person is a U.S. citizen. So in other words, nationality can be another way of saying citizenship.

There are other contexts, however, in which nationality overlaps with ethnicity. In Israel, for example, the term nationality that appears on national ID cards implies what in the U.S. would be a person’s ethnicity, and has no relation to their citizenship. Hence, Jewish Israelis will have ID cards that indicate their nationality as being “Jewish”, while Arab Israelis, who make up the bulk of Israel’s non-Jewish population, will have “Arab” indicated as their nationality on their ID cards. Israeli is not considered a nationality, and therefore, will not be found on the ID cards of Israeli citizens.

Many people around the world struggle to be recognized as a nationality. In other words, they want an independent nation-state for themselves. The Kurdish people of the Middle East, for instance, are an ethnic group that make up the majority of the population in parts of present-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. But many of them see themselves, not simply as an ethnic group, but as a nation deserving the status of nationality in the form of an independent nation-state. Other groups of people seeking to become nationalities include the Palestinians, who are also located in the Middle East, as well as the Basques of France and Spain, the Quebec sovereigntist movement in Canada, the Baluchis of Pakistan and Iran, and the Tibetans and Uighurs of China. Each of these groups argue for independent nation-states on the basis that they comprise a majority in the lands in which they live and want to protect their cultures, languages, and traditions that they believe are under threat from the countries that currently rule them. Hence, a key difference between ethnicity and nationality is whether or not a group of people with a common heritage in the form of shared traditions, language, or religion reside in a specific territory to which they have a legitimate claim.


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