Race vs. Ethnicity vs. Nationality Explained

Updated on April 10, 2024

At a Glance

  • Race refers to physical characteristics identifying someone as part of a specific biological group.
  • Ethnicity is based on shared cultural characteristics.
  • Nationality is tied to legal citizenship.
  • Race is rooted in natural physical traits, ethnicity is mainly cultural, and nationality is determined by birthright or naturalization.

Nobody can choose the exact circumstances of their conception and birth. You didn’t choose to be born into your family and in your country, but there you are, anyway.

It can’t be denied that our race, ethnicity, and nationality make up a large part of who we are. More than just identifiers, they also serve as our connection to our family, our culture, and our history.

But what exactly is the difference between race, ethnicity, and nationality? In this article, that’s exactly what we’ll find out.

Race vs. Ethnicity vs. Nationality

Race vs ethnicity vs nationality is a topic that has long been around. This section will explain the key differences between these three.

Race Overview

Race refers to the physical characteristics that serve as an identifier that someone belongs to a specific biological group. This includes things like skin color, eye color, facial features, hair color, and even the physical build.

Ethnicity Overview

Ethnicity refers to the cultural characteristics that you share with people of your specific group. The things that can dictate your ethnicity include your language, religion, accent, fashion, food preferences or restrictions, customs, and hairstyles.

Nationality Overview

Compared to the other two, nationality is a fairly simple concept to grasp. Nationality refers to your citizenship, which you’re either born as or you converted to in a process called naturalization.

What is Race?

Race is understood as the natural physical characteristics a person has that they have in common with their specific group.

The most common marker of race is skin color, but there are also other markers that come into play, like eye shape, hair color and texture, and facial features.

These features are completely natural – you can’t pick and choose what racial features you’re born with. And, barring cosmetic surgery, you can’t change most of these traits either.

For instance, a person who has fair skin, green eyes, and sandy blonde hair may be classified as White.

On the other hand, a person who has dark skin, dark brown eyes, and curly black hair may be classified as Black.

Race vs. Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity often go hand-in-hand. However, there is no single combination. There are hundreds, if not thousands of combinations out there, due to the sheer number of ethnicities in the world.

The main difference between the two is that one’s physical and the other’s mainly cultural.

Race vs. Ethnicity Example

Here’s a scenario. If you put an Asian person and a Black person side-by-side, there’s a chance that you’ll be able to guess who’s the Asian one and who’s the Black one. After all, their different facial features, skin color, and even hair texture can give you a clue as to what race they are.

However, let’s say this person is an American-born Chinese who doesn’t speak the language and has never even been to China. If you put them side-by-side with a Chinese person who was actually born and raised in China, it’s very likely that you won’t be able to tell who’s the American-born one. That’s because ethnicity doesn’t always show up on the surface, unlike race.

Mixed Race

Of course, it’s completely possible to be mixed race. If you’re the child of a White father and a Black mother, for instance, you would be mixed race. Your physical traits may not look exactly like an average White person or an average Black person, but you still belong to both races.

What is Ethnicity?

Ethnicity is based on your cultural heritage. It’s not always visible from the outside, unlike race. Unless someone knows you personally, they may not be able to guess what your ethnicity is just based on what you physically look like.

That’s because what dictates your ethnicity are things like your native language, religion, cultural practices, and clothing and diet preferences. Even the holidays you celebrate can be dictated by your ethnicity.

Ethnicity and Geography

Like race, ethnicity is related closely to your geographical location, as well. However, in many ways, it’s also a lot closer.

Suppose your parents are white Americans who moved to Dubai right after they first gave birth to you. You grew up bilingual in English and Arabic, exposed to Dubai’s culture and customs. You celebrate the same holidays that other residents of Dubai celebrate.

If you move back to America in your early 20s, would that make your ethnicity American? Not exactly. While you may have mixed ethnicity since your parents were American and therefore possibly influenced you with American culture, you would more likely be considered a white Arab, specifically an Emirati, once you go back to the US.

What is Nationality?

Unlike race and ethnicity, nationality is quite easy to understand.

To say it simply, your nationality refers to your legal citizenship. Different countries have different laws regarding how they confer citizenship, but here in the US, there are two ways for someone to become a US citizen: birthright citizenship and naturalized citizenship.

Birthright citizenship is based on two principles called jus soli and jus sanguinis. Jus soli means you can automatically become a citizen if you’re born on the nation’s soil. If you’re born in the US to Italian parents, you’re still considered an American citizen.

Jus sanguinis, on the other hand, means that children of citizens can automatically become citizens themselves. So, if you’re born to US-citizen parents living in Thailand, the US will still consider you a US citizen even if you were born on Thai soil.

Naturalized citizenship, on the other hand, means that you’re a non-US citizen who went through the process to become a US citizen. The process can be long and hard, but once you’re done, it means that you can get the full rights, privileges, and benefits as someone born in the United States and to US-citizen parents.

What is Nationalism?

Nationalism is a concept that means believing you should prioritize your own nation-state above others. Similar to the idea of patriotism, it also means taking pride in your country.

However, nationalism has a rather negative connotation nowadays. For instance, it’s considered nationalism to see the English language as the ideal American language. If you speak another language, it means that you are “less American.” Obviously, this isn’t true in the slightest, but it’s an example of how extreme nationalism can lead to prejudice.

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Race vs. Ethnicity vs. Nationality: Final Thoughts

Race, ethnicity, and nationality are all important aspects of our being. Race is mostly seen in our outward appearance, ethnicity in our behaviors and culture, and nationality in our legal status.

Understanding them is key to understanding your identity. After all, all three, together, make up a big part of who you are as a person. 

That said, at the end of the day, you are more than just your race, ethnicity, or nationality. Your individual traits are an even bigger part of you, and they’re what makes you, you. When all is said and done, who you truly are on the inside that’s what really matters.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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