What is ethnicity? The answer to this question may seem as academic a question as it is to the average person. But for academics, what is ethnicity is an important topic because it is intimately linked to what they study. For example, anthropology scholars study cultural differences in behavior based on ethnicity. Similarly, linguists and anthropologists study language diversity and change over time and space through what is known as linguistic chauvelopment, which refers to the process by which different languages are transformed into various regional varieties.
The subject of what is ethnicity often turns up in discussions about immigration, racial prejudices or affirmative action. In these discussions, one frequently hears the expression “race” mixed up with “ethnicity.” Although the two terms are used interchangeably, there is a crucial difference between the two. To put it in simple terms, ethnicity is the inherited cultural identity of an ethnic group while race is the genealogical identity of a particular racial category.
For example, an African American man identified as Black, Latino, Asian, Indian or others. But he cannot be considered Black or Hispanic, if his parents were of African descent. Similarly, what is ethnicity for one person may not be what is ethnicity for another. Some examples of individuals with such mixed ancestry are Korean, Chinese, Mexican and South American.
What is ethnicity? Another issue that arises when one considers what is ethnicity is nationality. For instance, nationality is the collective identity of a nation state that tends to view itself as an ethnic group. Different nationalities often have historic and political relationships to one another.
How is what is ethnicity further divided? Ethnicity and race relations refer to the ways in which members of an ethnic or even national group relate to one another, especially when that group is composed of several different racial or cultural backgrounds. The existence of race relations is the result of the history and existence of indigenous peoples in relation to the colonizers. Many have argued that race is nothing more than a creation of the colonizers. While others point out the existence of such relations as the necessary consequence of economic development in different societies.
The existence of physical characteristics that are seen as markers of the racial group rather than skin tone, for example, has led some to compare the existence of race to that of skin tone. Skin tone, they argue, is not something inherent in all human beings. Instead, skin tone is something that can be changed. A person who is white, for example, can undergo a process of whitening in order to blend in with the group that he belongs to. Similarly, someone who is black can undergo a process of blackening in order to blend into his racial group.
What is ethnicity, then, becomes something less than identity. It becomes the state of mind and the cultural practices that members of an ethnic group to adopt in order to maintain their distinct cultural identity. It also becomes the language and literature of an ethnic group. It also becomes the shared history and the shared heritage.
But the question of what is ethnicity does not end with what is seen as the physical characteristics of an individual. The sociological definition of ethnicity should include both the psychological and the cultural definition of ethnicity. The psychological definition clarifies what it is like to be, belong to, or be of an ethnic or cultural group. The cultural definition, meanwhile, refers to the values, beliefs, customs, and norms that members of an ethnic group claim to live by. These two definitions must be seen to agree on the essential nature of ethnicity.