Defining Race & Ethnicity

The number of people of color of various races and ethnicities is increasing in the United States, but not in the public relations profession. Let’s define race and ethnicity before exploring those figures. The words race and ethnicity sometimes are used interchangeably, but they are different.

Regarding race, Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary (WNWCD) notes that it refers to groups of people different from others “because of supposed physical or genetic traits.”

Race also can refer to groups of people united based on “common history, nationality, or geographic distribution,” WNWCD states. However, the dictionary points out that some scientists say that classifying race as biological is invalid.

Many scholars have asserted that race is a social construct, not a biological one. Sonya Nieto and Patty Bode (2018) wrote that differences are rooted in sociology, not biology because they are based on experiences within a cultural group.

“There is really only one race—the human race,” Nieto and Bode suggested. “Historically, the concept of race has been used to oppress entire groups of people for their supposed differences” (p. 36).

The U.S. Census Bureau’s definitions of race and ethnicity are based on how people identify themselves. A person can self-identify as two or more races. Race falls into five categories on the 2020 Census:

  1. White
  2. Black or African American
  3. American Indian or Alaska Native
  4. Asian
  5. Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.

“The race categories generally reflect social definitions in the U.S. and are not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically,” according to the Census Bureau. “We recognize that the race categories include racial and national origins and sociocultural groups.”

Regarding ethnicity, WNWCD defines it as a person’s “cultural background or where they came from.” The Census Bureau states that ethnicity refers to whether a person is Hispanic, Latino, or not. It added that Hispanics and Latinos could be of any race.

Finally, Damion Waymer (2012) argues that ethnicity “typically refers to some mixture of race, religion, language, and/or ancestry”(p. 8).

Next Page: Race and Ethnicity in the U.S. and PR Workplace