What is the Difference Between Culture, Ethnicity, and Race?

black and white photo of 6 young woman of different races main

Culture is a way of life, intellectual advancement, and ideal activities we consider to be “high art.” Ethnicity divides people by national origins and distinctive cultural activities. Race is a social construction that is often somehow tied to skin color.  

The concepts of race, ethnicity, and race are pretty important, if not so simple to explain.  They arise in education in a variety of ways, including the study of history, sociology, and more.  


Culture is the most complex of the three, a catchall word that involves a whole lot of things.

Culture has three basic meanings. It is a type of intellectual education (“being cultured”).  Culture is a way of life (French culture, LGBTQ culture, gamer culture). And, it is a bunch of rewarding activities we do (going to museums, concerts, lectures). 

Human civilization first began over five thousand years ago.  Civilizations involve people settling down, agriculture, establishing cities, and so on.  

But, culture was around since Wilma Flintstone (or her real-life counterpart).  Humans always had a way of life, including how they dealt with each other, had fun, had religious and spiritual beliefs, and a whole lot more.  Studying culture means studying human activity.  

What does the word “culture” bring to mind to you?  The word often is used to mean having what is considered to be “high” culture, favored by those with money, education, and class.  

A “cultured” person would like opera, read the classics (such as Shakespeare and Homer), and know the proper way to use multiple forks at dinner.  Others might call them “snobs.”

The “Cultural Revolution” took place in China in the 1960s, involving an attempt to revitalize communist ideals.  In the process, many suffered for not having the “right” cultural ideas.

The term “culture” also often comes up in other ways.  We hear about the importance of “learning about other cultures” (as if culture is somehow something “they” have).  There is also a more negative usage (“culture of poverty”)  used to show the problems with certain cultures.  

The term means all of these things.  It is a great term to apply to a range of groups of people.  Culture is not “out there.”  It is everywhere.  Every group of people is likely to have a bunch of cultures, including their nationality, religion, amusements, and a whole lot more.  

Cultural studies show the richness of humanity.  We also can study of cultures of other animals.  


The word “ethnicity” comes from the Greek word that means “people” or a “nation.”

The book Racial and Ethnic Groups by Richard Schaefer states that ethnicity is “set apart from others because of their national origin or distinctive cultural patterns.”  

Merriam-Webster has a broader definition, expanding things to include “common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.”  

The term is often applied to groups of people who are related in some fashion by their national origins.  Jews are an ethnic group as well as a religion, who first lived in Israel (Palestine).  

Sometimes, different ethnic groups are classified together by regions of origin or race. For instance, “Hispanics” or “Latinos” (Latinx) include such ethnic groups as Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban-Americans.  Meanwhile, “white ethnics” include Irish Americans, Polish Americans, and Ukraine Americans.  

Ethnic groups often have their own culture. Their different cultural practices, including language, food habits, religions, attitudes toward marriage and the sexes, and so on make them stand out from others in the area they live.   

Different ethnic groups provide richness to our culture.  We are a “melting pot,” a variety of ethnic groups with their own cultures while still having common American cultural beliefs and practices.  The differences have led to problems and conflicts throughout our history.  


Race is a way society classifies different people by a range of biological, cultural, and other criteria.  Race is not skin color.  “Whites” and “blacks” have a range of differences.  

There are no “pure” races, especially after repeated migrations, invasions, and intermarriage over all of human history.  For example, Ethiopian and Somalis are largely a mixture of Caucasian (white) and African while Mexican Americans are a mixture of Native American, Caucasian and African.   The gene pool became very diverse.  Helps to explain why we are not all black.

The limited connection of a few skin colors (such as “white,” “black,” and “red”) to actual reality is seen in ancient times when people were more likely to divide each other into groups based on environment, geography, ancestral origin, language, religion, custom, and culture.

Racial divisions are a social creation.  Over the years, the United States has spoken of the “Jewish race,” the “Italian race,” and so-called “white trash” (poor whites).  An attempt to promote “good breeding” (eugenics) targeted a variety of so-called races.  

“Racism” is the belief certain races are superior to others.  This results in a lot of harm. World history is full of racism.  The history of the United States has been one full of racism against a variety of groups, including Africans, Native Americans, and Latinos.   

The argument that “race is a social construct” is one of the basic beliefs of critical race theory.  Some people would disagree.  They think “race” means skin color such as having black skin.  

But, we are a whole range of skin tones.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for instance, Italians were often seen as “dark-skinned” and discriminated against.  Now, they are “whites.”   Race is usually somehow tied to skin color but not just in some “natural fashion.”

Diversity x Three

One of my favorite discussions on this website concerns critical race theory.  We now have another controversy brewing: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs.  

I checked and one institution discussed the “diversity” aspect this way:

We commit to increasing diversity … including race and ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, language, culture, national origin, religious commitments, age, (dis)ability status and political perspective.

Well, three down, and many more to go.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.