Professor of Sociology Mikaila Arthur and Assistant Professor of Educational Studies/History Tommy Ender
"It is best not to try to understand ethnicity in visible terms. Ethnicity is really this cultural thing: the foods we eat, the holidays we celebrate, our traditions, what we do with our families and how we absorb that at birth," explains Rhode Island College Professor of Sociology Mikaila Arthur. "Race is what sociologists would call an ascribed status, which means it's really determined by other people's perception of you."
Assistant Professor Tommy Ender of the RIC Educational Studies and History Departments, adds, "In the United States, historically, there's been a misunderstanding of what race is and what ethnicity is. Race has been significant from the development of this country's history, going back to when the European conquerors colonized North America."
"Ethnicity is an identity that we associate ourselves with. We choose to identify with an ethnic group or with more than one ethnic group. That really tends to be a personal decision about how somebody chooses to identify and how they see themselves," says Arthur. "Race is not a real biological phenomenon at all. We treat skin color as a characteristic of race even though we cannot read skin color in the genes. You cannot do a genetic test and tell what color someone is. You can definitely do eye color, but skin color is very complex. There are many different genes involved. Race is something we as a people have created and used to stratify."
Ender, who is of Colombian, Italian, Spanish and German descent but identifies as Latino, believes that there are many factors involved in someone's ethnic identity, such as "cultural practices like baseball or soccer. For example, people from the Caribbean like baseball, and I like it because I grew up with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans. When I got to college I played soccer with Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Argentinians. I rely on those cultural things." He adds, "The language, music, films, books in Spanish, those little common threads built a unique overall identity for Latinos living in a place like the United States."
When talking about race and ethnicity, there are certain characteristics that can help people understand the subtle differences between the real genetic and cultural traits and the artificial external signifiers that often get lumped together in this country. For example, Arthur says, "One of my favorite things that is most genetically different between people is, whether your earlobe is separated or attached. You can actually tell that this is distributed geographically, differently across the world, but we don't treat that as a characteristic of race."
Arthur notes that American notions of race are different than notions of race in a lot of Latin-American communities, which also happens in the Anglophone Caribbean, where skin color is complicated and there are a lot more categories of how people understand themselves.
"The term that I think is important here is 'panethnicity', the idea of taking a lot of ethnic groups and bringing them together under a bigger umbrella. There is a lot of research about this among Asian-Americans," she continues. "Over the generations, this idea of Asian-American was created as a political identity for people who shared a common experience of racialization in the way that they were treated by others in the United States, to unite that political consciousness so that they could fight for equality, opportunity, and better treatment."
Ender illustrates a similar sense of panethnicity when it comes to the ways people of Latino and Hispanic heritage are grouped together in this country. He explains that there are 18 countries beyond Mexico with Spanish as their main language, and each one has different ethnicities and cultural practices. "You often have to explain that because you are Latino does not mean you are Mexican," he says. "There are differences between being Colombian, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan – and there is also Brazil, which has around 28 ethnicity identities."
For Ender, whose mom is Muisca (an indigenous community in Colombia), knowing one's ancestry is important to people's ethnicity. "My mother established this hierarchy among different Latin-American countries based on the language," he notes. "Mexican Spanish is different than Colombian Spanish which is drastically different than Argentinian."
"Latin-America is a very mixed society. People from all over the world have lived together for hundreds of years at this point," Arthur concludes. "Of course, that is true in the United States as well. But here, people have often treated racial categories as fixed hierarchies rather than focusing on understanding our history and the complexity of our society."