Race, Ethnicity and Indigeneity


As many people know, the idea that human beings belong to different “races” is not true in a genetic sense. Since the concept of racial classifications came into being, it has been used to distribute opportunities and resources to groups – with groups defined as white consistently getting more advantages, on average, and groups defined as not white consistently being disadvantaged, on average. The long term effects can be seen at every level of society: in institutions, culture, the stories told about identity, and in the current way opportunities and resources are still unequally distributed among people allowed to be called white or not. Resources in this section provide information about three core concepts related to the categorization of people into groups for purposes of racial types of sorting: race, ethnicity and indigeneity.


For many people, it comes as a surprise that racial categorization schemes were invented by scientists to support worldviews that viewed some groups of people as superior and some as inferior. (Race: Power of an Illusion) There are three important concepts linked to this fact:

  1. Race is a made-up social construct, and not an actual biological fact
  2. Race designations have changed over time. Some groups that are considered “white” in the United States today were considered “non-white” in previous eras, in U.S. Census data and in mass media and popular culture (for example, Irish, Italian and Jewish people).
  3. The way in which racial categorizations are enforced (the shape of racism) has also changed over time. For example, the racial designation of Asian American and Pacific Islander changed four times in the 19th century. That is, they were defined at times as white and at other times as not white. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, as designated groups, have been used by whites at different times in history to compete with African American labor. [Paul Kivel, Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice (Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2002), p.141.]


Ethnicity generally refers to classifications of humans that are based on shared country or region of origin, shared history and culture. Examples of different ethnic groups are: Cape Verdean, Haitian, African American (Black); Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese (Asian); Cherokee, Mohawk, Navaho (Native American); Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican (Latino); Polish, Irish, and Swedish (White). More recently, some people have found it useful to think about race as a category created by dominant cultures and imposed on groups not considered part of the dominant culture, and ethnicity as an identity people claim for themselves, based on common language, culture and current, recent or historic places of origin.


Indigeneity is a classification that generally refers to groups of people in a territory they once occupied or owned, and that has since been taken over through conquest, colonialism, and/or genocide (e.g. Maori in territory now defined as New Zealand; Mexicans in territory now defined as Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma; Native American tribes in territory now defined as the United States). The United Nations also provides a definition for the term indigenous, noting that among other attributes, such peoples are ”formally placed under a state structure which incorporates national, social and cultural characteristics alien to their own.” 

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