What's in a name? Race and Ethnicity in the United States
By Janis Prince Inniss
Recently I departed from my custom of styling my own hair, and tried to find a beauty salon for a new hairstyle. I needed someone who could style my hair texture, so I called nearby salons and asked whether they style black hair (even though I recognize that race is a social construct and that hair textures vary widely). I spoke with several stylists that day and they all used the term “ethnic hair” in response to my inquiries.
- A few nights ago, as I was watching an interior decorating television show, a woman described the bright blue color of her bedroom walls as “ethnic color”.
- On a recent broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show television show, Dr. Mehmet Oz made the following statement: “African Americans get colon cancer earlier and it’s more aggressive when they get it which means they die more often from it.”
- I was filling out an Institutional Review Board form lately and was faced with the following question: “Estimate how many Other/Non Hispanic or Latino participants you plan to enroll in this study.”
These incidents are examples of how confused we are about race and race-related concepts, and are probably indicative of the complex emotions we have about these issues. Are race and ethnicity interchangeable? In this posting—and others in the future—I’ll try to explain and define these sometimes confusing terms.
Ethnicity captures historically based practices related to culture such as language, custom, and ancestry; Irish Americans and Chinese Americans are examples of ethnic groups. We might think of ethnicity as a reflection of what we learned growing up that makes us culturally different from others. People who are of the same ethnicity share a common identity based on their values and norms.
Race, however, is tied to visual cues based on physical characteristics such as skin color by which we rank people. In decoding the human genome, scientists have found the DNA of any two people are 99.9 percent identical (watch the Nova video to learn more about this) and that there is “no scientific basis for race”, notwithstanding that about 10 percent of the genetic code that does vary can differentiate people by race. As I discussed in one of my previous posts, race is a social construct.
Keep in mind, to say that race is a social construct does not negate the very real impact race and racism has on the lives of people in a race conscious society. One indication that race is a social construct is that is defined differently around the globe: A person who is considered black in America may be considered white in Brazil, for instance.
Regardless of what genetic evidence may be found to distinguish races, given that we live in a social world, it will always be a complicated to task to tease apart the societal contributions to behavioral and physical differences. As a genetic researcher told the New York Times:
I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life researching how much genetic variability there is between populations,” said Dr. David Altshuler, director of the Program in Medical and Population Genetics at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. “But living in America, it is so clear that the economic and social and educational differences have so much more influence than genes. People just somehow fixate on genetics, even if the influence is very small.
Let’s return to the examples I mentioned at the beginning. What did stylists mean by “ethnic hair”? Everyone has ethnicity, although the importance and choice of ethnic identities vary for many reasons. Hair cannot have ethnicity; only a person can. In its natural state, the hair textures of black people vary along the continuum of loose to tight curls, and although I’m no hair stylist, based on observation, other hair types also vary but are naturally straighter.
I’m left to assume that ethnic hair means black hair and the use of “ethnic hair” is meant to convey some sense of sophistication or sensitivity. What are some other interpretations? And what could “ethnic color” mean? Color certainly cannot have ethnicity, although some ethnic and racial groups are associated with bright colors. I think these two examples indicate the mistaken perception by many people that ethnicity applies only to “people of color”.
With regard to Dr. Oz’s comment, to whom is he referring when he talks about African Americans and colon cancer? What, if anything, does his statement have to do with me and with my immediate family, given that none of us are African American, although we are of African descent? Are my relatives who watch The Oprah Winfrey Show from their homes in Antigua and Guyana at risk? Do I need to be concerned because I reside in the United States and am of African descent?
Does Dr. Oz’s statement imply that there is a genetic link between African Americans and colon cancer and does that link apply to people of African descent all over the world? What is the relationship between early cancer detection rates and lifestyle factors of African Americans? Is the higher mortality rate for African Americans related to screenings being done when colorectal cancer has progressed to advanced stages when treatment options are diminished? And why might this be the case?
Perhaps African Americans face socioeconomic barriers to care, such as a lack of health insurance. Dr. Oz’s comment sparks this long list of questions because the term African American is both racial and ethnic; it is a description of ethnicity, but is commonly used in the U.S. as an updated racial category instead of “black”. This example also highlights some of the confusion that arises when information about apparent race differences is reported without an explanation for the root cause of such differences.
What would you say the question on the Institutional Review Board form tells us about race and ethnicity in the U.S.?