Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Psychology of Race and Ethnicity

Human Diversity, Geoff W Sutton, 2018

“So, what’s the difference between race and ethnicity?” My friend had a puzzled look as she genuinely wanted an answer. She has been to visit a doctor. The lengthy forms asked for her race and ethnicity in addition to many other bits of personal information. Her visit was this year, 2018, so I’m not talking about an old problem.

   I took a while to respond because psychologists have long debated the issue of race and ethnicity. But I am also aware that census forms ask about race and ethnicity. And published articles report information about participants with terms like Caucasian, African American, Black, and White. People refer to other groups as Latino/a, Hispanic, or Asian and Pacific Islander.

   I’m also puzzled because the term “racist” has been in the news a lot lately. People who make disparaging comments about other people based on where they live or come from are called racists rather than ethnists (not recognized in my spellchecker).

   We see pictures of President Obama with his mother—a “white” American— but he is considered America’s first Black President. We know his father was an African—a Kenyan. Some people identify with their skin color and some with their homeland or that of their ancestors. Sometimes context makes a difference—like a census form, a physician’s office, or a sociological study.

   When working in New Mexico, I was referred to as an Anglo. As an Englishman I did not mind the term but found it strange to call French and German people Anglos because the first sense of the term "Anglo-American" refers to Americans of English descent or can be about nation relationships. It appears the classification is based on language use rather than country of origin.

   I was required to participate in an educational program about Native American cultures. One speaker made a point about Native American spirituality. In my experience, I found a diversity of religious and spiritual beliefs amongst the many Native American tribal cultures. And I learned that many identified religiously as Catholic, Baptist, and Pentecostal. I also met Spanish speakers with different national identities—people from Spain, Puerto Rico, Cuba, El Salvador, and Mexico. Others traced their heritage to the Spanish Colonial period. Some were Americans and some were not.

   Some terms represent sources of pride while others point to prejudice as noted by psychological scientist, Hazel Markus of Stanford University (2008). Markus writes about the race-ethnicity confusion and aims to help us clear things up.

   Markus studies identity. Early in her article she cites studies documenting that racial identity can predict “attitudes, beliefs, motivation, and performance (p. 652).” She also observes “that ethnicity (often called culture) shapes individual experience… (p. 653).”

   When teaching research methods, we teach about the importance of culture. We psychologists, and our colleagues in related fields, are keen to respect diversity. We have not always been so aware of our biases and prejudices as Guthrie (1976) observed—Even the Rat Was White. This fact always drew a laugh from my students.

   As Markus points out, some people use the terms race and ethnicity interchangeably. This was the difficulty I had in answering my friend’s question. In fact, some researchers, who do not mind extra coding work, ask participants to provide their own identity when completing surveys.

Markus makes another important point. We have a history of junk science known as eugenics—the belief that some races are better than others.


Markus proposes two definitions, which are worth considering even if we disagree with her (p. 654).

Race is a dynamic set of historically derived and institutionalized
ideas and practices that (1) sorts people
into ethnic groups according to perceived physical and
behavioral human characteristics; (2) associates differential
value, power, and privilege with these characteristics
and establishes a social status ranking among the
different groups; and (3) emerges (a) when groups are
perceived to pose a threat (political, economic, or cultural)
to each other’s world view or way of life; and/or
(b) to justify the denigration and exploitation (past, current,
or future) of, and prejudice toward, other groups.

Ethnicity is a dynamic set of historically derived and
institutionalized ideas and practices that (1) allows people
to identify or to be identified with groupings of
people on the basis of presumed (and usually claimed)
commonalities including language, history, nation or
region of origin, customs, ways of being, religion,
names, physical appearance, and/or genealogy or ancestry;
(2) can be a source of meaning, action, and identity;
and (3) confers a sense of belonging, pride, and

    We are reminded in both definitions that people in society are the ones defining race and ethnicity. In a sense, each of us deals with what others say when attempting to define our individual identity. We are dealing with both biological characteristics and perceived psychosocial factors linked to those biological characteristics. But we are simultaneously dealing with perceived psychosocial factors linked to perceptions of what other people, supposedly like us, think, feel, and act.

     Have you ever watched a person stop in front of a mirror? Have you ever heard someone comment on a discovery that someone else wore the same special clothes to an event? Have you heard people account for others’ problems by referring to their bad choices rather than circumstances? Many people hold strong beliefs about individual identities and want to stand out from the other 7 billion on earth. We do well to understand people by listening to their individual stories. But the fact is, we share a lot in common with other humans who share common experiences. Up to a limit, we strive for individuality but we also take on identities linked to a cultural group.

     Let’s return to biology. We see physical differences. Our problem comes when we link characteristics like intelligence, motivation, and athleticism to people based upon one or more physical characteristics that some people have in common like skin color, the shape of eyes and noses, and so forth.


Markus proposes five assumptions that can interfere with our views of other people based on race and/or ethnicity. The bold emphases are mine.

1. “Race and ethnicity are not …inherent or essential properties that people or groups have. (p. 661).” Both terms are social constructions. Race descriptions come mostly from those not a part of a particular group. Ethnic descriptions mostly come from people within a group.

2. “Ethnic differences refer to differences in frameworks of meaning, value, and ways of living (practices) that derive through association with a particular ethnic group and are noted, claimed, or appreciated by those associated with the group (p. 661).”

3. “Racial differences, by contrast, refer to differences in societal worth that people outside the group impose and that people associated with the group do not claim and, in fact, often resist. (p. 662)” Labeling groups can merge ideas of race and ethnicity. Governments who label large groups may do so for various reasons that can be tied to benefits and privileges. The U.S. has a Bureau of Indian Affairs. Sometimes “Indians” or Native Americans are treated as one group of people having similar characteristics. Sometimes when a diverse group of people are treated in a certain way by those in a power position, the smaller group responds to the treatment, which ends up further defining the identity of the previously diverse group and the individuals within that group.

4. “If race or ethnicity is salient in a social context (nation, neighborhood, classroom, family), it will influence psychological experience—thoughts, feelings, and actions— even if people are not aware of or do not desire or claim this influence (p. 662)”

     Some friends who currently identify as a sexual minority (appropriately called “coming out”) did not do so when they were in a culture that held negative views toward their identity. They reasonably believed that the culture in which they lived would make them stand out. Nevertheless, even though an important aspect of their identity was not known, the negative remarks had an influence on them.

      Salience is an important concept in social psychology. Observable characteristics that stand out as making a person look different elicit common responses from those not having the characteristic. For example, people who walk with a cane, use a wheelchair, speak with a particular accent, or appear to have a vastly different body size stand out in some contexts. Some salient features result in positive responses and others are decidedly negative.

      It can be instructive to think of the difference it makes when a person has a strong identity but the identity is not salient so they avoid overt mistreatment but cannot escape the internal experience. For example, Jewish women who were fluent in German and possessed blond hair and blue eyes in Nazi occupied Europe were sometimes able to escape death unless they were betrayed. A gay man could escape mistreatment when married to a woman. You can probably think of other examples.

5. Race and ethnicity influences people in direct and indirect ways, which can vary with the cultural contexts they encounter. Each day people enter several cultural contexts or social spaces such as work, school, community club, church, and family. They enter other contexts on different days of a week or periods of life. Some contexts influence people by the direct communication of beliefs and practices but in other contexts, the influence may be subtler. People in the contexts may not always be aware of how they are influencing other persons. (For more on behavior in social spaces see the SCOPES model).


So, what should my friend write on her doctor’s form? I’m tempted to say “it’s none of your business” but why aggravate a clerk who must enter data into a database? Perhaps she could write “other” since there were no checkboxes to use. She could also just use a common label in her culture that she does not find offensive.

If you are creating a survey, think about what you need to know when asking questions about race, ethnicity, gender and so forth. Phrase your items based on the terms your audience would use and include options for mixed and other categories.

Meanwhile, I hope all of us can avoid making false assumptions that demean, degrade, and hurt people who have been designated as belonging to an unfavorable group. And we can take a positive stance by pointing out the false assumptions of others when they use degrading language.


Intelligence is one factor that has been considered a result of both biology and life experience. Unfortunately, intelligence has been associated with race. Counselors use intelligence tests but often deal with sensitive issues during interpretation of low scores. See Applied Statistics: Concepts for Counselors.

I encourage researchers who create surveys to think carefully about the words they use to collect data about race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and so forth. See Creating Surveys.

There are lots of photos of Barack Obama with his mother.

An interesting story of mistaking a Jewish girl for an "ideal Aryan" is the case of Hessy Taft.

CREATING SURVEYS is available on AMAZON as an eBook and Paperback.


Guthrie, R. V. (1976). Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology. New York: Harper & Row.

Markus, H. R. (2008). Pride, prejudice, and ambivalence: Toward a unified theory of race and ethnicity. American Psychologist63(8), 651-670. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.63.8.651

Sutton, G. (2017). Creating surveys: Evaluating programs & reading research. Springfield, MO: Sunflower.

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