How Race and Ethnicity have Shaped Society over the Years


Race is described as grouping of human beings based on their physical or biological traits shared amongst them for example skin complexion or the facial features and it’s linked to biology whereas ethnicity refers to the state of belonging to a social group that has a common national, religious or cultural tradition. The terms race and ethnicity have been severally used interchangeably to mean one and the same thing although the two terms differ in meaning. While one can deny their ethical group, they cannot deny their race (Hall, S.1986). Some people might be identified to be in the same race for example white their ethnicity might fall on different groups like Irish or Japanese. And the significance we give to these things is a choice that humans/societies make consciously and unconsciously, over time.

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Another example on race is on how people with blue hair or red hair (biological characteristic) are not said to be in the same race as with the people with green eyes or black hair. In this sense the skin color is of major effect on ones race as compared to their eye or hair color. Year in year out race and ethnicity have been used to classify people into groups that the society terms they fit best and this process of putting them in groups is called social stratification which is a social concept (Van den Berghe et al, 1978). In this study race and ethnicity will be critically analyzed and their impacts in the society evaluated .The study will explore how race and ethnicity has shaped society over the years to the modern day.

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Social stratification

Social stratification is the process by which society groups its people according to socioeconomic factors like their social status, wealth, ethnicity, gender and occupation. According to conflict theory which was purported by Karl Marx, social stratification exists as a results of the have-nots in the society being looked down and constantly discriminated. Race and ethnicity have been used to group people in the society since the 16th century and according to W.E.B Du Bois this grouping was a result of colonization for the people’s identity be known by the superior race that is the whites.

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Race and Ethnicity

Race was first introduced in 1450-1500 derived from a French word “race” which means lineage or breed. In the 1700 when colonization was spreading and Africans were being traded as slaves in the European the word race was altered to mean place of origin of a person thus sorting people by skin color. This led to philosophers and anthropologists in the 18-19 centuries to state and even claim that a person’s race determined their social caste in the society. The blacks were considered to be inferior as they were slaves and the whites believed that their complexion gave them superiority over the other races. The whites believed that their skin complexion and their facial appearances meant they were more human, intelligent, moral and capable more than the rest of the other skin colors. Unlike race, ethnicity dates back to around 1765-75 the word being derived from Latin word “ethnos” which means nation/people. The earliest use of ethnic in English was as a noun for a “heathen” or “pagan.” At that time, ethnic was also used colloquially to refer to those who originated from nations that weren’t Christian or Jewish. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that ethnicity was used to refer to social groups of a common ancestry and shared culture. But by the mid-1960s, the adjective ethnic, in white mainstream culture, did develop xenophobic connotations: ethnic came to mean “foreign, or un-American.”

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The social constructionist approach by the social scientist highlighted that race lacked biological support as it was the main factor resulting in political inequality to the races considered inferior ( W.E.B. Du Bois ). The social scientists approach shared the views that race should be stopped so as to stop inequality among people and that race is but a belief pf people in everyday life and this causes social effects in in life. Historically, determining differences between groups was important in everyday life example in assigning identity to people based on kinship. However, the idea of racialization came to classify groups of people for the purpose of political separation or domination e.g. non-European were racialized as non-white people while African groups in slave trade, Africans in South Africa, and Roma groups were socially excluded in Europe based on their race (Jiwani Y et al., 2011).

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In the first decades of the 20th century anthropologists and psychologists and sociologists debated the topic of inequality and they succeeded in educating their friend’s scientists to shun away from racism and instead offer equal chances and rights to people regardless of their skin color. With time anthropologists joined them to support that racism is just an idea and argued to get rid of racism as it’s a myth. A debate arose which consisted of two teams, splitters who argued that races existed against Lumpers who argued that races do not exist. This debate took three decades before they settled on the fact that neither the biological or genetic race exists. Scientists then tried to establish a way to classify people in groups without using their physical appearance of facial characteristics. “The import of these debates has been to show that ideas of race are time and space specific” quoted Holloway in the year 2005.

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Science took a milestone affecting races when scientists in the 18th and 19th century scientists developed systems for intelligence and criminality by measuring the skull and calculating the size of the brain. People found to have deformity like a smaller brain were said to later tend to be criminals, so urged Professor Lombroso. These kinds of scientific advancements and processes equated physicality with morality and with superiority since certain physical features were seen to make individuals ‘more’ or ‘less’ moral and civilized, and worked to justify the inferiority of some races and the superiority of others. This kind of work was often used to justify slavery. This kind of classification and dehumanization is now predominantly regarded scientific racism.

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With this information available, the Nazis led by Hitler in the road to “racial purity” took it upon themselves to kill these disabled people, homosexuals and Jews. Influenced by the racial science advantment, the Nazis measured pupils noses and skull so as to see if they fir the Aryan race physical features then the children were killed (Pulido L. 2017).

With the discrimination that the “inferior races” go through, the media adds salt to the injury by publicly discriminating and bullying them on the social platforms. An example of this is when a black climate activist Vanessa Nkate was cropped out of a picture she took with white colleagues and when a gypsy woman’s wedding was featured in a magazine with a gruesome title that read, “My big fat gypsy wedding…” and her photos and weight criticized (Harrison & F. V.1995).This results to double consciousness which Du Bois described it as the state of our identity being based on how people perceive us and peoples relationship to other groups in the society. Double consciousness affected the people that had two ethnicity group example the black Americans. In such a situation no matter the percentage of the black ancestry one was always considered a black person and the state identified them as black. This was the “one-drop” rule.

Racialization identifies as the way particular racial or ethnic identities become ascribed to particular groups in terms of their skin color or their way of life although most times, these groups don’t necessarily identify themselves in this way. If we take race and ethnicity as a social construct, a key concern for sociologists then becomes the process of ‘racialization’ (Fulcher and Scott, 2011). A good example of this is the Chinatown in London which started as a business for several immigrants of different ethnicity but they all started to sell the Chinese cuisine and the town has since then grown to bra major tourist destination area.


This study shows that race is a politics play and a contentious issues that the whites have been using over the years to make the blacks feel inferior and deny them their rights although the issue of racialization remains in the modern day. It can also be noted that race interacts with ethnicity, class and gender.

The black people with support from a few people that don’t believe in races have joined to fight against discrimation as a result of race which has birthed several movements to fight against racism to the black community. It’s important to note than on ethnicity and identity, two ethnic groups can share some ideologies or opinions and this should not make any of the ethnics any less authentic.

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