Module 1. The Significance of Ethnic Studies


There are two myths or ideas about race. The first suggests people inherit physical characteristics distinguishing race. The second insinuates that one race is superior to others or that one “pure” race exists.

Scientific research mapping of the human genome system found that humans are homogenous (Henslin, 2011). Race is truly an arbitrary label that has become part of society’s culture with no justifiable evidence to support differences in physical appearance to substantiate the idea that there are a variety of human species. Scientific data finds only one human species making up only one human race. Evidence shows physical differences in human appearance including skin color are a result of human migration patterns and adaptions to the environment (Jablonski, 2012). These data underline the fact that the concept of race is socially constructed.


Group of multi-ethnic students with books and documents
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Society chooses to define the basis and classification of physical characteristics. Racial terms classify and stratify people by appearance and inherently assign individuals and groups as inferior or superior in society based on their physical traits (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). This classification and social status of race and racial groups change over time and varies from one society to another as viewpoints, perspectives, and knowledge adapts and evolves. People use physical characteristics to identify, relate, and interact with one another.




To understand the influence of the atmosphere, environment, and adaptation on skin color.


Watch the TED-Ed video Breaking the Illusion of Skin Color presented by Nina Jablonski. Answer the following questions about skin color and adaptation:

  1. Why does Dr. Jablonski study NASA satellite data?
  2. Why and how did lightly pigmented skin develop?
  3. What are the potential health problems for darkly pigmented people living in low-UV areas of the world?
  4. According to Dr. Jablonski, where did Charles Darwin go wrong?


In this book, we will discuss and use the terms race and racial group interchangeably. Even though the concept of race is not biologically sound, people do identify with the term and are often grouped based on the socially constructed concept of race. In reality, race and racial group classification influences people’s life experiences and choices (Farley, 2010; Winant, 1994; Taylor, 1998; Duster, 2001).

The social process of recognizing and defining racial characteristics, labels, and groups is known as racial formation (Omi & Winant, 1994). This process solidifies how race is understood and is propelled by political interests. The results directly impact the social and political consequences of people’s lives, and it is the primary reason society recognizes race as an important classification and why its definition and meaning transform over time (Farley, 2010). Powerful and influential people use race to create divisions or bring people together, whichever serves their interests.


Man spraying woman mural
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Ethnicity refers to the cultural characteristics related to ancestry and heritage. Ethnicity describes shared culture such as group practices, values, and beliefs recognized by people in and the group itself (Griffiths et al., 2015). People who identify with an ethnic group share common cultural characteristics (i.e., nationality, history, language, religion, etc.). Ethnic groups select rituals, customs, ceremonies, and other traditions to help preserve shared heritage (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012).

Lifestyle and other identity characteristics such as geography and region influence how we adapt our ethnic behaviors to fit the context, environment, or setting in which we live. Culture is also central in determining how humans grow and develop including diet, food preferences, and cultural traditions promoting physical activities, abilities, well-being, and sport (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). A college professor of Mexican decent living in Central California will project different behaviors than someone of the same ethnic culture who is a housekeeper in Las Vegas, Nevada. Differences in profession, social class, and region will influence each person’s lifestyle, physical composition, and health though both may identify and affiliate themselves as Mexican.

The ethnicity of parents largely determines the ethnicity of offspring through socialization. Ethnicity is a social characteristic, like race, that is passed from generation to generation (Farley, 2010). For example, the California natives of the San Joaquin Valley known as Yokuts, meaning people, were divided into true tribes each with their own name, language, and territory (Tachi Yokut Tribe, 2021). Learning cultural traits and characteristics are important for developing identity and ethnic group acceptance. Cultural socialization occurs throughout one’s life course.

Not all people see themselves as belonging to an ethnic group or view ethnic heritage as important to their identity. People who do not identify with an ethnic group either have no distinct cultural background because their ancestors come from a variety of cultural groups and offspring have not maintained a specific culture, instead have a blended culture, or they lack awareness about their ethnic heritage completely (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). It may be difficult for some people to feel a sense of solidarity or association with any specific ethnic group because they do not know where their cultural practices originated and how their cultural behaviors adapted over time.

What is your ethnicity? Is your ethnic heritage very important, somewhat important, or not important in defining who you are? Why?


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer Copyright © 2022 by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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