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The Tilford Group

What do we mean by Race, Ethnicity and Diversity?


First of all, it is important to think of race in two different ways:

A.  Biological/genetic race: It is obvious to anyone that we all have different physical features, and that those seem to be generally distributed around the world by geographical region.  Anthropologists’ original notions of race were based on these differences and the regions that they represent.  Of course, in each of these geographical regions there are also people of other races.  At the same time, DNA researchers have demonstrated that the differences between all of us are indeed minute–we share more than 99% of our genetic makeup.

As Europeans began to colonize the world in the 1500s, they came to classify people into three or more “racial” groups: Causasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid were fairly standardized by the late 1700s.  However, further exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries revealed that this system was too simple to be useful.  In an effort to reconcile the theory of evolution with the observed variations among the world's populations, some anthropologists developed a new system of racial classification during the 1950s. They divided human beings into large categories called geographical races, collections of populations that exhibited similar characteristics.  But they do not begin to explain why people of different races can have the same skin color, similar facial features but skin of different colors, and other physical features that cross "racial" classifications.  In the fields of biology and anthropology, "biological" race has fallen out of favor as a way of classifying people.  In the late 20th century studies of blood group patterns, other genetic systems and later of DNA could find no correlation with racial groups. Indeed, “modern research has concluded that the concept of race has no biological validity” (Google “Race | Human.”  Encylopaedia Brittanica Online.  This website is an intriguing, wide-ranging series of brief articles about the meanings of race and ethnicity around the world and throughout history.)

B. Race as a social construct: It is also true that in many, but not all, cultures physical appearance does carry with it social meanings that can be either negative or positive.  Socially constructed racial distinctions develop over long periods of time, just as do social perceptions of religion, language, family structures, or physical or mental challenges.  They are learned behaviors, not genetic traits.

     1) Race as a negative social construct: physical appearance is used to discriminate, to exclude, to exploit, to abuse, and/or to profile, as in educational systems, traffic and criminal systems, housing and banking/mortgage lending, and medical care.  Physical appearance becomes a way of allowing particular groups of people to feel that they are the only “true” citizens, that they are “better than” others who are made to feel “less than” full citizens.  Socially constructed race has had unfortunate consequences throughout world history.  In the U. S. it has been used to justify the isolation, displacement and even extermination of American Indian/Indigenous nations and the institution of slavery in the 1700s and 1800s; the segregation of African Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, and Asian Americans in the 1800s and 1900s; the widespread disparagement of the "savage Mexican race" who stood in the way of "Manifest Destiny," our westward expansion, and the taking of the northern third of Mexico in 1848; and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. 

We who are alive today did not create our system of racial and ethnic discrimination in the U. S., but we did inherit it.  We cannot escape it because we are all embedded in it and it in us. In the U. S. we have made great progress, but there is still much to learn. Conditioning ourselves away from it as individuals takes time and dedication–it is tantamount to personal development–but the unending journey of discovery itself is most worthwhile.

     2) Race as a positive social construct: one’s physical appearance is taken as a matter of pride, as a part of one’s psychological identity.  Note that in any particular culture socially constructed race can be a positive symbol for one group at the same time that it is a negative marker for another group.  In the most egalitarian societies, every group is accepted as equally valuable and deserving of participation.  Such societies are rare indeed, but they provide models to emulate.

Race can also be a means of enriching everyone’s learning process, when we seek out people whom we perceive as being different from ourselves as a way of finding out about the world, a strategy, in short, for personal growth and development.  But note that we do not learn from "biological" race, but rather from the possible cultures contained in a particular “racial” group.  We all learn from each others’ ethnicities. 

This is what we mean by the educational benefits of a diverse learning environment.   It is the way that national and international corporations and public and private agencies have structured their project teams for centuries, secure in the knowledge that it is the best possible way to learn, as noted by the U. S. philosopher John Dewey over a century ago.  Dewey advocated for collaborative learning as a strategy for eliciting the greatest variety and richness of ideas.  Anyone who has watched an American Indian tribal council or an Israeli kibbutz in action knows that the concept is not unique to Dewey nor to American corporations.

At the same time, the words "race" and "racism" can be exclusive as well as inclusive.  For African Americans, who experienced the imposition of early European concepts of race in their colonial projects as a way of justifying slavery, the social construction of race has been a means to take back control of the word on their own terms, and a source of pride and social cohesion.  Cornel West's 1993 book "Race Matters" explains in compelling ways the consequences of U. S. history and its implications for today.

But for other U. S. multicultural groups, "race" may not be a primary, nor even a deciding, factor in the creation of their social and individual identities.  Nationality and ethnicity may be a more compelling factor.

Latino/as, for example, include all "racial" groups in the more than thirty nations where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken, and yet are more closely bound by ties established during the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires.  Spain and Portugal themselves already had highly multicultural populations long before they became nations due to their location between Europe and Africa.  In the Americas, as a result of encounters with many different indigenous peoples, as well as later immigration from many parts of the world, there are Latino/as of every possible national and ethnic group.  Historical circumstances, national origins and ethnicity thus link them together with a common language and some overarching cultural norms.

This is equally true for Asian Americans, who come from nations as different as Turkey, Lebanon, Russia, India, China and Japan.  And it is true, as well, for recent U. S. immigrants from the many nations and tribal affiliations in Africa.  Religion, not "race," unites Christians, Jews and Muslims from around the world.  Our indigenous/native peoples share part of their identity from their common cultural history in this hemisphere going back millennia, but also consider their specific tribal affiliation to be a key component of their identity formation.  Discrimination directed against Jews is not "racism," but anti-Semitism.  Discrimination directed against Mexican Americans is not "racism," but is based on national origin.

So when we use the term "racist" to characterize all forms of discrimination, bigotry and verbal and physical violence that target multicultural groups, we perpetuate unfortunate historical concepts as well as exclude those for whom "race" does has never defined them.  At the same time, we dilute and diminish the urgency of specific projects like Black Lives Matter where socially constructed race is a key concern.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, has helped us discover the many meanings of these issues to telling effect in seventeen books and fourteen award-winning TV documentaries.  The most recent of these is Finding Your Roots on PBS.  He uses "a team of genealogists to reconstruct the paper trail left behind by our ancestors and the world's leading geneticists to decode our DNA and help us travel thousands of years into the past to discover the origins of our earliest forebears," through his research into the lives of a series of well-known guests.  Highly recommend.


Ethnicity refers to cultural features used to classify people into groups or categories considered to be significantly different from others. Commonly recognized American ethnic groups include, among others, African Americans,  American Indians, Latino/as, Chinese Americans, European/Anglo Americans, Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans.  In some cases, ethnicity involves a loose group identity with few or no cultural traditions in common. This is the case with many Irish and German Americans, for example, who often manifest minimal symbolic ties to the nationality of their ancestors: some foods, “ethnic” clothing on festival days, a smattering of language. In contrast, some U.S. ethnic groups are coherent subcultures with a shared language or dialect and body of tradition. Newly arrived immigrant groups often fit this pattern, but so do groups that have been here for centuries: Cajuns in Louisiana, African Americans in the Southeast, Mexican Americans in the Southwest, Japanese Americans in the Pacific Northwest, Jews in the Northeast.

It is important not to confuse the term minority with ethnic group. Ethnic groups may be either a minority or a majority in a population, and that has nothing to do with “who was here first.”  Whether a group is a minority or a majority also is not an absolute fact but depends on the perspective of group members as well as of those not in the group. For instance, in some towns and cities along the southern border states of the U.S., Mexican Americans are the overwhelming majority population and have been so since the 1600s, and control most of the important social and political institutions, but are still defined by state and national governments as a minority.  American Indians, here long before any of the rest of us, are considered to be a minority in the U. S.  Some ethnic groups and entire nations are more culturally homogeneous than others as well; thus, they contain fewer “minorities.”  Sweden and Korea are two possible examples.

For many people, however, ethnic categorization still implies a connection between biological inheritance and culture. They believe that biological inheritance determines much of cultural identity. If this were true, for instance, cultural features, such as language ability, including ethnic and regional variations like Black English and other types of code-switching between English and other languages (Spanish, Arabic, Navajo, Quechua, Chinese, Swahili), musical ability or religion would stem from genetic inheritance. We now know that this is not true--"biological" race and culture are not the same thing. The pioneering English anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor may have been the first European scientist to understand this fact and to state it in print. In 1871, he wrote that cultural traits are entirely learned.  Babies can be placed into another culture shortly after birth and can be thoroughly enculturated, regardless of their skin color, body shape, and other presumed "racial" features.  We see this all the time with international adoptions.  Two women can have genetically African DNA, but they may not speak the same language nor share any other significant cultural patterns due to the fact that they were brought up in very different African societies. An African American woman in the U. S. descended from slaves brought from Sénégal may be far more similar culturally to her African American or even her Anglo American neighbors than to a West African woman from Sénégal, even though both may recognize cultural patterns of clothing, dance and food from that area.  Their religion, home, music and workplace will be most likely be quite different.  Americans who maintain or seek out very close ties to their historical region of origin, on the other hand, may demonstrate profound similarities to those of their countries of origin. Heritage study abroad can be a powerful means of reconnecting with such ties. All of this is true for all U. S. ethnic groups, not just those of us who are multicultural. (Google “Ethnicity vs. Race”)


A much broader category which describes interactions between groups is that of diversity.   Here, as in the other categories, mere presence in a group does not imply that there is true interaction nor identification.  We often speak of diversity in situations where African Americans, U. S. Latino/as, Asian Americans, American Indians and/or Anglo Americans interact with each other, for example.  But there can be tremendous diversity within an ethnic group as well, as evidenced by the many ethnicities of Anglo and African Americans who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast: urban professionals, rural Cajuns who play Zydeco music of French influence, day laborers,  jazz musicians of African, Anglo American, and Latino/a influence, and Haitians--not to mention Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans who are both African Americans and Latino/as.  U. S. Latino/as, Asian Americans and American Indians can also be very different from each other based on their national origins, cultural histories, and identities: Cubans and Mexicans, Lebanese and Chinese, Navajos and Cherokees.

The media, seemingly accustomed to the idea that there are (only) two sides to every story, oversimplified and reduced the complex Katrina situation to black and white, and only a few commentators came to realize that, in addition to the multiple African American and Anglo American ethnic groups, tens of thousands of other Latinos, Asians and American Indians (and every possible combination) were also displaced.  Media coverage was often brutally racist, which in turn demonstrated how in times of great stress we revert to our culture’s social construction of race despite our very real progress toward a more integrated and equitable nation.  It always lurks just beneath the surface, blinding us to the realities that make up our society, blinding us to the truths of our democracy. Social media have recently revealed the killings and other forms of verbal and physical violence unfortunately directed against and by people from all races and ethnicities that alert us to the work that we still need to do

Diversity can also refer to other categories that divide and unite us: gender, education, religion, sexual orientation and gender identification, physical and mental challenges, social class, rural vs. urban, north and south, national and international.

But when corporations and governmental and private agencies discuss diversity, they are most often interested in creating project teams by bringing together people from different ethnic and gender groups.   This is true whether the team is working on recruitment and retention, design of products and services, marketing, or even image.  They have known for centuries that their bottom line or their effectiveness as a service agency depends on the richest possible variety of participants, in order to draw out the richest possible range of ideas and strategies in the shortest amount of time.   Our educational system has lagged far behind the professional world in recognizing these benefits, but we are beginning to catch up.  K-State’s Tilford Group, chaired by Dr. Juanita McGowan, has been a powerful force in our university’s progress.  See the “Multicultural Competencies” on this web site that resulted from several years of consultation with some of the nation’s top corporations and agencies as well as student and faculty focus groups on campus in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

This is what we mean when we talk of the educational benefits of a diverse learning environment, whether on the job, in the residence halls, on a university committee, or in class.  This is the goal toward which we must work: diversity not to divide and exclude, but to learn and grow together.

Fear is all that holds us back.  But on the other side of fear there lies a rich, wondrous world of discovery and possibilities that we cannot even imagine from this side.

Give yourself a gift.  Open yourself up to the richness of diversity as a learning strategy.

Doug Benson