Ethno-racial identity and cultural power
Geographers at Work: race, ethnicity, and youth.

Defining race and ethnicity

A number of students used the learning assessments this week to express confusion or puzzlement about how to distinguish race from ethnicity, or, just to express frustration with the lack of clear distinctions.

We can discuss these terms broadly, like we did in class and like Anderson does (pages 173-175), but, in practice, there are no clear rules or consistent understandings about what these terms mean. Some people in some places may use these words interchangeably, while others in other places may use them to clearly mean different things. How people express these kinds of differences may also vary with the dominant language in a place. "Race" and "ethnicity" are words that have certain uses and meanings in English, but in other places, and in other languages, different words may be used to express the same kinds of distinctions. And even in English-speaking places, these words can be used in different ways and with different emphases, e.g., the predominance of "race" as a concept in the U.S.

The following articles provide examples that demonstrate these contextual differences. For any or all of the articles, think about the distinctions people are making, or are compelled to make, and why they matter for where they are. Think, particularly, about how different people in different places intersect group identities in particular ways.

  • Lia Beck at Bustle writes about being "biracial," comparing her experience in the U.S. with the experience of Ariana Miyamoto, Miss Japan 2015, who has an African-American father and a Japanese mother.
  • At Quartz, Tanvi Misra writes about how family road trips in the U.S. may be different experiences for white families and families of color, especially families of recent immigrants.
  • Similarly, at The Atlantic, Amanda Machado writes about the experience of "traveling while Latinx."
  • This piece, also by Tanvi Misra, but at CityLab, breaks down the question "Where are you from" from the perspective of people of color in the U.S.

(And for historical perspective in the U.S., too, go back to the Vox video on race).


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 McKenzie Brown

I read Tanvi Misra's piece on the question "Where are you from?" and it's often negative connotations. It made me think of a hilarious video ( by Ken Tanaka based around this question. I completely agree with the article and think asking that question is all about context. If it would fit into regular conversation and you're sharing origin stories and are genuinely interested, then yeah, ask it. However, if that question is even annoying for me while living in my white privilege, I can only imagine the way it would make me feel if I wasn't. Don't ask if it doesn't fit in regular conversation.

Matt Herbert

McKenzie, funny video! I think the man asking the "Where are you from" question is exactly what Tanvi Misra is talking about. It seems like an innocent question, but when asked in the wrong context or without much thought, the question can be construed as inappropriate or rude. I find that I often times want to ask this question to generally learn more about someone, but I have to make sure I am asking it at the right time and place.


These articles always put things in a different perspective. I don't think it's always the best choice to ask people where they are from, but at the same time, if that's a friend I feel like it is more of an appropriate question, compared to asking a stranger where they are from. Also I think it's a huge thing for people to understand the difference between race and ethnicity in general. People you even ask a majority of the time don't understand the question they are answering.

Yifan Lu

I read the article "This piece" by Tanvi Misra. I am an international student, so there will always be someone ask me " Where are you from". For me, I think I don't mind this. I agree with that "just as with any other fragment of language, context matters. " In some situations, maybe asking " where are you from" are impolite. But I think most of time, people can have some really great conversations after asking this question.

Jiayue Wang

In the article biracial, Lia Beck has an African-American father and a Japanese mother. In American, people just assume her as an American, will not assume her from another language country. However, in Japan, she has been seen as an foreign people, and asked "who are you?" and being required talking specific .Actually, the biracial don't like the question "who are you?" but the race and Ethnicity question can be understand. American is an country with variety ethnic, so people will not care about the specific answer of where you are from, but in Asian, most of the country consist of one main ethnic and less national minority, so the biracial will receive more concern from the local people.

John Stone

I feel like it's interesting to learn about peoples backgrounds, but one should find an appropriate time to ask about it instead of just out of the blue. The CityLab article mentions that context matters, and I feel like that's true for just about everything. Bringing it up to someone you know is way more appropriate than asking a stranger. Other factors could matter as well, such as how you word the question or its relevance to the current conversation, just try not to be rude or snarky about it. People just need to learn when it's appropriate to ask things like "where are you from."


After reading the article by Tanvi Misra I realized I had never put nearly as much thought into that topic as others. To me, the question “where are you from” is just a way to get to know someone, or have something to say to someone you don’t know well if you are an awkward person such as myself. I would be interested to hear more about why some people do or don’t like being asked this question. I understand if the question in context seems either racially motivated or rude, however I don’t think these are usually the diving factors behind a question like this. Being a white female without an interesting family history, this questions also holds a lot less meaning for myself and because of this my views on the subject can be very different than another.

Moe Tobiyama

I read the article about being "Biracial", which reported about Miss Japan. I'm strongly impressed with her opinions. Actually, in Japan, if I find someone who are not 100% Japanese, I often see them as foreigners or "Hafu", and feel different culture for them. And if I have opportunities to speak with them, I asked " where are you from?". I didn’t notice until now that this idea sometimes makes them feel uncomfortable. But I think it's natural to think that they are not Japanese because we raised up in surrounding which has only one ethnicity and race even in school. Recently, there are lots of visitors from all over the world in famous places like Tokyo and Kyoto, and we see many people from Europe, Arabia, China who are very similar with Japanese, and so on. So I guess people’s way of thinking about ethnicity and race will change gradually.

Christian Hammerich

I agree with Halie, it's not always the best to ask people where they are from if they are a complete stranger. Asking someone where they are from can be viewed in different ways. I use it as a way to get to know someone better.

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