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Definitions of Race and Ethnicity in the United States

February 24, 2022
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WRITTEN BY Dr. Brittany Whitley and Dr. Jill Barnas

Race and ethnicity are distinct social constructs that are typically based on physical (race, skin color) features and cultural (ethnicity) characteristics, including national origin and ancestry. While federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on race, color and national origin, these terms are often used interchangeably and rarely defined. The most widely understood definition of race and ethnicity was developed by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and used in the U.S. Census. Because categorizing race and ethnicity is subjective and loosely defined in statute, there is ambiguity as to whether or not certain practices (e.g., hair discrimination) constitute discrimination based on race or ethnicity. 


  • Race is subjectively determined and based on physical characteristics that are commonly associated with a particular group of individuals. Ethnicity is commonly linked to cultural expression and identity. 
  • The way that governments and individuals define and report racial and/or ethnic groups changes over time. For example, there were limited opportunities to record multiple races in government surveys prior to 2000.
  • Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on race, although legal interpretations of race vary, including whether or not discriminatory action is defined by disparate intent or impact on an individual or group of individuals. 
  • Fourteen states and many cities have implemented the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act, which prohibits school and workplace discrimination based on natural hair textures and/or protective hairstyles. The exact language varies by state, although most expand their definition of race to include “traits historically associated with race”, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.


This Note has been updated. See the previous version (published April 2021) here.

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