Outcome: Race, Ethnicity, and Discrimination

Define and differentiate between race, ethnicity, majority groups/minority groups, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination

While many students first entering a sociology classroom are accustomed to conflating the terms “race,” “ethnicity,” and “minority group,” these three terms have distinct meanings for sociologists, although they might be used interchangeably in general conversation. The idea of race refers to superficial physical differences that a particular society considers significant, while ethnicity describes shared culture, ancestry, nationality, or even religion.

In other words, a physical marker such as skin color, eye shape, or cheekbones when paired with social significance, could become a social cue for inclusion in a certain group. An example of this would be the classroom “experiment” often referred to as the “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes” exercise that was created by Jane Elliott in the 1970s.

When a physical characteristic becomes imbued with social significance, and we begin to treat people with that physical marker in a certain way, it becomes a social construct. This means that it becomes something that everyone agrees to, because it seems natural or normal to believe it as truth, even though it is not true.

The term “minority groups” describe groups that are subordinate, or that lack power in society regardless of skin color or country of origin. When we hear the word “minority” we often think of a group with a smaller number of members than the dominant group. But in some cases the “minority” is not a numerical minority. Women have been treated as a minority even though they outnumber men in the U.S. What makes a minority group is whether those in that particular group are disadvantaged in some way by the dominant group, such as when women are paid less than men for the same job even though they may have similar qualifications and experience as their male co-workers.

In modern U.S. history, the elderly might be considered a minority group due to a diminished status that results from popular prejudice and discrimination against them. Ten percent of nursing home staff admitted to physically abusing an elderly person in the past year, and 40 percent admitted to committing psychological abuse (World Health Organization 2011). In this section, we will focus on understanding race and ethnicity and the distinctions between commonly confused words like prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination.

What you’ll learn to do:

  • Understand the difference between race and ethnicity
  • Define a majority group (dominant group) and a minority group (subordinate group)
  • Explain the difference between stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and racism
  • View racial tension through a sociological lens

Learning Activities

The learning activities for this section include:

  • Reading: Introduction to Race and Ethnicity
  • Reading: Racial, Ethnic, and Minority Groups
  • Reading: Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination
  • Video: Race and Ethnicity
  • Self-Check: Race and Ethnicity

Supplemental Material

Watch the video, Define Amercian: Jose’s Story, by Define America. Consider the example of Jose Antonio Vargas, who was born in the Philippines and moved to the United States at age 12, became a successful journalist, but later discovered that he was an undocumented immigrant.