Understanding Student Identity: Diving into Race, Ethnicity and Culture

What constitutes identity?  From one community to another, and from one school campus to another, we are likely to find widely varying explanations. 

Conversations around identity are typically assigned bank of related vocabulary.  Often, we employ these these words – race, heritage, ethnicity, nationality, and culture- interchangeably. 

 This is problematic, and often muddles our concept of (and ability to recognize, embrace and value) personal identity.   It makes it easier to lump human distinctions into tidy categories based on a series of check boxes. But the reality is, It’s just not that simple. 

Race is vastly different than ethnicity, and heritage does not necessarily indicate culture.  Fortunately, getting these concepts straight is not highly complicated, either.  It just requires that we have a common working language.  Let’s get to it.


First, let’s return to our vocabulary: Race, Ethnicity, Nationality, Heritage and Culture.

To organize these concepts in our heads, we can think of the elements as concentric circles. When I’m working with folks in a professional development setting, those pieces fit together like this:

For staff Professional Development information on this topic please visit  HERE . @ElYaadouriELD for Refugee Classroom 2019.

For staff Professional Development information on this topic please visit HERE. @ElYaadouriELD for Refugee Classroom 2019.

Let’s first look at the concept of “race” within the larger outside circle.  Here’s the definition we’ll use for race: the composite perception and classification of an individual based upon physical appearance and assumed geographic ancestry; a mechanism used to facilitate social hierarchies.  

Race, then, is an invented construct designed to enhance the social maneuverability of some and diminish that of others. If we look to our human history, we can see that the concept of race has been effective in achieving this aim.  But the concept is overtly simplistic.  Essentially, majority parties create arbitrary social categories that label those apart from them, and them fill in those categories with identifying descriptors for each category.

Race is also a malleable property.  Racial categories (and their descriptors) differ from one society to another and change over time.  They are susceptible to shifts in power, demographics, and socio-political climate. In the U.S., we’ve historically defined those race categories by color: black, brown, white, yellow and red.  

 Of course, we know that there must be so much more to the story than this.


The idea of ethnicity gets us a bit closer.   We’ll describe ethnicity this way: An individual’s tie to a to a broader social group as defined by shared language and value systems, which may include nationality, heritage, and culture.

 Ethnicity is a richer value than race.  It captures the many elements that link a community of together.  It also encompasses both past and present values of a social group.  The most defining feature of ethnicity is that is self-definition.  While one may be “born into” certain features of ethnicity, an individual may choose to abandon, adjust, or add to his or her ethnic identification.  

The choice aspect of ethnicity also leaves room for ‘and’.   Cherokee and Lakota.  Latina and Korean.  Palestinian and French. Igbo and Yoruba.  Black American and white American.  Multiethnic. Polyethnic. 

This singular aspect of choice is what sets race and ethnicity apart.  While both are inventive concepts, race exists only as an external social construct, placed upon an individual without choice.  Ethnicity, meanwhile, exists as an internal construct with external influences and is marked by the mechanism of personal choice and affiliation.   

For staff Professional Development information on this topic please visit  HERE . @ElYaadouriELD for Refugee Classroom 2019.

For staff Professional Development information on this topic please visit HERE. @ElYaadouriELD for Refugee Classroom 2019.

Nationality, heritage and culture may be viewed as separate from, but somewhat living under the umbrella of ethnicity.  Language is also housed here.  Language represents the means of interpersonal exchange between peoples of a country or community.  It is also the conduit through which elements of ethnicity (including nationality, heritage and culture) are expressed.

Nationality refers to the country to which an individual was born, holds citizenship or identifies with as home.  The element of choice is observable here.  A student who was born in Russia but has lived in the United States since the age of six is likely to have a very Americanized world-view and may identify as American, even if her citizenship status does not reflect this. 

The idea of heritage looks to the place or places from which one’s ancestors originated from and what those ancestors subscribed to.  It is possible to identity with a heritage, but not the matching ethnicity.  For example, a person may recognize his African descent, but identify as ethnically Afro-Caribbean.   An individual may celebrate Irish heritage, but not speak the language or identify with customs linking it to that ethnicity.

For staff Professional Development information on this topic please visit  HERE . @ElYaadouriELD for Refugee Classroom 2019.

For staff Professional Development information on this topic please visit HERE. @ElYaadouriELD for Refugee Classroom 2019.

Finally, we arrive at culture.  Culture, in many ways, is the most complex value. It is similar to ethnicity, but in a way, nested within it, as cultural indicators are part of the architecture of one’s ethnic identity.

Culture relates to the specific combinations of socially acquired ideas, arts, symbols and habits that make up an individual’s day-to-day existence and that influence his or her social exchange.  So, ethnicity has to do with overarching themes that define a particular social group.  Culture presents itself as (often material) markers of the ethnic group or its subgroups.

Culture has other attributes that set it apart from race, ethnicity, nationality and heritage.  Namely, it is not determined by appearance.  Culture is also a fluid property and is largely influenced by personal choice.  Cultural behaviors may be changed, shared or acquired. Any person may pick up another’s culture at any time, and a person’s culture is highly likely to change over time, in whole or in part, based on new experiences, interests, and social influences.

For staff Professional Development information on this topic please visit  HERE . @ElYaadouriELD for Refugee Classroom 2019.

For staff Professional Development information on this topic please visit HERE. @ElYaadouriELD for Refugee Classroom 2019.

Often, the element of culture is further broken down into three layers: surface, conscious and collective unconscious.  Zaretta Hammond, in her incredible work, refers to these areas as surface, shallow and deep culture.  Surface culture mostly refers to observable markers: fashion, food, slang, art, holidays, literature, games and music. Conscious culture looks to the governing rules and norms of a community. It includes eye contact, concept of time, personal space, honesty, accepted emotions, and gender norms.

The collective unconscious culture is at the very core of one’s worldview. From this space, an individual processes the natural and social world- and also makes sense of his or her place within it. Spirituality, kinship, norms of completion, and the importance of group identity are all part of the collective unconscious.

It is also possible to have sub-cultures with our culture.  For example, we may belong to a skateboard, cowboy, gaming or band culture. We can attach specific elements of action and expression to each unique social behavior/interest group.


Now we can step back and look at our map.  When we put all of these elements together, we can gain a more comprehensive understanding of what comprises an individual’s identity.  We can move in the direction of looking past the first layer of race (and perhaps eventually remove this non-serving piece).  We can, through culturally-responsive teaching practices, develop our expertise in peeling away layers in our students’ identities in order to explore the deep culture factors that truly drive belonging, motivation and learning.