Race and Ethnicity Definitions: Social Minority vs. Social Majority

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wind Goodfriend

Wind has her PhD in Social Psychology and Master's in Social Psychology from Purdue University.

Race and diversity are important features in societies. Learn the definitions of race and ethnicity, recognize how these relate to nationality, and understand the differences between social minorities and social majorities. Explore racial and ethnic trends in the United States. Updated: 12/28/2021

Introducing Race and Diversity

If I asked you to tell me your race, what would you say? How about if I asked you for your ethnicity? What about your nationality? How are these concepts different from each other? When you think about your answers, are the groups you fit into considered a 'majority' or a 'minority' in your country and culture?

Physical traits like skin color or facial features reflect racial diversity
Racial Diversity

Throughout the history of humanity, people have put value on these categories and made meaning out of them. This lesson is going to cover concepts including race, ethnicity, majority versus minority status, and current trends in the United States regarding racial patterns of change.

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  • 0:10 Introducing Race and Diversity
  • 0:46 Race Versus Ethnicity
  • 2:45 Social Minorities
  • 6:01 Trends in the U.S.A.
  • 7:17 Lesson Summary
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Race Versus Ethnicity

Let's start by making a distinction between the concepts of 'race' and 'ethnicity.' Some people get confused about what the difference is, or they may not even be sure if there is a difference between these two ideas.

First, the definition of race is a socially meaningful category of people who share biologically transmitted traits that are obvious and considered important. This definition has several parts to it, so let's break it down. First, we said that race is a 'meaningful category of people.' Different races are groups that are simply made up by people who decided that they are important. Examples include 'Caucasian,' 'African American,' and 'Asian.'

Another part of the definition was 'who share biologically transmitted traits.' Really, for race, this means skin color. Skin color also usually has other stereotypical traits that go with it, such as hair color, certain facial features (like the size of your nose or the color of your eyes), height, and so on. But for most cultures, skin color seems to be the most important trait when it comes to race.

So what is ethnicity? In contrast to the idea of race, ethnicity simply means a shared cultural heritage. So ethnicity could be 'Egyptian,' 'Swedish,' 'Mexican,' or 'Jewish.' The ethnicity of 'Jewish' is interesting because it refers to both a particular group of people from a biological, genetic perspective, but it also refers to a religion and all of the cultural richness that comes from that religious tradition. Many other ethnicities share both genetic traits and, often, religious or cultural holidays or traditions that tie the group together.

The term Jewish has both biological and religious or cultural meanings
Jewish Ethnicity

While sometimes the categories of 'race' and 'ethnicity' can be confusing, keep in mind that the basic distinction between race and ethnicity is that race is biologically determined, whereas ethnicity is culturally determined.

Social Minorities

Another way that these concepts can be complicated is by trying to divide people up into the categories of 'majority' versus 'minority' status. Let's try to define these two concepts.

When we're talking about race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or any other socially meaningful group of people, the majority refers to the social group considered to have the most power in a particular place (and sometimes the most members). In the United States, white, or Caucasian, people are considered to be the racial majority group. White people have historically been the most powerful race in terms of representation in the media, business positions (like owning companies), or representation in politics.

Majority groups are often statistical majorities, meaning the group with the most people, but that is not always true. For example, when it comes to gender, men are considered to be the majority group in the United States because they have more social power than women. However, from a pure numbers perspective, there are a slightly higher number of women than men. So even though there are technically more women in the United States, women are still considered a minority group because they are a group with less social resources and power. Okay - if that's true, maybe the next step is that we should define what exactly we mean when we talk about a social 'minority.'

The definition of a social minority is any category of people distinguished by either a physical or cultural difference that a society has subordinated. Let's break that definition down into two pieces because there are two basic criteria or rules that a group needs to meet in order to be considered a minority.

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