What is the difference between race, culture, and ethnicity? It
strikes me how often we interchange their meanings. An understanding
of the distinctions in meaning may help us better
understand the dynamics of a multicultural setting.
Usually when we refer to race, we are referring to the physical
characteristics and/or genetic makeup. Thus, it is easy to see
why these are sensitive waters. For example, from a race categorization
perspective, what does it actually mean to be
black? Who is white, red, yellow, or brown? The 2000 census
listed these categories: White; Black or African American;
Hispanic or Latino: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Other
Hispanic, or Latino; American Indian and Alaska Native; Asian:
Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and
Vietnamese, Other Asian; and Native Hawaiian and Other
Pacific Island: Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamorro,
Samoan, Other Pacific Islander.
Culture denotes how a group of people gives meaning and
expression to their way of life. It shapes and is a product of a
particular worldview, allowing the members to share and
express, among themselves and to others, their identity. It is
through culture that common values, rituals, customs, relationships,
and behaviors are passed down from one generation to
the next. Culture is something that is taught, but even this definition
can be limiting. With the risk of oversimplification, I
would offer that culture is everything that makes us who we are.
One short answer approach for defining ethnicity would be to
combine our definitions of race and culture. Ethnicity usually
includes elements from both of these categories. The ethnicity
of one group helps mark that particular group as a social group
who may share a common nationality, religious faith, set of rituals,
language, or physical features.
Within these definitions, culture remains a common component.
While a system of cultural characteristics may be in a race
and/or ethnic group, cultural characteristics are not necessarily
race or ethnic related. For example, one can make distinctions
between generational cultures: members of "Generation X," who
share particular values and worldviews among themselves, can
be distinguished from those of "Baby Boomers." This list of types
of cultures may include economic, gender, or geographic distinctions.
For this reason, culture also goes beyond language. We tend
to label and narrow our understanding of "the other" when we
group together many cultures under the roof of one language.
When speaking of the dynamics involved in inculturation,
then, we must not narrow our vision down to just race,
ethnicity, or language, that is, the initial contact of a Latino community with a Caucasian community and the dynamics of
intercultural exchange that ensues. The dynamics of inculturation
is much broader and attempts to consider the relationship
between the Church and all cultures (including youth, people
of different economic backgrounds, social status, and ethnicity).
Thus, what we may learn in the interaction between the
various cultures of one community may help us perceive similar
or different dynamics in another set: one community may be
multiethnic while another community may be dealing with
multigenerational issues. Or, as is common in some parishes
today, many sets of cultural interaction are operative.
In all of these various cultural and subcultural sets, common
needs emerge: we are to invite, to listen, to acknowledge,
and to affirm the presence of each member of the body of
Christ. We are also called to be countercultural, because not all aspects or elements of any given culture may be desirable
within the liturgical context. Within these dynamics, we come to
an understanding and appreciation of the many cultures before
and among us. We are also reminded that while the task of
inculturation may seem daunting at times, there is always the
opportunity for shared values, growth, and enrichment.
© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609
is a Paulist priest and pastoral associate in San
Francisco. He is a liturgical composer, author, and doctoral candidate
in Asian Catholic ritual at the Graduate Theological Union in