National Center for Cultural Competence
Main Navigation
Cultural Awareness


=Ethnicity: Ethnic quality or affiliation. The Institute of Medicine (IOM), in a 1999 report edited by Haynes, M.A. and Smedley, B.D., defines ethnicity as how one sees oneself and how one is “seen by others as part of a group on the basis of presumed ancestry and sharing a common destiny…”

Common threads that may tie one to an ethnic group include skin color, religion, language, customs, ancestry, and occupational or regional features. In addition, persons belonging to the same ethnic group share a unique history different from that of other ethnic groups. Usually, a combination of these features identifies an ethnic group. For example, physical appearance alone does not consistently identify one as belonging to a particular ethnic group.

Race: There is an array of different beliefs about the definition of race and what race means within social, political and biological contexts. The following definitions are representative of these perspectives:

  • A tribe, people or nation belonging to the same stock; a division of humankind possessing traits that are transmissible by descent and sufficient to characterize it as a distinctive human type;
  • As a social construct used to separate the world’s peoples. There is only one race, the human race, comprised of individuals with characteristics that are more or less similar to others;
  • Evidence from the Human Genome project indicates that the genetic code for all human beings is 99.9% identical; there are more differences within groups (or races) than across groups.
  • The IOM (Haynes & Smedley, eds., 1999) states that in all instances race is a social and cultural construct. Specifically a “construct of human variability based on perceived differences in biology, physical appearance, and behavior”. The IOM states that the traditional conception of race rests on the false premise that natural distinctions grounded in significant biological and behavioral differences can be drawn between groups.

Acculturation. Cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture; a merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact. It should be noted that individuals from culturally diverse groups may desire varying degrees of acculturation into the dominant culture.

Assimilation: to assume the cultural traditions of a given people or group.

Cultural group. A cultural group is defined simply as a collection of individuals who share a core set of beliefs, patterns of behavior, and values. The groups may be large or small, but they are identified by their ways of thinking and behaving. All cultural groups are marked by intragroup variation. Many factors of diversity impact culture, including, but not limited to: ethnicity, country of origin, language, gender, race, physical appearance, age, religion, sexual identity, disability, education, and social class or status.

Cultural identity. Usually, individuals draw a major part of their sense of themselves from the cultural groups in which they grew up and were socialized. This sense of themselves shapes their cultural identity. Again, factors of diversity influence an individual’s total identity at any given time, factors that are more or less permanent, such as gender, race, age cohort, physical ability/characteristics, and sexual orientation; or are fluid factors, such as educational background, religion, occupation, marital or parental status, geographic location, socioeconomic class, or military and refugee experience. People in a cultural group who form bonds with each other around some of these diverse factors may form a subculture.

Just as cultures are not static, neither are personal identities that are derived from cultural conceptualizations. A woman may be single, a wife, or a divorcee at different times in her life. Additionally, if a woman moves from one culture to another, she may adopt some of her new culture’s ideas about the role of a wife while still keeping some of her old culture’s ideas.

The cultural framework or lens. One way of conceptualizing the effect of culture is seeing it as a lens through which cultural group members view the world—like a pair of glasses, it influences how one sees reality. Through this lens or framework, culture helps people sort and decide what stimuli are attended to and how; and what stimuli are not attended to and, most important, confers conscious and subconscious value, positive or negative, on events, behaviors, communication, and so on. Individuals acquire this lens through the process of socialization, which begins in infancy and continues throughout life.

Invisible racism. “Students, research workers, and professionals in the behavioral sciences—like members of the clergy and educators—are no more immune by virtue of their values and training to the diseases and superstitions of American racism than the average man” (Kenneth B. Clark, 1971, excerpt from Mazel’s 1998 book, “And don’t call me a racist!”). “The very absence of visible signs of discrimination creates an atmosphere of racial neutrality and encourages Whites to believe that racism is a thing of the past” (Derrick Bell, 1992, excerpt from Mazel’s 1998 book, “And don’t call me a racist!”).

Micro inequities. Micro inequities are “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard to prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, and frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator. Micro inequities occur whenever people are perceived to be ‘different’…[and] work both by excluding the person of difference and by making that person less self-confident and less productive.” “These mechanisms of prejudice against persons of difference are usually small in nature, but not trivial in effect. They are especially powerful taken together.” (Rowe, 1990, p. 2).

The following terms are from the work of Jose J. Soto, JD, (2004):

Prejudice: negative attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs toward an entire category of people formed beforehand and without full knowledge or complete examination of the facts.

Racism: any program or practice of racial discrimination, segregation, persecution, and domination based on race; the notion/attitude that one’s own ethnic stock is superior.

Individual racism: personal attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors designed to convince oneself of the superiority of one’s race/ethnicity over those of other races/ethnicities.
Institutional: social, economic, educational, and political forces or policies that operate to foster discriminatory outcomes or give preferences to members of one group over others.

Cultural racism: beliefs, feelings, and behaviors of the members of a cultural group that assert the superiority of their group’s accomplishments, achievements, and creativity over those of other groups based on race.

Examples of activities that have had negative impacts on persons of color:

  • Exclusion from unions, organizations, and social clubs
  • Seniority systems (“last hired, first fired”)
  • Income differentials
  • Role casting in media based on stereotypes
  • Pricing in real estate sales/rentals
  • Neglect in maintenance/repair of rental properties
  • Inferior municipal services (trash, policing, streets)
  • Gerrymandering ..fixing the boundaries
  • Admissions based on test scores..tests biased
  • Differential education based on preconceived potential or ability
  • One-sided curriculum.

Contact Information: Phone (202) 687-5503 or (800) 788-2066; TTY: (202) 687-8899; 3300 Whitehaven Street, NW, Suite 3000 Washington, DC 20007-2401 Accessibility Copyright Georgetown University e-mail:
Additional Info FAQs Glossary Resources Search Site Map National Center for Cultural Competence Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development Home Cultural Awareness: Introduction and Rationale About the NCCC Print Modules Cultural Awareness: Introduction and Rationale Key Content Areas; What is Culture? How Do Human Beings Acquire Culture What culture is not Cultural identity and cultural clustering Culture and race in the epidemiology of disease Culture and personal identity Cultural awarenss and professional effectiveness Teaching Tools, Strategies, and Resources: Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills Case Studies Self-Discovery Exercises Teaching Tools Definitions Resources for Module Resources for the series References Acknowledgments Home