Can you accurately tell a person’s ethnicity just by looking? The quick answer is you can’t.
There is no way of determining with 100% certainty what a person’s ethnicity is unless that person tells you. This is because ethnic affiliation is something that a person is born into. It can also be something that a person chooses. It could also be a mixture of both.
This may be surprising since there are people whose physical characteristics suggest that they come from a particular race. From there, most people think that they can make a good guess of ethnicity as well.
However, recent trends in migration have made it easier for races to mingle. People have immigrated and mingled with different races and cultures for centuries. Advances in travel and technology have made it easier to people to integrate into new cultures with ease.
This phenomenon is becoming the norm for many parts of the world. This means more and more people are being born with multicultural and multiracial heritages.
This also means you are likely to meet someone who is ethnically ambiguous or someone who doesn’t have the conventional appearance of one particular ethnicity or race.
BUT, there still are a number of ways to get a good guess about the ethnicity of a person. However, there is no single technique that accurately tells you what a person’s ethnicity is.
Ethnicity and Race: They’re Not the Same Thing
The main reason why you can’t tell someone’s ethnicity by appearance is that ethnicity is more than just genetics and physical traits.
Most people confuse race and ethnicity but the two are different.
Race refers to physical traits which can comprise skin color, color, and shape of the eyes, among others.
Ethnicity, on the other hand, refers to a person’s cultural identity.
Ethnicity is the set of culture, values, and traditions that a person may be born into or chooses to affiliate with. The overlap often happens in the place of origin, since a person’s physical and biological characteristics may be closely connected to his place of origin.
A person’s cultural identification, such as his religion, language, and tribal influences are also often connected to the place of origin. This could be the place where the person was born and where he or she grew up.
For example, someone could say that their race is black and possess the corresponding physical characteristics. He could also say that his ethnicity is Spanish or Jamaican. Someone could have Southeast Asian physical characteristics and identifies as a Latino or Latina.
How to Determine a Person’s Ethnicity: Tips for a Good Guess
There are surnames that can be good indicators of a person’s ethnicity, although you cannot get a 100% guarantee by this method alone.
For example, Latino or Mexican-sounding last names may indicate that a person came from any of the ethnic groups in Mexico, Cuba, Spain, Puerto Rico, among others. However, this is not a sure guarantee. You can find people with these surnames who were born and have lived in the United States their whole lives. However, they’ve had no exposure to Hispanic or Latino culture.
Last names are also a poor indicator of ethnicity in places that had a history of black slavery. Slaves did not have native surnames and often adopted the surnames of white masters or those they admired. This is the reason why you have African-Americans with North American surnames.
This is also true for some Native American tribes and Australian Aborigines who had Western -sound names given to them by Western colonizers.
Ever been invited to a Quinceañera? Or a traditional Korean wedding? Your friend may look more Caucasian than Korean but his family celebrates occasions specific to Asian culture. This is an instance when you can venture a guess as to ethnicity and have a good chance of getting it right.
Even a casual look through a person’s social media photos can be enough to hazard a guess. There are occasions and practices that are indicative of certain cultures. Pooled with circumstantial data like appearance, language, and the like, you may be able to arrive at a good guess.
Details from shared information
You can also try to get closer to guessing a person’s ethnicity from shared information. Take a clue from past conversations. Tidbits scattered here and there or mentioned in passing could give you clues about a person’s ethnicity.
If you don’t want to ask, listening for cues mentioned in passing can help you hazard guess. Active listening is also a good way to determine if it is OK to ask questions like these. A person who shares information about his ethnicity may be OK about having this conversation with you.
Physical characteristics alone may tell you something about a person’s race. However, you will be hard-pressed to guess one’s ethnicity by appearances alone. As mentioned at the start, different factors contribute to a person’s ethnicity and biology or genes are just one of them.
Someone with Caucasian features can be of any ethnicity under the sun. She could be a Brit, or someone from North Carolina.
Guessing a person’s ethnicity based on appearance alone can even be impossible.
This is true in places where there has been a longstanding mixing of races and cultures, such as in the United States.
Unless, of course, the person has markings on his body telling you something about his ethnicity. For example, tribal people have tattoos that tell people what tribe they belong to. This is true for nomadic tribes in Africa, in the Middle East, and even in the mountains of the Philippines.
Another physical indicator of ethnicity would be apparel. Traditional apparel, very much like body markings or tattoos, can be a good indicator of ethnicity in some parts of the world.
These types of tests are often DNA test kits that reference data from a genetic reference panel. This creates a picture of a person’s genealogical ancestry. This can also be one factor to determine ethnicity.
Studies have shown that geography plays a part in DNA. This is because humans tend to mate with other humans who are nearby. This means that people who have genetic similarities may also show ethnic similarities.
However, this is not true for each case. And accuracy depends on the size of the reference database. This means that DNA ancestry kits are more accurate now than they were a decade ago. DNA kits are not enough to tell you about ethnicity with full accuracy. They can provide a close picture, however.
You can easily find apps claiming to guess users’ ethnicity by their photos alone. These apps only offer ‘ethnicity estimates’ using AI technology.
They use cross-referenced user data to guess your ethnicity. These data could include your stored locations, languages you use, social events posted on social media as well as your facial features. The technology then puts the data together to come up with the most likely guess about your ethnicity.
While it is tempting to think of these apps as nothing more than trends, AI technology is rapidly evolving. These apps can become more adept at cross-referencing your data to make more accurate guesses in the future. This is true the more information about yourself is available online.
These apps are only useful for finding ethnic information for yourself or a loved one. It is hardly useful for guessing the ethnicity of a stranger on the street.
Just Ask. Or Don’t.
If you are really curious and you enjoy a relatively good relationship with the person in question, just ask. Just do it the right way because asking about ethnicity can come with a lot of awkwardness. The person may find it offensive or rude.
Some people just don’t believe a person’s ethnicity matters. If the person is someone you just met, better take time to determine if this is an OK topic to broach.
The best way is to refrain from alluding to anything related to race or ethnicity unless the person volunteer’s information. This is the best way to avoid offending someone, especially one you just met.
Another reason why it’s better not to ask is that some people don’t really know. There are individuals who have not really given this topic too much thought. Someone raised in a biracial home may have several ethnic affiliations. This is not uncommon and is often a non-issue for people.
A person can identify as belonging to more than two or three ethnic groups and this is totally OK.
People don’t fit into neat categories, especially where ethnicity is concerned. This is especially true in our world. Extensive travel and migration have facilitated the mixing of cultures and races in all parts of the world. The ability of people to put down roots anywhere in the world means that more and more people have multi-ethnic, multi-racial backgrounds.
The Human Genome Project has determined that human DNA is 99.9% the same, despite exterior differences. The blurring of distinct ethnic and racial differences just drives home the point that we are all alike. This means we are part of one human family, even as we continue to evolve.