Any discussion of culture, race, and ethnicity first necessitates a clear operational definition of terms. Despite general agreement about its importance in explaining human behavior, culture is a construct that is not easily defined, given the diversity of perspectives on the topic (Zusho & Clayton, 2011). At its broadest, culture can be defined as a “framework for human life that consists of people collectively using all of the resources in their environment to achieve; is part of all human groups; is learned, shared and regulated by political, legal, and social systems; is socially transmitted; represents both external (observable behaviors) and internal (inferred traits) aspects of an individual; and is an abstraction of people’s knowledge and beliefs about themselves, other people, and the world” (Zusho & Clayton, 2011, p. 240).
Despite its significance in understanding the schooling experiences of students of color, race, like culture, has eluded a common definition. It can, and has been, defined rather simplistically in terms of skin color; notwithstanding the fact that 99.9% of human DNA is shared and that there is less variability between racial groups than within (DeCuir-Gunby & Schutz, 2014). Further complicating matters is the relative lack of distinction made between ethnicity and race. Indeed, it is quite common to see the terms culture, race, and ethnicity used interchangeably both in the vernacular and in scholarly writings.
In some ways, it is reasonable to consider these constructs together, given that they are all socially constructed ideas and practices that result in the sorting of individuals into groups. However, we recognize that race often signifies notions of power, whereas ethnicity does not (Kumar, Zusho, & Bondie, 2018). As Markus (2008) notes, race is often used to categorize individuals into groups based on a classification scheme that assumes certain marginalized groups to be inferior to others. She also notes that issues of race emerge when certain groups are perceived to be a threat and is often used to justify the continued oppression of and prejudice against certain groups. By contrast, such issues of power are typically absent in definitions of ethnicity. For example, Markus defines ethnicity as a construct that allows an individual to identify (or be identified) with a group of people who share a common language, history, nation/region of origin, religion, physical appearance, and/or ancestry.
What follows is a brief review of the studies to date that have considered issues of culture, race, and ethnicity in the classroom. It is important to note, however, that the studies reviewed herein are from an educational psychology perspective. Accordingly, absent from this review is the growing and vibrant multicultural work in culturally relevant, responsive, and sustaining education (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Gay, 2000; Paris & Alim, 2014). Thus, many of the studies reviewed in this article are more focused on issues of culture and ethnicity than race, per se.