Post image for Defining Identities

(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)

When the lovely folks at TCG asked me to curate the conversation around Diversity and Inclusion, I knew that I wanted to unpack the definitions of the following identity terms: culture, race, and ethnicity. Not only did I want to provide working definitions, but I also want to present how we work with these definitions.

At the Diversity and Inclusion Institute, we were given a 6-page handout called, Terminology for Anti-Bias Communication. It listed definitions that related to People and Concepts. Original sources include The Council on Interracial Books for Children, Guidelines for Selecting Bias‐Free Textbooks and Storybooks (New York, 1979) by Patricia DeRosa and Joyce King of the Multicultural Project for Community Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Margo Okazawa‐Rey at the University of Maryland.

To my surprise, there were a handful of terms listed that I had not heard of, and equally to my delight, I found working definitions for each of my key identity terms.

  • Culture: Culture is a system of learned behavior shared by and transmitted among the members of a group. Culture is all the ways of doing and thinking – it is everywhere. Cultural elements such as customs, traditions, morals, ideals, values, ideologies, beliefs, practices, philosophies, institutions, etc. are not uniform. Ways of eating, speaking, greeting, dressing, entertaining, and living differ significantly. Culture is ever changing.
  • Race: A social and artificial construct with exceeding social, economic, and political significance. Race is often associated with physical characteristics, e.g., skin color, hair types, eye shape, eye color, lip shape, etc.
  • Ethnicity: Refers to a group or people of the same nationality or land of origin who share a distinct and/or common culture

Now, I had a place to begin the conversation that actually started a month or so before the conference. When I reached out to the folks in this series, I asked them to select one or more of the words and to share their working definitions. The brilliant and fabulous KJ Sanchez (founder and CEO of American Records) get us started:

“I wonder if there is a way to talk about this very important and worthy topic without using the word “ethnic.” It always makes me bristle. It’s a word that is often misused. We are all ethnic – by definition everyone is of a particular ethnic group or other but it’s used as a code for non-white. It’s also tied to hot button politics: “ethnic Serbs” (as if there are Serbs that belong to no ethnic group) or “ethnic cleansing” you get the idea. Too often I hear someone say, “Oh, they’re looking for someone ethnic for that role.” And I just cringe. I’ve been looking for other language and the best I can get to that makes more emotional sense to me is “culturally specific.” I think this is a phrase that applies to everyone. For example: you can talk about a play that has particular culturally-specific casting needs and so the actors being auditioned might be from that particular culture. This also helps us understand the mosaic that is “Latino” – why should we automatically assume a Cuban’s world (and culture) is the same as that of a Mexican’s? Of course, we have shared issues, religion (to a certain degree) and, what might  link all Latinos more than anything else – aside from being colonized by Spain/Portugal –  food (show me a Latin people that doesn’t use beans in one way or other!) but never the less, there are very different cultures in this mosaic, yet we are all lumped into Hispanic or Latino or (cringe) ‘ethnic.’”


Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com


KJ Sanchez Headshot1KJ Sanchez is founder/ CEO of American Records. KJ has produced national and international tours. As a playwright, she has been produced (select lists) at Asolo Rep, Actors Theater of Louisville, Two River Theater, Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE, Round House Theater, Working Classroom, Cornerstone and Off-Broadway at Urban Stages. She has directed plays by Heather Raffo, Jose Rivera, Quiara Hudes, Kristoffer Diaz, David Ives and Noel Coward. As an actress she has been on stages at The Humana Festival (originating the role of Thyona in Big Love) The Goodman, Berkely Rep, Long Warf, New York Theater Workshop and BAM. She is the voice of many characters in the cartoons Dora the Explorer and Go Diego Go. She is a former member of Anne Bogart’s SITI Company. KJ has taught at UBC, UW, Emerson College, Bard and Juniata. She is a Fox Fellow, the 2012 Douglas Wollop Fellow, an Albert Award Nominee and an NEA CDP for directors recipient. As the producer, director and co-author of ReEntry, KJ has contracted with the Department of Defense, utilizing the play as post-deployment training for service members at over thirty military bases and sites throughout the US and Internationally.