Race and ethnicity are social constructions—"scripts" for human actions and experiences—that have serious consequences. Though there is no scientific basis for racial distinctions, the discredited idea of "biological determinism," or a hierarchical taxonomy based on physical differentiation continues to influence discourses about human classification and racial characteristics. Categories of race and ethnicity have been fluid over time and across groups, so that in some cases a person's ethnic or racial affiliation can change based on location, historical moment, personal presentation, or situational context. Nevertheless, and importantly, racial characteristics are considered legally and biologically immutable from birth.
The concept of ethnicity is especially ambiguous, referring to a group that may or may not share ancestry but that has a sense of common identity based on nationality, religious affiliation, race, or culture—there is no precise agreement on what characteristics constitute ethnicity. Werner Sollors, tracing the etymology of the Greek word ethnikos (meaning "heathen" or "others"), describes "the conflict between contractual and hereditary, self-made and ancestral definitions of American identity—between consent and descent in American culture" ( Beyond Ethnicity , pp. 5–6). Debates about the nature and effects of race and ethnicity continue to map the terrain of self-invention versus social compulsion, cultural performance versus heritable physical traits.
Unlike ethnicity, race is almost never a matter of individual choice, and because the idea of race emerged in the context of colonization and systems of oppression, race cannot be separated from racism. Yet like ethnicity, race is an unstable social category. For example, in the United States the definition of African American racial identity that emerged historically from the Jim Crow South depended upon a "one-drop" rule—any African American ancestor, or any fraction of "black blood," made one black. This method classifies as many people as possible as black, thus ensuring the continuation of a system of labor exploitation. On the other hand, Native American identity has been determined through a system of minimum "blood quantum," so that a person must have a certain percentage of documented tribal ancestry to be considered Native American. Through intermarriage with other tribes and other ethnic groups, fewer and fewer people can claim Native American identity and qualify for special rights to lands and services guaranteed by treaty. Unlike any other group in the United States, many Native American people carry government-issued "Certificates of Degree of Indian Blood," often called CDIB cards, or "white cards," which are required for certain scholarships, art markets and fairs, and other programs.
In other parts of the world, race and ethnicity are imagined quite differently. Though the focus here is primarily on representations in American cinema, the national cinemas and "oppositional" cinemas of countries such as Brazil, India, and the United Kingdom—to name a few of many possible examples—present viewers with equally complex and specific racial and ethnic discourses. Cinemas that cross or do not cross national boundaries also highlight the intersections of race and ethnicity with national identities. Due to the power of American distribution systems, Hollywood exported the Indiana Jones films in the 1980s, a series that privileges a white explorer hero over exoticized Arab characters, while Arab American and other spectators in the United States rarely saw commercial releases of films by Arab filmmakers such as the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. Other filmmakers trace the transnational movements of peoples in diaspora in films such as Gregory Nava's drama El Norte (1983), Deanne Borshay's autobiographical documentary First Person Plural (2000), and Ousmane Sembene's La Noire de … ( Black Girl , 1966), drawing attention to the shifting experiences of race and ethnicity in global contexts.