The fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. --oxforddictionaries.com
An ethnic group; a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like: Representatives of several ethnicities were present. Ethnic traits, background, allegiance, or association: The graph shows class enrollment by gender and ethnicity. --dictionary.com
An ethnic group, or an ethnicity, is a category of people who identify with each other based on similarities such as common ancestry, language, history, society, culture or nation. --Wikipedia
Ethnicity consists of cultural characteristics (such as language, history, values, and customs) that are shared by and distinctive of a group of people. --Chegg Study, Sociology (see associated YouTube video, 4:45; worth the watch)
The distinguishing common denominator? "Ethnicity" is not biological, lives in no one's genes, and cannot be inherited via DNA.
Assumption only: Ancestry.com was sold an advertising campaign that Americans want to know their origins. The ad exec said, "You can't use any of that DNA mumbo jumbo, and nobody wants to hear about 'anthropological regions of migration.' 'Ethnicity.' People will respond to the word 'ethnicity.'"
The ad exec ignored biology, anthropology, and sociology and went to the Urban Dictionary rather than a scientific one. Veracity and accuracy doesn't count, only sales. And when the sales started piling in at an unheard-of pace, the competition--whether they liked it or not--was forced to begin marketing the very same thing or see their market shares plummet. The ad exec looked like a superstar.
Many of the rest of us are ambivalent about the ad exec. Part of us wants to shake his or her hand for drawing millions of people to DNA testing who likely never would have been interested. The other part of us wants to smack the ad exec upside the head with a live, 49-pound Mahi Mahi.
A mystery to me, but there seems to be some deeply pervasive, unsettled need among Americans who are, oh, say fourth generation or so to find their roots...and they don't mean genealogy. They don't mean where their ancestors were when the Magna Carta was sealed in 1215; they don't even mean where their peeps were when the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC. They means their origins. And that has nothing to do with ethnicity, and very little to do with autosomal DNA.
Kyle and his lederhosen-to-kilt transition is just plain silly (YouTube video here). The one that makes me want to cry, though, is the testimonial by Lyn, whose results showed the biggest slice to be 26% Nigerian (YouTube video here). Based on that 26% number from Ancestry, she buys a gele and wants to learn as much about her culture as possible.
To me, the truly insidious peril in all of this is that the Urban Dictionary directly equates ethnicity and the completely false concept of "race" in human beings that has carried over as a social construct for hundreds of years. There are no biological races in modern homo sapiens sapiens. Race is an informal rank in the taxonomic hierarchy below the level of subspecies. Guess what? There are no subspecies of homo sapiens sapiens alive today. Haven't been for many thousands of years.
From "Biological Races in Humans," by Dr. Alan R. Templeton, in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health:
"...Humans are not [subdivided into races]. Adaptive traits, such as skin color, have frequently been used to define races in humans, but such adaptive traits reflect the underlying environmental factor to which they are adaptive and not overall genetic differentiation, and different adaptive traits define discordant groups. There are no objective criteria for choosing one adaptive trait over another to define race. As a consequence, adaptive traits do not define races in humans. Much of the recent scientific literature on human evolution portrays human populations as separate branches on an evolutionary tree. A tree-like structure among humans has been falsified whenever tested, so this practice is scientifically indefensible. It is also socially irresponsible as these pictorial representations of human evolution have more impact on the general public than nuanced phrases in the text of a scientific paper. Humans have much genetic diversity, but the vast majority of this diversity reflects individual uniqueness and not race."
Some recent thoughts of mine about the marketing of ethnicity in DNA testing. Posted about a week later are some great thoughts on the matter from Ryan Anderson, a cultural and environmental anthropologist.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being curious about where your ancestors came from. We can't fault the people ordering the tests...even if they never do reply to us on Ancestry.com if we reach out to talk about genealogy. ;-) We can, however, fault the marketing message from that unnamed ad exec, and the testing companies who do far too little to properly, contextually frame the relevance of the reports they issue to testers.
And we hear enough about "race" every single day on every single newscast. In that regard, every side, every faction, every political inclination is racist...because none of them are working hard enough to remove the concept from society. We don't have race; we don't have subspecies; we are all human and we all share over 99.9% of the same DNA.