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Destabilizing Power

April 14, 2014 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Culture, Devon G. Pena, Politics

Student Perspectives on the Necessity of Ethnic Studies

moderated by Devon G. Peña

{Moderator’s Note: We are presenting selected blog posts written by students in a winter quarter (2014) course, “Introduction to Chicana/o Studies” (CHSTU 101 that just completed meetings at the University of Washington. My graduate assistant Victor Rodríguez pre-selected the blogs and I did final copy-editing and formatting but the ideas and representations made here were entirely the result of the eight weeks of group research activities conducted by these young students. When we ask first- and second-year students to perform at this higher level of independent inquiry and critical thinking by asking them to engage in collaborative research and writing, we are actually revealing their capacity for a genuine love of learning that introduces them to diverse methods of inquiry and idea testing. When this happens, all is well in the classroom and we can feel a bit more confident that they will be better prepared to engage the prospects for democracy toward more just, equitable, and sustainable future. The third in our Student Perspectives on Chicana/o Studies series has four co-authors: Alexa-Rio Osaki, Candace Kwan, Jacob Chin, and Sera Wang. This group once again reflects the beautiful diversity that was evident in our classroom. Their focus is the defense of the need for American Ethnic Studies (AES) at the University of Washington, a topic they chose on their own. Professional academics, scholars, college teachers, administrators, staff, students, parents, and community — all of us realize that the study of ethnicity and race as social, historical, political and cultural constructs has come of age and that its relevance has never been more salient than at a time when we are starting the headlong transition toward a majority minority nation. The four student co-authors in today’s posting argue that the future of AES at UW requires a firm commitment to a Department-based graduate program and they outline a clear set of principles and goals we should all aspire to pursue. I am truly impressed that these young students have placed forward a reasonable proposal for a graduate program in American Ethnic Studies at UW. They have the start of a platform based on the following very perceptive insight about the core principle of intersectionality, which they clearly demonstrate “operates (1) between related fields of inquiry … (2) in other components of social structure and (3) in the formation of cultural identities and shifting subjects.” This as clear a statement of the methods and goals of ethnic studies as I have ever heard.}

*           *           * 

“If you don’t write your histories, somebody else will.” — Afrika Bambaataa

Alexa-Rio Osaki, Candace Kwan, Jacob Chin, and Sera Wang | Seattle, WA | April 1, 2014

Ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary social and historical study of race and ethnicity that starts from the standpoint that race and racism have been and continue to be, profoundly powerful forces in the US.[i] Studies based on the perspectives of the experiences of oppressed minorities are too often disregarded: Some critics think these area too narrow to be relevant, or they are often dismissed as too political and therefore ‘skewed’. But the emergence of ethnic studies is much more than the valuable work conducted from within the perspectives of underrepresented race and ethnic groups in the US.

Through the interdisciplinary qualities of ethnic studies, all students draw upon numerous disciplines and areas of thought to comprehend the intersectional consequences that derive from the construction of race, racism, and various institutions established as part of the social and political structures that are used to discriminate against “racialized” populations.[ii] The continuation of ethnic studies is crucial because the interdisciplinary of actual unfolding histories and politics of social change and conflict can create new insights on social justice so as to more effectively confront and transform oppressive conditions by examining different kinds of injustice and resistance. This illustrates the longstanding tradition of applied community-based advocacy and action research in ethnic studies.

The University of Washington, like most Tier I research universities, aspires to have an excellent representation of academic and research programs that address race, ethnicity, culture, and diversity. The UW boasts one of the few American Ethnic Studies (AES) departments in the nation that focuses on the interrelated fields of Native American, African American, Chicana/o and other Latina/o, and Asian American studies. The University of Washington AES Department offers an undergraduate degree in these fields and opportunities for related studies of other racialized peoples in the US.[iii]  This includes the analysis of the social dynamics of race, racism, and many other forms of institutionalized violence experienced by minorities. Due to the fact that the institutions set to cause discrimination are rooted in the history of one-sided dominance, this analysis cannot be undertaken without the consideration of white supremacy, colonialism, imperialism, systematic oppression, and hegemony.

As a result of the historical and current overarching marginalization forced upon underrepresented people, the connections that bind oppressed people together are essential. This intersectionality operates (1) between related fields of inquiry, for e.g., anthropology, environmental studies, history, sociology, social work, etc.; (2) across other components of social structure, i.e. class, gender, sexuality, etc.; and (3) in the formation of cultural identities and shifting subjects.

In order to best comprehend and practice these methodological features, scholars in ethnic studies often engage in “creative historical work of social movements, cultural and artistic productions, legal and public policy activisms, indigenous and liberationist epistemologies, community and identity formation, and radical social political thought”.[iv] Through this application of the paradigm of intersectionality in ethnic studies, we can examine how the different kinds of resistance and radical knowledge production create new possibilities for social change that both confront and transform oppressive conditions.[v]

The importance of ethnic studies

The teaching of American history at all levels, including higher education and K-12, has normalized the perspective of the White-Anglo-Saxon male. In turn, students develop a narrow historical perspective, which limits their social awareness. By normalizing history as White male history, we invalidate the struggles, oppressions, and ultimately the social revolutions that our nation’s history depends on for renewal of the promise of democracy.

In An Ethnic Studies Model of Community Mobilization: Collaborative Partnership with a High-Risk Public High School,the California State University Ethnic Studies Department in Sacramento worked side by side with Hiram Johnson High School in order to promote understanding of ethnic studies, in order to uplift academic performance. While working with the youth, they also examined the personal impact of identity and community on students. While conducting their research, they asserted: “Instead of being color-blind to racial and ethnic differences, teachers must be encouraged to recognize and work with those differences as strengths … more often than not, misconceptions about these students are formed from limited teacher contact with diverse communities outside of school.”[vi]

In Western education, institutions emphasize a large focus on “moving forward” in order to better the next generations. This idea of “moving forward means gradually becoming color-blind (or blind to any social construct), believing that through homogenizing everyone, we create unity. However, by homogenizing everyone as “one” we invalidate the individual histories of every group that helped played a part in American history. Furthermore, in order to genuinely move forward and to evolve as a community and society, it is imperative we face these truths and struggles. By doing so we learn how to avoid repeating history and making the same mistakes twice; additionally, it is crucial to understand how each history is interdependent and interconnected amongst each other, in order to fully comprehend relations not just in our home, but humanity in general.

In Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches, David Shirley states, “American Studies, then, if allied with and informed by Ethnic Studies … can produce better, more accurate, more relevant, and more socially-engaged scholarship.”[vii]. To break it down, our knowledge becomes more accurate, because through ethnic studies, we comprehend the histories as a more holistic, fully encompassing process. It becomes relevant, because the struggles, solidarity and revolutions, are parallel to the adversities many of us have to face today. Lastly, we become more socially engaged, because by understanding our experiences we are able to apply this privilege of knowledge and empathy universally.

Current politics surrounding ethnic studies

All current debates related to the field of American Ethnic Studies boil down to a simple question: To teach or not to teach? And: What to teach? Is it appropriate in a presumably ‘post-racial’ America to stir up agitation about race and ethnic politics through education? Is studying what happened in America’s past really necessary or important? In today’s society, there are a host of other problems that need to be addressed before addressing problems of race and ethnicity. These are the questions being posed by antagonists of ethnic studies in a presumably color-blind American educational system.

Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. But when a student of color begins to ask to be taught about her own people’s history in America as opposed to the Eurocentric model the United States has adopted, this student is told to stop promoting ethnic conflict and hatred towards Anglos.[viii] The false ideology of ‘reverse racism’ is especially prevalent in states closest to the Mexico-US border such as Texas and Arizona; both states possess a large and steadily growing population of Chicanos and Chicanas. Even in places of higher learning such as Cal State-Los Angeles, there is pushback from faculty against increasing the role of American Ethnic Studies in graduation requirements.

It then comes as no surprise that American Ethnic Studies programs are currently some of the most hotly debated subjects in the United States educational system. The debates surrounding American Ethnic Studies are unfolding at both college level and in the K-through-12 public education institutions. Issues at the collegiate level range from the lack of institutional support for graduate programs in American Ethnic Studies to divisions over the status of American Ethnic Studies classes as graduation requirements. In the realm of public K-12 education, in both Arizona and Texas there are intense political and legislative conflicts over whether they should be allowed at all.

As of February 11, 2014 at Cal State-LA, this debate has manifested in the form of requiring students to take at least one class in American Ethnic Studies as a part of a diversity graduation requirement. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? It is only one class required. For some faculty, apparently, one class is one too many. Some faculty members oppose American Ethnic Studies (or diversity) requirements because they wish to incorporate ethnic studies across all courses, but the two goals are not mutually exclusive. Having a one-course diversity core requirement does not mean students are barred from pursuing more in-depth study in the varied ethnic studies field; indeed early exposure when taught well will encourage such further exploration.[ix]

Other faculty members in opposition to this proposal believe instituting this requirement would then “limit” the students’ options and “hinder students’ freedom to choose”. Let us quickly point out the irony in this statement. Most universities and colleges require a number of different requirements in general education as well as department or certificate based programs. Without limiting choice (and focus) there would be no disciplinary scholarly fields or departments.

The value of ethnic studies holds for all students. The reasoning behind a diversity requirement as part of general education is the idea that it makes sense to encourage students to explore studies on the persistence of race and ethnic relations in the US and world in order to better prepare us all for the type of global and diverse society we are stepping into as we graduate. All students — and faculty — benefit from knowing how to interact with different peoples based on knowledge of the history, culture, and social life of the ‘Other’ in order to for all of us to become well-informed members of a more civil society.

If you thought the situation at Cal State-LA is complex, it pales in comparison to current education politics in Texas and Arizona. In Texas, a state where over fifty percent of public school students hail from Chicano/Chicana backgrounds, the thought of incorporating Mexican American studies is absolutely galling to even consider for some school board members.  In the words of Patricia Hardy, “We’re not about Hispanic history; we’re about American history. We’re not about taking each little group out and saying, ‘You’re the majority, so we’re going to teach your history.’ We’re Americans, United States people.”[x]

This ‘head in the sand’ view denies there is diversity in history and imposes a hegemonic majority that is in this case a Eurocentric and Anglo-American curriculum taught as if it represents a Universal experience. This discriminatory ethnocentrism is taught almost exclusively in the Texas public schools although university and college programs have dynamic programs in Mexica American and other ethnic studies programs.

Hardy’s type of arrogant language is bad but it gets way worse in Arizona. In Arizona the right-wing state legislature — influenced by racist cabals of Tea Party activists and militia groups ‘patrolling the border’ — went as far as to actually completely ban the Ethnic Studies teaching programs, classes, and even books in Arizona public schools. The argument and logic hind the infamous HB2281 was that ethnic studies, allegedly promoted ethnic solidarity instead of individuality, racism and classism towards Anglos, and embraced overthrowing the government.[xi]

The American Ethnic Studies programs were considered too radical by its opponents not just because it taught Chicano and Chicana history but these programs asked students to think critically about their education. Books such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed were on the curriculum and that then equated to teaching students how to overthrow the system.

Given the sorry state of education and how it is taught in the United States, it is not unreasonable to ask for the current system to change. At universities and colleges in a similar situation as Cal State Los Angeles, the debate becomes about recognizing the importance of the field American Ethnic Studies. In the states of Texas and Arizona this debate becomes an educational battlefield between the old model of education and newer models seeking to reform the educational system and reflecting the shifting demographic and cultural realities of a more diverse nation in the making.

Ethnic studies in Seattle

While American Ethnic Studies has not had the recognition it deserves in states such as Texas and Arizona, the same cannot be said in Washington. The American Ethnic Studies department at the University of Washington was founded in 1985 and has dedicated itself to teaching the history, culture, politics, art and heritage of people of color in the United States. For many students, American Ethnic Studies is something that they often find in serendipity, as Professor Peña says. AES courses are not part of the UW general education requirement, unlike say English composition courses, etc. However, in recent years, steps have been taken that will allow AES classes to become part of a ‘diversity’ requirement, much like the “W” writing credit for English.

Over the past 22 years, there have been three failed attempts to implement a requirement for all UW undergrads to complete some instruction in what is now called the area of diversity — and this is now widely defined to include economic, cultural, or political diversity.[xii] While this policy will not apply to current undergrads and is not currently in effect, it is a significant step toward the study of diversity at UW.[xiii] This may not be trailblazing but it is time for UW to join the ranks of other Tier I research universities that have comparable requirements in place. Indeed, Washington State University is ahead of us in this regard.[xiv]

The diversity requirement can be fulfilled with a wide range of courses outside the American Ethnic Studies Department, but requiring incoming undergraduate students to enroll in a diversity content class can raise awareness of the academic programs offered by the AES department and recover enrollment growth in AES classes.

This new requirement will not complicate the curriculum as two-thirds of UW students already take classes that satisfy this new diversity requirement — diversity is tailored around a broad definition, and covers sexual orientation, disability, class, race, age, gender, religion and politics.[xv] This requirement was initially five credits, but was changed to three.[xvi]

Ethnic Studies Student Association

Outside of AES classes, all of us are committee members of The Ethnic Studies Student Association (ESSA). ESSA was founded last year, and is committed to studying and practicing the principles of the Third World Liberation movement by understanding the systematic oppression of marginalized peoples and addressing the need for social justice. We are working on pushing for an AES Graduate Program and have recently started distributing our petition. (Note: We would like to include a link to the online version as soon as it is uploaded so it can put onto the blog as well). On our Facebook page, we have also listed that we will also work on expanding the current undergraduate AES program, serving and building our community, raising awareness, and of course, having fun.

Due to the aesthetic constraints of the administrative page, we have not been able to write about the merits of an AES Graduate Program/the expansion of our current AES department from the perspective of students, faculty and UW. Students will benefit from an AES as it promotes critical thinking, and AES does this through critiquing the complexity of power, inequality and conflict between ethnic groups as well as ethnic groups themselves, through the lens of “race”. When taking classes under the AES Department, students will be able to understand why they think the way they do, and understand how social constructions have evolved throughout history in a safe, comfortable space that is conducive for dialogue. In a nutshell, students will be able to see the world from a different lens, or a perspective that they had not considered before.

A graduate program would strengthen the emphasis the UW places upon American Ethnic Studies. In doing so this would create a stronger presence for proponents advocating for greater inclusion of American Ethnic Studies across the country. One of the underlying goals of American Ethnic Studies is to right the wrongs of racism and institutional oppression through education. By creating a graduate program it will be another step toward realizing this goal.

To conclude, ESSA is one of the ways we are trying give back to the department in which we have learnt so much. It pains for us to admit that the American Ethnic Studies program does not have the resources it deserves – it is worth nothing that this does not lessen the quality of the education we are receiving, but rather, the quantity of what AES offers to the whole UW Student Body. There is a lack of awareness about AES in general, and this is partly due to its short history as a discipline. There are people that would care as deeply about AES as we do, but how could they, if there is a lack of opportunity to do so?

[i] What Is Ethnic Studies? Ethnic Studies Department, UC Berkeley. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.
[ii] UCR Department of Ethnic Studies. UCR Department of Ethnic Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.
[iii] American Ethnic Studies.  American Ethnic Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.
[iv] UCR Department of Ethnic Studies.  UCR Department of Ethnic Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 14  Feb. 2014.
[v]  Ibid.
[vi] Sobredo, J, G Kim-Ju, J Figueroa, GY Mark, and J Fabionar. An Ethnic Studies Model of Community Mobilization: Collaborative Partnership with a High-Risk Public High School. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 34.3 (2008): 82-8. Print.
[vii] Goldstein-Shirley, David. Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches. American Quarterly. 54.4 (2002). Print.
[viii] Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies Ban. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Comedy Central: 02 Apr 2012. Web. 24 Feb 2014.
[ix] Rivera, Carla. “Cal State L.A. students, faculty debate ethnic studies requirement.” L.A. Times. (2014): n. page. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
[x] Tahir, Rabeea. “Texas looking at Mexican-American Studies classes.” Texas Tribune. (2014): n. page. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] “UW to require diversity course” Turnbell, Lornet. The Seattle Times. Web.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] “Diversity requirement passes faculty senate” Gunawan, Imana. The Daily. Web.
[xvi] Ibid.

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