Ethnic Studies (Participation)

After watching this discussion and reading the article, what do you think the purpose of ethnic studies is?  What assumptions do people make about ethnic studies course?  Why do you think there is a backlash against these programs and course?

Why Ethnic Studies Courses Are Good for White Kids Too

by Dr. Emery Petchauer, January 9, 2012

Last week, Judge Lewis Kowal of Arizona upheld a ban on ethnic studies classes in the Tucson Unified School District. Ethnic studies generally refer to courses such as African-American studies, Asian studies, or — in the case of the Tucson Unified School District — Mexican-American studies. Courses such as these, which comprise full programs at many public universities across the United States, often focus on the contributions that such groups have made to the world and their unique social experiences. As many of these groups have experienced different types of systematic oppression, too, these courses also take a “critical” bend and focus on power, oppression, and empowerment in society.

The controversy over ethnic studies in Arizona garnered national attention in the summer of 2010 when Gov. Jan Brewer and then-State superintendent of education Tom Horne ordered that the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson be terminated. The logic of ethnic studies opponents and the recent ruling includes the following points:

1. The courses teach students to be bitter toward and resent Whites (Side note: Does studying the American Revolution teach Whites to be bitter toward the British?).

2. The courses treat students as a collective group rather than as individuals (Side note: Does the U.S. Census make people identify as individuals or as groups?).

3. The courses teach material from a biased perspective (Side note: Is the “American Revolution” taught from identical perspectives in the United States, and, say, the UK?).

4. The courses teach students to overthrow the government (Side note: Does reading Animal Farm teach students to overthrow the government?).

Each of these points is categorically false and (as my side notes suggest) tremendously narrow-sighted. Simply put, we don’t apply this kind of thinking to other parts of school curricula. These points and others have been clearly addressed before, such as here. Consequently, I will not rehash them. Instead, I want to address a key assumption about ethnic studies classes: that they are only for students of color. This is an assumption that undergirds many misled perspectives, including the recent ones in Arizona. (Side note: Are classical philosophy classes only for Greeks?) Without a doubt, classes that focus on the contributions, experiences, and unique perspectives of so-called minority groups are indeed beneficial to students of these same groups. But, ethnic studies are good for White kids, too. Here are three reasons why:

Thinking Critically. I often say that every way of seeing also is a way of not seeing. Ethnic studies courses implicitly operate upon this maxim by illustrating how different groups in the United States and around the world often have very different perspectives on events, people and eras — both big and small. Of course, some perspectives contradict with one another and are irreconcilable. When White students (or all students for that matter) are exposed to different and even contradictory perspectives, it teaches skills such as perspective-taking, abstraction and evidence-based argumentation. These are some of the basic components of critical thinking skills that are infused within state learning standards across the nation.

For people primarily concerned with traditional school outcomes, these critical thinking skills are positively linked to school and academic performance. The wide body of empirical research on conflict resolution education programs illustrates this clearly. Conflict resolution education programs (not to be confused simply with conflict resolution), such as those pioneered by Dr. Tricia Jones of Temple University, typically produce academic improvements in schools. And, this is not necessarily because schools may be safer. A byproduct of conflict resolution education is that students learn how to think in more complex, critical and sophisticated ways. These habits of mind translate into higher performance on academic measurements. The same can follow from ethnic studies. Thinking critically is not bound to one classroom. Learning it through an ethnic studies class can then transfer over into other classes, even for White students.

Replacing White Guilt. One of the sly accusations against ethnic studies is that courses make White students feel guilty and bad about themselves. Without a doubt, some White folks feel an abstract sense of guilt when they learn about some of the atrocities that White folks have inflicted upon people of color by action and inaction. Guilt is seldom a healthy place from which to act, so this feeling is certainly not productive. Ethnic studies courses — when working well — do not produce this abstract and unproductive sense of guilt. Instead, they teach White folks how to be critical allies in specific ways to struggles for equality. Stated another way, the opposite of Whiteness is not feeling guilty about being White; it’s not Blackness, and it’s not hip-hop either. The opposite of Whiteness is pushing against oppression, inequality and White privileges. And when White folks are doing those things, they are too busy to be burdened by a much played-out sense of guilt. As ethnic studies courses outline how people of color have successfully fought for their own education, liberation and humanity, this is a vital starting point for White folks to eventually join this important work and get in where they fit in.

Functioning in Today’s World. It has long been a statistical likelihood that White folks will be a demographic minority in the United States during the lifespan of current school-age children. Though many cities and rural areas still remain deeply segregated by race, the nature of the globalized economy and workforce means that the top leaders of U.S. industries will be working alongside people who do not check the same demographic boxes or hold the same social assumptions as they do. This global reality gives new importance for students to be able to function across differences. The guiding purpose that most consistently informs public education policy is to maintain dominance in the global economy. Perhaps ironically, ethnic studies programs like the ones (now formerly) in Arizona fit squarely within this purpose. Even if one subscribes to the ugly position that there is little value in studying the experiences and perspectives of people who are not White, one cannot refute the point that this area of study will prepare students — including White students — to be better leaders in today and tomorrow’s world.

As a whole, the recent iteration of the ethnic studies debate in Arizona reveals more about the longstanding political-racial ideology of the state than it does about ethnic studies classes themselves. To be clear, this political-racial ideology is one of White supremacy. Unfortunately, like the social toxin that it is, this ideology in practice

via Why Ethnic Studies Courses Are Good for White Kids Too.

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2 thoughts on “Ethnic Studies (Participation)

  1. After watching the video and reading the article I think the purpose of ethnic studies is to bring students from many different backgrounds together and teach them that everyone is equal. I think ethnic studies teaches students how to look at everyone as an individual rather than someone being black, white, asian, mexican etc. Ethnic studies show students how every race have made this country a unique place and shows the assets each race has brought to this country. Some assumptions people make on ethnic studies is that students that are white should not have to take the course. I say this because there a lot of close minded people in this world and they don’t see how people from different ethnic backgrounds have made this the beautiful country the way it is today. The reason I think there is a backlash on these programs is because people that are not from the white race feel like they are targeted. My last reason I think there is a backlash on ethnic studies is that a lot of people are not willing to step outside of there culture and learn about people from different backgrounds.

  2. After reading the article and watching the video, I finally understood what ethnic studies is. I never knew there was such a thing until I became a student at WSU. I think ethnic studies is used to make people step out of their own niche of culture and see the world around them and gain the understanding that everyone is different in their own special way and that’s what makes this country such a diverse melting pot. I think it can also be used for people of a different heritage to learn about themselves and where the ancestors came from and how their culture contributed to the process of building this country. I think some assumptions people might have on this course is that there’s no need at all to take a class about other people’s ethnic backgrounds because we live in America and that’s all we need to know, or that ethnic studies is just for the people with ethnic backgrounds. I think the backlash comes from the people who just need to close their mouths and open their minds to a world of assortment and that not everything is based around the Anglo-american society, like so many have grown to think.

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