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Ethnic Studies (Participation)

January 9, 2012

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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  1. Alex Clark permalink

    It’s pretty interesting how a person who witnessed such a memorable moment in race history (such as MLK’s speech), is now trying to end ethnic studies classes. Maybe he should switch his efforts towards improving the ethnic/race studies classes, instead of trying to ban them from schools.

    • Brittany Dyess permalink

      I agree! You would think that someone who was there , listening, and engaging in his speeech would understand the root issues we have in america dealing with segregation and equality NOT contribute to it. I feel as if he is only making hisself look really bad.. And to respond to your statement “he should switch his efforts to improve the classes,” I honestly feel as though he has never even sat in a class long enough to see and understand the effect it has on students whom are unaware of certain races.If the proffessor is doing his/her job, there is ALWAYS a difference on someones preconcieved thoughts when they first start the course versus there educated and reliable knowledge they learn when ending it.

  2. Reed Clarridge permalink

    I think the major point of Ethnic Studies is to generate awareness within a culture historically rich with racial hierarchies and currently swamped with disparities. The purpose is to reveal how we think what we do and why it matters, when it comes to race. The more we educate ourselves about stereotypes and hegemonic forces, the less likely we fall victim to using them.
    I’d imagine the backlash comes from anyone groups of people who stand to lose social and referent power from these classes. Not directly, but subconsciously they can spin the aforestated false notions out of clean cloth because it can represent a paradigm shift for the current status quo. It’s because of this, many assume these courses shave against the grain and/or create dissent.

  3. Olivia Newhouse permalink

    After watching this discussion and reading the article, I think that Tom Home didn’t understand what the purpose of ethnic studies classes is. In my opinion, these ethnic studies classes are to broaden the way students think about different ethnicities. No matter the type of ethnic class, the students should become more aware of what’s happened in our history with different cultures and races and not be “bitter toward” or “resent whites.” Even though they aren’t talking about the race most talked about in public school’s doesn’t mean there putting down a race. People assume that ethnic studies classes are used to build up one specific race but in actuality it is just to open our minds to issues and achievements that people of different races have gone through. I think there is backlash against these programs and courses because people are naive to what really is being taught. If they came and sat through a class and observed what was being instructed in the classroom, they would realize it is helping students open their minds to other cultures and races which readily isn’t taught to them.

  4. Kyla Chappell permalink

    I feel as though Arizona should be focusing more on improving classes with material covering race and ethnics, rather than banning them all together. The students attending Arizona schools will now lack the knowledge of different races, which is beneficial in order to be a well rounded individual. I think they have made a huge mistake banning these classes.

    • Brittany Dyess permalink

      I agree, all public schools need to be improving material that involves history of race and ethnicity. They needed to do this a while ago. The only time we students hear about other races outside of ethnic studies is on thanksgiving, Black history month(if that),mlk, or mentioning abe lincoln or c.columbus(slaves). .And not only will the students be lacking the knowledge but it may even deter them to even want or care to know more about other ethnicities! This ban only creates more segregation and confusion to all races..

  5. Madison McKenzie permalink

    In my opinion, Ethnic Studies classes are key to understanding and gaining depth in knowledge about different ethnicities backgrounds and viewpoints. By banning these classes students aren’t given the opportunity to expand their knowledge of their own ethnic background or others for that matter. If courses are considered to be “bias” or cause students to feel bitter and resent others, then make adjustments to the material, don’t ban the courses all together.

  6. Katie Nelson permalink

    I believe that Ethnic studies classes are there to broaden our definition of race and demonstrate the impact it has on our everyday lives, whether we admit its there or not. The fact that this man wants to ban the class is ridiculous, especially because he was there to see the MLK speech and should be more understanding and proactive toward shaping Cultural Ethnic studies classes toward a positive environment. Those that believe its in favor of a certain or particular race are misinformed.

  7. Hilary Spink permalink

    I think Tom Horne had a semi-valid point that Ethnic studies classes might make an even bigger defining line between races. However, when he started rambling about the UNIVERSAL OVERTHROW OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and RACE WARS he lost a lot of credibility and started looking like a kook. Also Horne said there is no such thing as a white history class. I can tell you at WSU its called HIST 101 (the most boring/remedial class ever in my opinion) all about European history aka White history.

    I believe banning Ethnic Studies classes is parallel to banning books. The information still exists even if the administration does not want to admit that it exists. Banning a book or a class supports the notion that ignorance is bliss, which when discussing race is certainly not the solution.

    • Doesn’t any class have the potential to divide and create tensions? Doesn’t silence and the erasure of issues have the same potential (if not worse). As you note doesn’t an anthropology, sociology, English, history, political science, etc. have the potential, depending on its narrative, ideology, message, acceptance, also have the potential to cause divisions?

  8. Jacob Holmes permalink

    It baffles me that this guy is talking about how ethnic study classes causes more racial discrimination than when not having the class. Education causes less discrimination, and more acceptance around the world. Ethnic study classes causes people to learn the difference between race and ethnicity, this guy “doesn’t want to divide them up” which is something that caused the Jim Crow laws, and slavery, because of ignorance. With education comes knowledge that we are all one race, and are a part of different ethnicity’s of our own beliefs and cultures we are born into that have been happening for hundreds and thousands of years. Without ethnic studies, the aging adolescents are just going to fall back into the same-ol-same-ol ways of our grandparents, ignorance of other cultures and people who do not look like the white majority of our country. We need acceptance and knowledge of the whole world, not just our tiny little bubble around us in order to create a more just society.

  9. Hailey Pusich permalink

    After watching this video I don’t understand why Mr. Horne wants to ban and end ethnic studies. I believe that only good can come from ethnic study classes. This class is an ethnic studies class and even after only a week of taking it, it has become one of my most interesting classes and really made me think about race and the way I interact and treat people who are of a different race. Banning ethnic studies classes to me is like taking away not only African-American freedom but any races freedom. Why shouldn’t we learn about other races and cultures? Everyone should have the opportunity to be able to learn about other cultures regardless of your race.

    • How do you think the opposition to Ethnic Studies in Arizona connects to ideas of who/who isn’t a citizen, whose history/voice matters, and how definitions of civilization are in operation? Is it simply about learning “cultures” but also learning about violence, discrimination, and the broader history. What might this history challenge and why is there opposition here? Keep the conversation going

  10. Brittany Dyess permalink

    After rading this article and watching the video I would like to first adress my thoughts to Tom Horne’s “thesis”. From what I got out of his statements, he is saying that there shouldnt be any classes that focus on one race and ethnicity because its unfair. But for over 100 years there has only been one race’s history that’s been taught in the education system which is european history.

    For him to base his whole “ideology” around Dr. martin Luther kings speach stating”to be judged by the context of our charachter and not the color of our skin,” I think its ignorant,ironic, and he is taking MLK’s statement out of context. If anything he should be PROMOTING these classes, because How are white people going to know about african americans and other races without being educated in some way?Most people outside of those races base there knowledge off of what is in the media, stereotypes, non cultural experiences, and perceptions. So he is pretty much saying, cut the classes, and lets not cloud there current uneducated minds with the real stuff!Lets not give any other race recognition on their struggles or accomplishments.He is saying theses other cultures are IRRELEVANT. I Feel like he wants students to only know about european history..which has been happening for 100’s of years already!.

  11. Todd Mehrkens permalink

    After watching this discussion and reading the article I think the main purpose of ethnic studies is to teach people about different ethnicities, so they can understand concepts about other racial groups and their own too. By learning these concepts people will become more aware of racial history and how race has impacted society. I think some assumptions people make about this course is that people will learn about other ethnicity and disadvantages and advantages of being a certain ethnicity. Also that is course is mostly focused on who to blame in society due to how some ethnicities treat other ethnicities in society. I believe there is such a big backlash in these programs is because some people are too judgmental in believing that this class is only to teach people who to blame in society and that this class will create a greater divide between ethnicities, which is not the case.

  12. Gary Barquet permalink

    I think the purpose of ethnic studies is to raise awareness of other cultures and other races to other cultures and races. Also to provide a history of a certain culture and go into a certain depth with deeper thought that is not reached in other classes. The assumptions people make about ethnic studies courses is that what ever race is being covered in the class will contain that majority race in the class. Causing a certain division of races in the school. There is a backlash simply because of the fact people don’t want their programs and schools to be seen as one to divide races and cultures.

  13. DeShaun Mizner permalink

    I agree with the majority of the class, that awareness is a major factor in the point of ethnic studies. I believe we should have had classes in high school that should have raised awareness to these kind of racial issues. Some people might assume that ethnic studies is solely for history purposes only, showing HOW things were, HOW people were treated hundreds of years ago and HOW things are different now. But ethnic studies should be a class where all of our minds grow diverse among issues as well as among others.
    I think there may be a backlash on these programs because of the racy material that may be covered. Such as the slavery movement four hundred years ago. Or the “slavery” movement 50 years ago during the civil rights movement. There are certain people who feel that these issues no longer are important, even though they are still affecting people to this very day. These courses might be frowned upon because of the certain bias one could take. Saying that, i believe so far that Mr. Leonard has done a great job on keeping things in a perspective to where everyone can see a side.

  14. Amanda Fu permalink

    After watching this discussion, I think that the purpose of ethnic studies is to teach everybody about different ethnicities and the people in that ethnic groups’ contributions to the world and therefore to overcome racism with everybody understanding each other a little bit more. However, seeing this video, I do believe that Tom Horne believes that by banning ethnic studies, that he is getting rid of racism, but I do not believe that he really understands how having these classes can be a positive step towards ending racism. Because, as shown in the video, he talks about how ethnic studies classes can cause even bigger drifts between each ethnicity, but there is nothing that says that only people of that heritage can take the class. Which would be consider a backlash to having ethnic studies classes, in that perhaps only people of a certain ethnicity will want to take that class, or other people of different ethnicities will be afraid to take the class because the class seems to be directed more for those students of its ethnicity.

  15. Julia Balaban permalink

    I believe that the purpose of ethic studies is to teach people about how culturally different we all are, yet with how far we have come to show how every different person does make up who America is today. The video was trying to also teach everyone about different ethnicities so they can learn about others racial groups, including your own. I believe that trying to basically segregate different races into their races classes is degrading. Looking how far society has come today doing this basically reverses some of the progress Americans have made. Ethnic studies classes are a basis for learning about your own ethnicities and others as well.

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