• August 28, 2015

The Future of Ethnic Studies

The field is under assault from without and within

The Future of Ethnic Studies 1

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle Review

Enlarge Image
close The Future of Ethnic Studies 1

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle Review

On May 11, 2010, less than a month after signing SB 1070, which many people hold legalizes racial profiling, Arizona's Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB 2281 into law. That law bans schools from teaching classes that are designed for students of a particular ethnic group or that promote resentment, ethnic solidarity, or overthrow of the U.S. government. "Public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people," it reads.

According to Tom Horne, the state's superintendent of public instruction and one of the bill's principal sponsors, the law was aimed at Chicano studies as taught in the Tucson school system. He called the program "harmful and dysfunctional." Judy Burns, president of the Tucson Unified School District's governing board, disagreed, declaring that Chicano studies benefits students by promoting critical thinking.

The caricatures and falsehoods implied in the language of HB 2281 and in the arguments in its favor are as old as the field of ethnic studies, of which Chicano studies is a part. And while the Arizona law deals with primary and secondary schools, the issue is very much alive in higher education as well. There, too, ethnic studies, now almost half a century old, is facing threats: from budget cuts that often hit the smallest and newest programs first, from scholars who have transformed ethnic studies into multiculturalism and the study of difference, from critics who say ethnic studies is divisive—and from ethnic studies itself.

In light of the "culture wars" of the 1980s and 90s, the arguments of Arizona's political leaders appear positively old-fashioned. They say that ethnic studies has been created only by and for particular racial groups, and that it promotes hatred of whites and minority-group solidarity. Thus the "harmful" and "dysfunctional" nature of ethnic studies is allegedly that it creates social cleavages where, presumably, none existed before. Those battles were waged and resolved years ago—in favor of multiculturalists. Even former advocates of a single national culture now agree that the United States is and has always been a diverse nation, and that its study, accordingly, must reflect that fact.

Moreover, many sectors of American society, including prominently the military, businesses, and members of the cultural sphere, know that diversity is important. That's why a record number of institutions filed friend-of-the-court briefs, arguing that diversity is a compelling interest, in the affirmative-action case decided in 2003 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger.

Still, Arizona's anxieties over border controls, both within the state and along its fences with Mexico, reflect a national concern over solidifying consensus at home while imposing imperial order abroad. History shows that wars, especially divisive conflicts, promote homogeneity rather than diversity, and that intolerance of difference patrols the perimeters of patriotism. The contentious U.S. imperial wars of the late 19th century in the Caribbean and Pacific were accompanied and followed by immigration restrictions justified by eugenics and fears of "swamping" the white race. In our time, we witness wars abroad and a securing of the homeland against immigrants, as well as curtailments of our civil liberties.

The problem of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois famously declared, was the problem of the color line. Race, or, more accurately, the way race is socially constructed and contested, constituted the pivot for social relations as imperialism closed the 19th century and the decolonization struggles of Africa and Asia dominated (from the perspective of the colonies) the 20th century. The contest between the ideology that propped up colonialism, on the one hand, and the commitment to self-determination and the eradication of racism, on the other, survived the white-against-white aspect of World Wars I and II.

In the words of the philosopher-revolutionary Frantz Fanon, the third world, conceived in the mid-20th century as Africa, Asia, and Latin America, was a project by the periphery to solve the core's problems of imperialism, wars, and systems of bondage. Those goals of self-determination and anti-racism, which defined the third-world project, were what the students of the Third World Liberation Front, at San Francisco State College, had in mind in 1968, when they stated as their purpose in proposing ethnic studies: "to aid in further developing politically, economically, and culturally the revolutionary third-world consciousness of oppressed peoples both on and off campus."

The transnational color line at the 20th century's start narrowed into nationalist struggles in Africa and Asia by the century's midpoint. Perhaps as a result, ethnic studies, which began amid postcolonial nation-building, lost its bearings in the thicket of identity politics and nationalism. Black power and its permutations, an effective antidote to the poison of a colonized mentality and a radical declaration for self-determination, also bore the stain of white identity politics and programs of national and manly reconstitution. Patterned on nationalisms abroad and identity politics at home that promoted homogeneity and punished difference for the sake of solidarity, U.S. cultural nationalism among peoples of color pursued that same policing of the borders it struggled against, along with the nation-state's patriarchy and heterosexuality. As feminists of color have pointed out, cultural nationalism was saturated with patriarchy and homophobia, and in that way mimicked and formed alliances with the dominant order.

Resistance to European imperialism and a discourse of global white supremacy also prompted the liberating ideas of Négritude (the belief in a singular black or African identity throughout the diaspora) and Pan-Africanism (the unity of all African peoples). But like the "universal" claims to national sovereignty, humanism, and individual rights that arose from European roots, third-world self-determination, along with the claims of American Indians and Hawaiians to sovereignty, floundered in the terrain and language of the first world. The conundrum involved, in a rephrasing of the Caribbean-American writer Audre Lorde's well-known formulation: Can the master's tools dismantle the master's house?

Today ethnic studies looks in a much more disciplined way at power and how it articulates around the axes of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and nation. That insight was the contribution of the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist-activist group, which, in 1977, saw that "the major systems of oppression are interlocking." For a new generation of ethnic-studies scholars, the focus is not just—or even foremost—on the relations between white and nonwhite people but on relations among peoples of color and the multiple dimensions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation.

While postcolonialism's heterogeneity and fluidity can illuminate power and its effects—for example, showing its contingent and malleable nature—it can also, however, deny the realities of social structures and human experience, and absolve global citizens from local responsibility and action. Further, postcolonialism's universalism and disregard of borders resonate with the rise of global capitalism—and the global university—and its paralyzing indeterminacy.

Ethnic-studies practitioners, accordingly, bear some of the responsibility for the field's infirmities. Despite resurgent student interest and hostile critiques like those in Arizona, we have failed to articulate the compelling intellectual and social necessity of our field for any educated person. Ethnic studies is not identity politics, multiculturalism, or an intellectual form of promoting affirmative action for people of color. Those detours trivialize the political claims of the discipline, reducing the analysis of power relations and their interventions to cultural celebrations and lessons in cultural competence.

But the greatest threat to the field, it appears to me, arises not from willful racists or inarticulate ethnic-studies scholars, but from liberals who have derailed the field's radical challenges into a celebration of cultural diversity and multiculturalism, or into a transnational project that loses specificity and, some might add, responsibility even as it attempts to grapple with the ideas and realities of the present moment. No longer centrally at stake are the nation-state and its particular history and formations of conquest and extermination, land appropriation and labor exploitation, regimes of inclusion and exclusion, and expansion and imperialism. Deliberately blunted is the political edge of ethnic studies, with its focus on power and demands for a more inclusive and just republic (and university) through a dismantling of hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation.

Here at Columbia University, what was once ethnic studies is being transformed, in the name of "globalization" and the study of "difference," into a field of race and ethnicity devoid of a coherent literary tradition, methodology and theory, and even practitioners. Thus the university's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race is proposing a new major, a generic and global study of ethnicity and race, to replace the present comparative ethnic-studies major. Columbia has also announced a research initiative to combine the work of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia, as well as the Barnard Center for Research on Women. It is to be called the Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference.

By contrast, I believe that ethnic studies, while necessarily global, should be anchored within the United States. Its capacious subject matter should be "social formation," which Marxist writings posit as the form and stage of society, both its structure and changes over time. For ethnic studies, the social structure is conceived and cultivated by power and the relations among race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and nation as discrepant and intersecting constructions.

Social formation attends to the multiplicity of forces at work in the positions and exercises of power. It demands a complexity in our thinking and politics about the overlap and conflict of social categories. Individual subjectivities and social relations are never solitary or fixed; we can see ourselves simultaneously as people of color, women, and members of the working class, and under capitalism our class interests might clash with our privileges of citizenship.

In the past few years, students have been protesting a steady stream of cuts in ethnic-studies departments, centers, and programs. At the same time, it is not inconsequential that we face a present moment of danger, of U.S. imperial wars abroad and denial of civil liberties at home, of an allied war being waged against migrants in the name of sovereign borders and against freedoms of speech and thought and religion. At risk is not merely ethnic studies, but also our democracy.

Gary Y. Okihiro is a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, where he was founding director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.


1. footbook - July 05, 2010 at 02:10 am

<Comment removed by moderator>

2. supertatie - July 06, 2010 at 06:22 am

This article, I'm afraid, does ethnic studies no favors by serving up the same anti-U.S. (and therefore, presumably anti-white-majority) bias.

"U.S. imperial wars abroad"???? Recommending that we use "Marxist writings" as a basis for understanding race and social power?

I rest my case. If this is what ethnic studies is, good riddance.

And for those programs which survive - like Columbia's new major - here's hoping scholars have the cojones - not to mention intellectual integrity and historical accuracy - to actually teach students about the oppression of non-whites by their own people. Indigenous peoples in South America, for example, were enslaving, sacrificing, and cannibalizing other indigenes long before the Europeans arrived. Tribes in Africa had their own ignominious political and social practices. Egyptians enslaved Greeks. Etc., etc.

Casting the history of the human race in the boring, tired, and antiquated terms of a failed political ideology (Marxism) not only ignores the human suffering caused by political oppression, poverty, and forced social stratification that Marxism has created EVERYWHERE it has been tried -- it also denies the historical truth of non-whites' political and economic power in earlier centuries, as well as ALL humans' capacity and inclination to subjugate other humans - regardless of the subjugators' "color," race," or ethnicity.

3. steiny - July 06, 2010 at 06:58 am

It is amazing to see some of the privilege written in the comments section.

4. henri2896 - July 06, 2010 at 07:59 am

Why did the moderator allow "balls" (cojones) to be introduced into a serious article? Not only is that comment sexist but it is also ignorant.

5. luder - July 06, 2010 at 08:08 am

Because, I suppose, cher Henri, the moderator is not a prig.

6. what4 - July 06, 2010 at 08:09 am

Anyone disposed to dislike ethnic studies will probably continue to do so after reading this article.

Folks in every discipline need to face the reality that they have to justify themselves to the ordinary taxpayers (and their elected representatives) whose funds support them.

What good does ethnic studies do? What makes it worth what it costs? Where is evidence that it is worth paying for? What do ethnic studies professors do to justify their salaries? What roles do ethnic studies graduates fill in the world?

Every academic discipline must now answer such questions. Those who can't may lose their funding.

Next time you defend ethnic studies in an article, I suggest you get a good editor with a background in PR to help you make the case more effectively.

7. richardtaborgreene - July 06, 2010 at 09:06 am

Unfortunately the United States (mostly the South and therefore Republicans) are terribly racist as anyone doing social science soon picks up in their data, whatever their research topic.

BUT in the rest of the world, more fortunately, there are lots of types of diversity besides skin color that get funding and attention so diversity is used more and more beneficially by and large compared to the self righteous and bitter discourses and law suits in the US for similar topics.

This is the cost of spending generations stripping parents, healthcare, and education from poor people (disproportionately of certain skin colors) in the USA (and lots of other nations)---rational use of various kinds of diversity is vitiated by nasty fights, law suits, protective behaviors, and avoidance of all ideas that might be miscontrued as "discriminatory". Bitterness drives all thought out of expression and good people learn that truth has no place in universities (challenging students becomes a death sentence in subject after subject). In this way unadmitted past crimes haunt and undermine capability in future generations till entire cultures, nations, and civilizations, unwilling to apologize to the skin colors they abused, die with them.

There might be more constructive ways to respond to all this but the Prime Ministers of Canada, and Australia are far beyond leaders of the USA in such capabilities to lead. It is a pity.

Ethnic studies are very valuable both to abused ethnic groups and to whites and others totally unrespecting and unaware of what contributions they made in spite of historic impediments (not to say bigotry, laws, and abuse).

However intellectually ethnicity is one out of 20 types of diversity and the USA is tragically condemned to that narrowness while other nations investigate with full funding 19 other types of diversity. I wish Americans would apologize deeply and financially enough to free their laws and minds to deal with these other types, but wishing never was reality and my wishes are not particular important or relevant. It is a pity.

8. honore - July 06, 2010 at 09:46 am

<Comment removed by moderator>

9. trendisnotdestiny - July 06, 2010 at 10:05 am


Since when is owning our part of colonialism, oppression and the impacts of globalization anti-american? I would argue that the most American thing we can do is criticize our country in spaces of what we know to be true, however unpleasant... A Few examples,

1) Labeling countries Marxist who want to nationalize resources
2) Funding, Abetting coups, military Junta's in:
A) Honduras (2009)- Ousting Zelaya & now his predecessor
B) Chile (1973)- Pinochet (torture in Santiago "Stadium")
C) Argentina (1976) - Disappearing of College students
D) Guatemala (1954) Arbenz
E) El Salvador (1979)
F) Panama (1981) Torrijos assassination
G) Brazil (1964) Goulart
H) Venzuela (2002) Overthrow Chavez (his oil fields)
I) Iran (1953) Mossadegh
3) Privatizing the world's resources
4) Cutting social ties, structures, and support
5) Protecting revenue streams that are most profitable
6) Domestically, we have similar track record in the last 30-40 years: payday lenders, stock market ponzi schemes, healthcare and accounting fraud, conglomeration of media interests and large changes to our regulatory (BP, Goldman Sachs, Massey Mining) structures and statutory ones as well (recent supreme court ruling on election finance).....

After reading your comments, supertatie, I am unsure what world you are looking out upon... The last thirty years have been marked by one orgy of unrestrained capitalistic project after another all while allowing the west to cast everyone who does not agree with free-market economic principles (btw a very unpopular notion for most of this century in the capitalist world)as marxist in their effort to spread privatized and de-regulated markets......

Anymore, one none need be a marxist to criticize American economic and political policies all over the globe... hell we have more bases than Rome did? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_military_bases (THAT WE KNOW ABOUT)

10. joechill - July 06, 2010 at 10:26 am

Everyone needs to relax. The implications of the Arizona law are staggering in a wonderful way. If there can be no favoring of a single ethnic group, then the canon must be inclusive of a wide range of voices. Focusing on Western History is now outlawed because "white" and European, from the perspective of the bill's authors, are synonymous. Math classes must focus on the discoveries of the Aztecs, Indians, and Arabs, and not associate math and technology with a single ethnic group.

I hope there are educators in Arizona reading the law in this way. This is the debate to have because it reveals that what most of the Arizona legislators think of as education is really white ethnic studies.

11. bazan - July 06, 2010 at 10:29 am

A comment from a French "Republican", that is a defensor of democracy.
1) It seems unthinkable to defend "gender studies" with, as argument, the fact that a Governor pass a law to forbid school classes reserved to an ethnic category. In France, no only it is forbiden by the constitution, but the argument would appear as a good reason to condamn "ethnic studies.
2) Ethnic subjects are like gender subjects, they are legitimate subjects of research in social sciences : sociology, economics, political science, etc. But they are not scientific disciplines by themselves. So departments of ethnic studies are suspected to serve other objectives than science.

12. rachaelski - July 06, 2010 at 10:38 am

We need to have ethnic studies courses, from elementary through post-secondary, until the history curriculums presented in schools is inclusive and representative of ALL Americans. As a doc. student in education, my research interests circle around history education--methods and presentation. Last term, I focused on two issues 1) images used in an 8th grade American History textbook and 2) Positions of power in a section of the same text. Simply put, I found that the particular text I studied had the most blaise and flat images uses in a section on ancient civilizations--Mayans and Incans! Kids love learning about these ancient cultures and the images presented are boring pencil drawings of headshots! With a simple web search, I was able to find images that showed the hierachry of the Incan culture while at the same time displaying what a city may look like. The image supported the history itself as well as higher level thinking skills! In addition, I suggested the use of images comparing ancient and present Mayan culture and comparing present Mayan culture with regional American culture (i.e. Mayan merchant being compared visually to a NYC hot dog vendor).

As far as elements of power, I found that the writers of the text focused on the white historical figures, heroifying them, while going pages without mentioning a single name of a Native American, without individualizing Native groups and people, and without supporting details of Native American life, culture, and decisions (this sections dealt with the Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears).

As educators, we cannot get rid of ethnic studies courses until we incorporate our whole history into survey courses. Women and people of color are ignored completely, presented as a generic lump sum, and it hurts our understanding of history.

Also, someone commented the purpose behind ethnic studies classes, majors, etc. I earned my masters in international affairs, in an Area Studies program. After completing that program, I joined Teach for America, taught, and now I am working on my PhD in education. I apply the knowledge I gained during my area studies program on a daily basis. One doesn't simply take classes about the study area (though wouldn't that be lovely to be able to do that?), instead there are focus areas. My focus area was economic geography and development. I took traditional geography classes, but studied and applied my knowledge to my area of study. The focus of my dissertation is in the region I studied during my Area Studies program. A friend in the same program went on to law school, with the goal of practicing law that serves immigrants from our area of study. In some cases these programs can be directly applicable (for example, many Latio/a studies programs are beginning to focus on border studies and immigration) while others are contributing to a student's knowledge and understanding of the world as a whole.

13. 11122741 - July 06, 2010 at 10:57 am

wanted to mail back my Columbia degree after reading this article; so sad, so far from the tree whose seeds should be about the common good, inidividuals not group, the content of characters and citizenship. Glad I got a decent education at Columbia when there were actual professors there and not huckster self-promotion colonialist politican ....i.e., ethnic studiests.

14. oscarw - July 06, 2010 at 11:02 am

Aside from the Arizona just being the product of ignorance and fear, let's look at these ethnic studies. Whether they are about Chicano studies or "womyn's" studies or Black studies, they are all just hobbies elevated to "academic" stature because you need a Ph. D. in your hobby to teach this stuff. It is of no practical utility and only you and yours care about it (I'm Mexican). No one cares when you are looking for work that you majored in these "studies". They're as utilitarian as a doctorate in science fiction. These programs are purely P.C. cloaked as advanced studies. If i'm interested in the history of the tamal, fine. It's a useless sideline even though mildly gratifying to a single individual.
Time for these "studies" to be relegated to the Coninuing Ed. department and concentrating on the essentials of the three Rs.

15. 11232247 - July 06, 2010 at 11:10 am

I have to admit that achieving tenure in an ethnic studies department seems like a great gig if one can get it. In fact, I am downright envious of those who get paid to teach what New York physics professor Alan Sokal once called "Fashionable Nonsense."

As long as gullible students (and their equally gullible parents) continue to pay real tuition dollars and as long as politically correct administrations continue to subsidize these pseudo-Marxist diatribes mascarading as serious investitgative studies, they should thrive. On the other hand, market forces may prove their eventual undoing.

Unless you are a minorty (or from some other put-upon victim cohort) and you also wish to work for either the government or some quietly contemptious academy, who else is hiring people with one of these "special" types of degrees? Who indeed?

And so it goes...

16. nativepoet - July 06, 2010 at 11:12 am

You just need a chapbook and an indigenous background to make it big.

17. areliss - July 06, 2010 at 11:43 am

"History shows that wars, especially divisive conflicts, promote homogeneity rather than diversity, and that intolerance of difference patrols the perimeters of patriotism."

How very true. It seems that during times of war, xenophobia runs rampant and is accepted as a part of patriotism.

This was an excellent article.

18. gplm2000 - July 06, 2010 at 11:45 am

One of the more ignorant articles in this edition of Chronicle. Good example of this style of thinking: "...the arguments of Arizona's political leaders appear positively old-fashioned. They say that ethnic studies has been created only by and for particular racial groups, and that it promotes hatred of whites and minority-group solidarity." Yes, right-on!

Living in Virginia, I see the actions of HBCUs. They are little more than mini-societies of social upheaval and hatred for US society. Most attitudes favor a Marxist approach to running society. Obama is their idol, leader and hope for naive social change.

Ethnic studies has never been about more than American blacks, period. It has become a major, defining moment, for those who pursue the political and social propaganda. It is who they are. Not Americans, but.... Time for a change.

19. soc_sci_anon - July 06, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Like other humanist disciplines, ethnic studies is struggling to emerge from the morass of deconstructionist claptrap in which it has been mired since it embraced postmodernism. It's too bad, because there's still much room for social scientific analyses of racial and ethnic differences (and similarities) in life chances and experiences. But, contemporary ethnic studies is a very small tent indeed, and if you don't drink the anti-postivist Kool-aid, you're not welcome under it.

This being said, I think the AZ law is completely misguided. It's a form of pro-nationalistic censorship that would be right at home in Musselini's Italy.

20. msharkins - July 06, 2010 at 12:50 pm

You know, gplm2000, I was about to seriously respond to your comments, but I saw you were from Virginia. Never mind. :-)

Ok, seriously.

Is it just me or am I the only one wondering what will be taught if ethnic studies programs are removed from academia? I believe the purpose of ethnic studies is to promote some kind of balance in the telling of American history. At the core of this country's population growth was, and still is, immigration, whether voluntary or involuntary. It troubles me that many of you are purporting that ethnic studies programs pushes 'anti-White' sentiments, but when recounting the historical existence of other ethnic groups in this country, there is undeniable proof that the subjugation/marginalization of those ethnic groups was at the power and control of individuals who were 'White'. Do we simply glaze over that fact and pretend it has no historical significance and impact on ethnic groups here and abroad?

Besides, the sheer omittance and/or skim-over of ethnic history in the American History curriculum from primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels can be determined as 'anti-ethnic'. You see, one does not justify the other---removing ethnic studies programs will set academia back a few decades. Considering that the US Census Bureau is continuing to project that this country's fastest growing population sectors are comprised of ethnic individuals, these programs serve more of a purpose now than ever before.

Now, I do agree that ethnic studies programs should be re-structured rather than glazed over to appear more 'acceptable'. Even the writer of this commentary suggested that ethnic studies scholars are to blame as well for their poor handling of the discipline. I am not the biggest fan of Marxism, but I am a big fan of recounting history accurately and ensuring that it is all-inclusive; meaning every single aspect from African tribal slavery to the political, social, and economic ramifications of European sanctions and manipulation of labor in Third World countries.

21. rsamala - July 06, 2010 at 01:19 pm

A comment from an Asian American women, who minored in Asian American studies and working well with that degree:
It disgusts me to hear such criticism of the validity of ethnic studies. Can you get a job with this degree? Yes, and it's not as an academic glorifying his/her hobby. What's the purpose of ethnic studies? For those of us who are considered "ethnic" in the wonderful United States and to remind us that we have made contributions to this nation besides what the books told us from K-12th grade, in addtion to the contributions of white men centuries ago. And any white American who considers themself European, go to Europe and ask what they consider you. For those agreeing with current AZ policies, please ask yourself how this differs from the Nazis?

In this time of globalism, we should be focusing on how we are alike through our values and experiences regardless of our diverse cultures. Through ethnic studies, we are able to understand our histories while identifying similarities in experiences and values among diverse cultures/races/ethnicities. The good programs know how to perform these goals eloquently and develop leaders positioned to work collaboratively. What's wrong with that?

22. fizmath - July 06, 2010 at 02:07 pm

I am not sure if the AZ program resembles the Nazi policies but you can be sure it resembles virtually every nation on Earth and is mild compared to Mexico's immigration enforcement.

Who in the USA is not considered ethnic? Are there ethnic studies programs for Slavs and Celts? If the textbooks focus mostly on white contributions that might have something to do with the leadership being almost completely white until recently. History is what happened, not what you wish had happened.

23. rachaelski - July 06, 2010 at 02:44 pm


There certainly are European studies programs, the focus area depends on the school but they are all over the place. I study at an institution that is a minority-majority, and there is a European Studies program.

I would argue with this statement:
"If the textbooks focus mostly on white contributions that might have something to do with the leadership being almost completely white until recently." The history presented to students is centered on the white male, and points out only the positive, hero-worthy elements of those men. Take Andrew Jackson for example, in a K-12 text, you will be hardpressed to find a negative or even critical word to be said about him, nevermind the fact he was an opportunistic land surveyor determined to acquire Native land and broke many promises and treaties with Native groups. American history is a fairytale and, as my 8th grade student put it, "always end each chapter with a happy ending." Ethnic studies courses open up the opportunity to look at history critically.

History is what happened, not what has been edited into history textbooks.

24. performance_expert2 - July 06, 2010 at 03:04 pm

I just have to share this. I do not know what they are teaching at Columbia but I had a Columbia .phd give me a good dressing down on the subject of "white privilege" and did I not admit to white privilege since I am "white?" This was very heated and I was stunned. I was also stunned that this person from Columbia is in a much higher caste than me, has completely their advanced degrees quickly and early and currently works in a manner where they can enjoy the morning and set much of their own hours whereas I clock in to a job before the sun comes up, M-F like a clock. As I said there is a difference in caste. So, this person was positively loading the coal to me, demanding that I own up to my white privilege. I was speechless as I thought of how my mother used to take blood thinners to prevent swelling and blood clots in her legs during the hundreds of miles she drove to cover a state territory selling medical equipment and how I worked jobs since I was 12 years old and bought my own groceries and fixed my own dinners. I guess that sums it up except that I did not endorse or agree with this person's demand that I account for my white privilege. This is a true story and I was quite blind-sided by the weird aggression and dogma from this Columbia University graduate. 'Just feel a genuine responsibility to share this information and maybe deprogram myself from it a little. Needless to say, this has affected my academic outlook in a few areas, I am still processing the experience.


25. 22261984 - July 06, 2010 at 03:49 pm

Here is Linda Chavez's recent take on ethnic studies programs: http://www.ceousa.org/content/view/772/68/

26. echavez1962 - July 06, 2010 at 06:14 pm

The comments on this page, for the most part, make it clear that Ethnic Studies needs to continue and work harder to obliterate hate on college campuses. Honore's comments are especially hateful. If that's not white privilege, I don't know what is.

27. agpbloom - July 06, 2010 at 10:55 pm

I was struck in college by the stark difference between how culture was approached in anthropology and education courses.

Often, my anthropology courses were taught by experts who had specialized in the study of a particular region of the world, taking years to develop the linguistic and theoretical skills needed to better understand the society they studied.

However, in education courses, I noted a kind of superficiality regarding culture in terms of clearly-demarcated ethnic groups like African American, White, Hispanic and Asian. This did not deter speakers from appearing very confident when talking about "diversity" training or "multiculturalism." Ethnicity was far more problematic in anthropology where simple labels like "White"(Northern European, Icelandic, Southern European, etc.) or "Asian" (Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Hmong, etc.) were not considered adequate to characterize the many, many different geographical and regional, as well as ethnic, nuances.

Put simply...I did not find the anthropologists so confident about summing up people groups or multiculturalism. On the other hand, it seemed that colleges of education had no problem with this move.

28. honore - July 06, 2010 at 11:44 pm

<Comment removed by moderator>

29. azamatterofact - July 07, 2010 at 01:56 am


I think sometimes in the zeal for expressing a passionate viewpoint people can get lost in their argument and not hear the feedback they are receiving. While I ultimately agree with the instructor who wanted you to see your white privilege, I can see how that experience would be difficult to process.

My background: I am a white female, born and raised below the poverty line by a mentally-ill single mother of four by four different absentee fathers. Given that poverty and minority so often go hand-in-hand, my neighborhood was predominantly either black or hispanic for most of my childhood. Since my mother was ill, much of my time was spent in the care of neighbors, mostly people of color. Therefore I do not identify culturally and emotionally with what people see as my race. My skin may be white, but my heart, at least, is divided.

That being said, I can understand your viewpoint. Where was my privilege? We often didn't have electricity. Sometimes I ate out of garbage cans. I was abused by my mother, whose circumstances were overwhelming, who didn't have the tools to overcome them, so she took it out on us. She had no education, our education suffered when we missed school because we were homeless or for various other reasons. Where was my privilege? I'm white, shouldn't life have been easier if those claims are true?

The thing I realized when I started to study this phenomenon is that white privilege doesn't mean that all whites are privileged. Obviously that's not the case, or my story would not be true. White privilege means, essentially, this: ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL, the person with white skin will have the advantage. Consider that for a moment.

Perhaps that instructor you speak of has privileges that you did not. Perhaps THEY don't understand how powerful their wealth privilege has been in their life. But if that person had been born into the same circumstances as you, most likely they would come out behind. Consider: When I was in high school, my good friend Tameka and I committed the exact same offense. I was angry with the principal, I yelled a few choice words at her, and I stormed out of the office. I was suspended for three days. Tameka, who is black, said almost the same thing I did a few weeks later (I was there; she was tame compared to me). She was expelled. We had identical academic records -- both honors students, both with no history of discipline problems. But the principal viewed my outburst as a minor infraction by emotional teenager, and viewed Tameka's outburst as a threat. Even though I was there for both incidents, I know what was said, and of the two of us I was definitely more likely to follow up with physical violence than my friend, there was no convincing the principal that she was wrong. I was all geared up to fight the school with Tameka, and she told me there was no point; that's what it means to be black. That struck me right in the heart; she was tired of fighting, and she was only fifteen.

I grew up seeing the little ways being a person of color really does have an impact on privilege when you add them all up together. Now as an adult, I still see it. It impacts education and employment, the fundamental tools of success in our country, and it is still as present as when I was a kid.

My niece and nephew are biracial (their dad is black). They are both off-the-charts gifted. For a full school year with my niece, and again with my nephew, my sister went around with the teachers and school about getting her children tested. They were bored, they were getting in trouble because the work wasn't challenging (VERY typical with gifted kids of ALL ethnicities), but the teachers just wouldn't see it. Now you might say that has nothing to do with race, but research shows that white teachers are far less likely to identify giftedness where clearly present in minority children than white children. And the majority of teachers are white. That speaks to MY white privilege (I was identified by my white teachers as gifted in kindergarten, so I always knew that my brains were going to get me out of the poverty I was born into). It also speaks to the DISADVANTAGE of children of color. My sister fought for her kids, they finally got tested, and now they are in appropriate academic programs and are doing well. But what if they had been born to a mother like mine? Mine wouldn't have been able to fight for me. She didn't have to because I'm white and the teachers saw in me what they wouldn't see in my niece and nephew. If my sister hadn't been able to fight for her kids, they would have done what most gifted kids do when they aren't properly challenged: continued getting in trouble. Do you see how race creates advantage here?

It would be silly to argue that all white people are privileged and all people of color are not. That would be like saying all white people are racist and all people of color are not. But privilege is about unearned advantages. Like starting a race from different places and shooting for the same finish line. There are various factors that go into your position from the finish line: race, economic background, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation, to name a few. Being white, male, straight, able-bodied, English-speaking, and wealthy puts you closest to the finish line in this country. For each of those categories you don't fit into you move back a yard. The distance between you and the person of color behind you is white privilege; that doesn't mean there aren't people of color ahead of you, depending on how many steps back your circumstances had you take. But there are no people of color who start out at the front of the race; that position is reserve for the rich white men. They might pass them up, but that only means they ran harder and faster, not that the race was fair to begin with.

30. dank48 - July 07, 2010 at 08:30 am

It's interesting how little discussion there has been here of the Arizona law itself. Everyone is ready to condemn it, but nobody talks about it. "Sentence first, trial afterward."

In another discussion, it's summed up as prohibiting:

1. Courses advocating the overthrow of the government of the U.S.
2. Courses that promote hatred of any ethnic group.
3. Courses designed and reserved for members of any ethnic group to the exclusion of others.
4. Courses advocating ethnic solidarity rather than treatment of people as individuals.

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but I can't see anything in these prohibitions to object to, although the fourth could be considered questionable without the qualifier. I see nothing wrong with ethnic (or other) solidarity unless that solidarity comes at the price of denying individuality.

Some of the defenses of ethnic studies are shocking in their naivete. Tom Lehrer has a line about the whole '60s self-righteousness folk-singer stance: "We're against poverty, war, and injustice / Unlike the rest of you squares."

31. midwest79 - July 07, 2010 at 10:59 am


Well stated! Thanks for the great post.

32. prje8199 - July 07, 2010 at 11:48 am

Fashionable nonsense indeed. Ethnic Studies as they stand now build walls where we need to be breaking them down. As an historian I agree that K-12 "social studies" education needs a great deal of improvement to include a far more accurate view at how human thought and progress is as diverse as this planet.

That said, if we continue to boil down the study of increasingly individualized sets(and often self-identified sub-groups) of humans how long will it be before academia simply spalls apart into meaningless blather? At what point will American Indian Studies become Kiowa Studies and Commanche Studies? At what point will African Studies become Zulu Studies and Bemba Studies? Better yet, when will we see Islamic Studies split off to include Gay Islamic Studies?

I say stop the noise and take time to create courses that recognize the diversity, beauty, and filth of the entire human race while at the same time freeing ourselves of the false gods and harmful structures imposed by Marxist theory.

33. luder - July 07, 2010 at 12:54 pm

I am hostile to ethnic studies in general and found Okihiro's article too boring to read, but azamatterofact's response to performance_expert2 is persuasive and very eloquent. I wonder, though, if, as suggested somewhat crudely by nativepoet, halfway through the race, a race in which white men clearly have a head start, any women or non-white runners who haven't fallen by the wayside are not themselves given an equally unfair boost that propels them past their competitors. Two wrongs, etc.

34. performance_expert2 - July 07, 2010 at 01:01 pm

A spray of commentaries:

1. azamatterofact, thank you for your kind rejoinder. Yes, you have come from a certified "hell household." You're a real survivor. Please accept many kind words and best wishes and I appreciate your empathy of this bizarre thing that happened to me. Thank you.

2. At face value I do not see any problem with the Arizona law. The law is, in effect, "illegal immigrants shall be arrested." The question is does the USA wish to follow their laws? I appreciate aspect of the Arizona law that they want to uphold the law. This has been a time in the USA when the finance people steal bazillions of dollars, wreck things, and literally get billions in bonuses. It is profound, any non-victim-minded citizen should be outraged. Maybe one of the cardinal traits of the Arizona law is the simple idea of enforcing the law. US immigration has been a mess. The real way to regulate immigration is not by wasting money on fences, making concentration camp eyesores on borders, or by harassing people. The real way to regulate immigration is through labor laws and having $40k fines for businesses that hire illegal laborers. It seems someone in the ruling class of the USA likes their cheap labor to do their contruction labor, masonry, and landscaping. I think it would be better if immigration was regulated. I think that is what is conspicuous about the Arizona law, for once in the last decade, someone wants to recognize the existence of law and enforce it. It should be noted there is some cause and effect, when citizen ranchers and law enforcement are murdered by illegal persons, something must be done. I applaud Arizona and I would like to live in a sane land where sensible laws are observed and illegals can not come to live in a nether world to be laborers and vend drugs and live under the radar. I also wish businesses that fail would suffer their actions. The current national debt is @ $45,000. per person and any US citizen that reads this bears that debt and is paying interest on it.

3. Ethic studies can be applied in an excellent manner, however when person are categorized as "AA, hispanic, white, asian, etc." the persons practicing this categorization are appropriating identities in the same way that US corporate interest appropriate resources in countries outside the USA.

4. I note that persons practicing this appropriation of identity have an equally fierce tendancy to avoid to the point of making believe it does not exist? real tangible topics involving economics, infrastructure, engineering. It is like the identity politics practitioner is mired in the honey of a con-job and can not make the leap to tangible things, except maybe a wistful mention. For example, within the past week Monterrey, Mexico just got washed away in a severe flood. What would an "ethnic studies" meeting respond to this?

5. Identity appropriation, yes. From an academic perspective, if you find yourself a part of one of these departments, you are expected to distribute the Koolaid. If you are unwilling to do so, best move on.

6. I do not endorse victimology. I certainly do not endorse making an industry of victimology, I most certainly do not accept anyone telling me that I am advantaged or for that matter, appropriating my identity and generalizing me according to their need to use and manipulate people. As I do not accept other persons being appropriated and generalized, I do not allow the same in regard to myself.

7. Regarding categorization of schoolchildren as "gifted," I have known some reasonable smart individuals who had been brainwashed with the "gifted" label at an early age. I also know of arrogant adults who have children labeled as "gifted" and who are exploiting the resources this allows them. I have discussed this with my peers who were called "gifted" when they were in K-12. My point is, none of these persons seem to be achieving anything particularly profound, perhaps in part because they were told that they already had merit prior to any real achievement, and by achievement I do not mean a number on a test score.

Once upon a time, somewhere... everyone paid the same tuition, which is why it was affordable and doable for everyone, persons were not recognized as "special" unless they had done something profound and valuable for other people.

8. The United States needs to produce and tax their own recreational drugs and take responsibility for the drug gangs in Mexico fighting over who can deliver product to the recreational drug consumers in the US. The US / Mexico border cities are paying a terrible price with marauding well-financed drug lord armies having machine gun shoot-outs and practicing all manner of sick murders on civilians. If the US produced their own drugs, this would completely stop. The US needs to take responsibility for this issue and produce to meet their demand.

It's a big world out there. 'Would be nice if someone could relate to it.


35. performance_expert2 - July 07, 2010 at 01:14 pm

From a perspective that it is important to address the "white wash" or other corporate malfeasance present in US text books and history, from a perspective that it is important to study culture and civilizations on macro and micro / niche levels, is there another terminology for this study besides "ethnic studies?" In the term "anthropology" not sufficient? Is the term "cultural anthropology" simply not sexy enough or not provide enough mainstream oomph! and weight to get recognition? What is the correct term for academic specialty studying what might be called the best part of "ethic studies?" Is the term "ethnic studies" a growth that needs to be pruned from the tree? What is the correct terminology? For example, I have seen "arts" derided when universities use the term "arts and sciences" however I have not seen the arts derided when the terminoloy is used: "humanities and sciences."

36. bjmathis - July 07, 2010 at 02:04 pm

dank48 - I agree with you. We are so eager to jump at this:

Here is the link to the bill if anyone wants to read it, it is only 5 pages: www.azleg.gov/legtext/49leg/2r/bills/hb2281s.pdf

Oh and in addition to what the law restricts here are things the law specifically says it can NOT restrict:

Courses or classes for Native American pupils that are required to comply with federal law.

The grouping of pupils according to academic performance, including capability in the English language, that may result in a disparate impact by ethnicity.

Courses or classes that include the history of any ethnic group and that are open to all students, unless the course or class violates subsection A.

Courses or classes that include the discussion of controversial aspects of history.

Nothing in this section shall be construed to restrict or prohibit the instruction of the holocaust, any other instance of genocide, or the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race, or class.

37. azamatterofact - July 07, 2010 at 03:10 pm

A few things:

@performance_expert2 - Your response made my effort worthwhile. Thank you.

In regard to giftedness as a label, while I believe that the value of labels is limited and can even be counter-productive, the tangible benefit is that children who require a different approach to learning can, with that label, recieve what they require. Whether or not they ultimately capitalize on their supposed special brain-power is likely a function of their character, which is not something that our schools are successfully teaching these days. In other words, that has to come from home. It is unfortunate when it doesn't, but that is true regardless of labels. What the label did for me was a) combat the damage to my self-esteem that was inflicted by my mother and a world that has no tolerance for poor, unwashed children in ill-fitting, unmatching clothing, and b) provide a structured means to keep me engaged in school, which was my only way out of that world. Educational theorists pretty much agree that children (really all learners) need to be challenged to a degree slightly above their comfort zone to stay engaged in their learning. Too hard and they shut down, too easy and they lose interest. With the gifted label, schools recognize the need to meet those children where they are. Unfortunately, ALL children need to be met where they are, and ALL children are at different levels, but our system is designed more for cattle than cats, if you will, and under our system only kids marked 'cat' can get what they need. If you fit too closely on the bell curve of whatever they're measuring, you're cattle. It's a broken system, and I've already admitted it gave me an advantage, but since I was starting a ways back in the race I don't feel guilty for having had it.

38. performance_expert2 - July 07, 2010 at 04:51 pm




39. richardtaborgreene - July 11, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I was a white guy taught to hate ethnic studies who happened upon such a course at Harvard while dating a lady-friend (she was registered I was just being propinquitous). To my surprise I had, the course said convincingly with data, cut myself off from huge areas of what a person is and does elsewhere in the world, by accepting a white-man identity foisted on me as a kid. I gradually got convinced that Christianity was screwed up badly in particular ways, that American culture was also, that ALL cultures were screwed up in some way or other, but that those aspects of being a person written out of the white man identity I had bought into hook, line, and sinker, were extremely important, pleasant, and powerful and I want to out-grow being merely white.

Teaching ethnic studies is nearly impossibly tough (given the environment of lawsuit use today). BUT the topic is powerful an effect accelerant to personal and social growth, I believe. In my case I am grateful for that Harvard prof (do not recall the name) and that lady-friend. I think I am a little bit better and more interesting as a person as result of that tidbit of that one course I happened upon without plan or intent.

40. trendisnotdestiny - July 11, 2010 at 08:24 pm


You make excellent points and I am too appreciative of your willingness to engage something other than the dominant narrative of the white male in western societies....This process almost always involves the acceptance of "the other" as the basis to remind ourselves of our own ignorance. We all are dealing with high significance levels with small sample sizes.....

41. profdave - July 12, 2010 at 03:03 am

We are all "ethnic." True Ethnic Studies should be objective programs about everybody. That said, I can't imagine any one-semester course that could possibly teach anything useful on that scale without leaving someone out, thereby triggering the lawsuit/victim crowd who live to be offended by things that don't directly involve them.

When was the last time anyone seriously proposed White History Month?

42. rachaelski - July 12, 2010 at 10:29 am

Profdav, the purpose of Black History Month, Hispanic Cultural Month, Women's History Month is (in theory) to recognize achievements and contributions of members of society who are largely ignored in mainstream history. White people (generally, and most specifically, white men) are not ignorned, in fact their contributions are often exaggerated and overinflated. These months would not be needed if there was more equity in the history taught in K-12 and college history survey courses.

43. jsarvey - July 12, 2010 at 12:42 pm

I once heard a fantastic lecture by the late Ron Takaki, professor at UC Berkeley, and chair of probably the largest ethnic studies department in the nation. It was the best case for ethnic studies that I had ever heard. If only most ethnic studies practicioners approached it this way.

In his lecture, delivered at St. Thomas University in Minnesota, he demonstrated how he "does" ethnic studies. He said his preference is always to take a comparative approach. So for his example, he chose to examine the Irish and Chinese immigrant experience into the US. He also chose to add the lenses of gender and political economy.

He shared how great scholarship involves asking the right questions, so for his example, some key initial questions included: why did the immmigrants come? what was going on in their home countries? what was the gender make up of those waves? and how was the gender make up impacted by what was going on both in the mother country and US policy.

He asked this predominantly Irish Catholic crowd why so many Irish came in the mid 1800s. Of course, many responded with "potato famine." But then if you closely examine the dates of the wave and the dates of the famine, you see that it is an insufficient explanation. If you dig further, as he did, you'd discover that the British were transforming Ireland from a tenant farm to a ranch economy. This contribute to two things. One, it eliminated an economic role for single young Irish women (who could not get hired on to a ranch). Two, by converting land from farming to ranch, it contributed to the potato famine.

By the way, hardly anyone in the audience knew what the gender composition was for the Irish vs. Chinese vs. Italians vs. others. Answer: the Irish immigrants were overwhelmingly female. All other groups, mostly male with Chinese being the most at 99% due to US immigration policy and other factors.

Then Takaki switched to the Chinese and asked the same questions including why were they leaving? Turns out, that the same British Imperialists wrecking havoc in Ireland were also up to no good in China. Recall the Opium Wars, Boxer Rebellion, etc.

I won't retell the entire lecture here but suffice to say that in the course of 20 minutes, Takaki connected more threads and themes in US history than I had ever enountered in any history class: Irish women settling in New England--working in mills--connected via textile industry to the cotton economy of the South---to slavery--to Manifest Destiny and trail of tears--to transcontinental railroad--to Irish railroad laborers working their way West--Chinese railroad laborers working their way East--narrative ending at Promontory Point.

It was fascinating narrative and incredibly rigorous scholarship because he asked questions that mainstream historians often do not. The inclusion of the Irish experience also showed that history is not made up of just whites as oppressors and people of color as oppressed. It's more complex than that.

If more people could experience that kind of approach to ethnic studies, I think it would enjoy broader support.

John Sarvey

44. goxewu - July 18, 2010 at 05:12 pm

Re #43:

A question. Why couldn't Prof. Takai's lecture material be better situated in a history department or an anthropolgy (cultural) or sociology department? In "ethnic studies," one is usually studying or foregrounding one particular ethnicity, and so a study of, say, Irish immigration patterns would relegate Chinese immigration patterns to background, or convenient comparison. As history, anthropology or sociology, though, the subject would have to be approached more even-handedly, and with a method and perspective somewhat peculiar to their disciplines, e.g., the historical perspective, the sociological method, etc.

I've never been in the personal presence of Prof. Takaki, but read and liked "A Different Mirror" a lot. That said, department/disciplines with the word "Studies" in them strike me somewhat like real estate developments with the word "Estates" in them.

It just has always seemed to me like a fairly meretricious idea to have a "discipline" which studies, say, all things Latino, or all things African-American, or all things Jewish. Books, sure; courses, yes; but department, no.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.