A Case for an Insurgent Ethnic Studies

It is commonly written that Ethnic Studies is a counter-narrative to dominant eurocentric history. That Ethnic Studies is a retelling of history told by those oppressed and told by those in the furthest margins of society. I urge us to understand that all these are true AND shortsighted. Ethnic Studies is this AND more. Ethnic Studies is a constant critique of racial capitalism, of white supremacy, of settler colonialism, of heteropatriarchy, of US Imperialism, and other systems of oppression. To believe Ethnic Studies is simply a historic retelling of atrocities in the past leaves us to believe that Ethnic Studies is a parallel track to white histories; Ethnic Studies is a perpendicular obstruction to whiteness and a framework for liberation.

In the past years, we have seen legislation, media, and popular culture, glorify and romanticize the implementation of Ethnic Studies in our K-12 education. California’s AB-2016 and Oregon’s House Bill 2845 have demonstrated the outpouring support for Ethnic Studies education in all K-12 institutions citing the Stanford University study titled, “Stanford study suggests academic benefits to ethnic studies courses” as a form of legitimacy. The study cites, “the researchers found that students not only made gains in attendance and grades, they also increased the number of course credits they earned to graduate” (Stanford News, 2016). Cynthia Liu of grassroots education news shares, “AB-2016 is a landmark law that will ensure all California high school students have an opportunity to learn about their own or another culture’s history and importance in shaping the state’s past, present, and future”(NBC News, 2016). It is these sentiments shared by Stanford and Cynthia Liu that should cause us to be weary of the abstraction of Ethnic Studies by state legislation. The institutionalization of Ethnic Studies has ultimately been its downfall. Ethnic Studies has become the lab rat to white supremacy. In the Bay Area alone, we have seen this with Ethnic Studies programs at San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley, and Mills College where Ethnic Studies have never left the chopping block since its fruition, but has been paraded as the solution to racial conflict.

The industries of multicultural trainings and diversity conferences have saturated public, private, and corporate sectors demanding big money for their cultural sensitivity workshops. Industries have sought out ways to diversify the working population banking on Ethnic Studies to teach people how to get along. It is these industries that have sought ways to diversify the faces of its violence. As of the past decades we have seen techies, gentrifiers, military weaponry designers, police officers, prison guards, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, border patrol agents, and landlords in all different shades reflecting the diversity of America. Many who will advocate for a multicultural Ethnic Studies. Some who have taken an Ethnic Studies class.

Ethnic Studies has been co-opted into a how-to-guide to create multiculturalism. It is liberal multiculturalism that is the right hand to white supremacy. Ethnic Studies has taken up terms like stereotype threat, equity, and microaggression to address interpersonal and vigilante violence without very little interrogation of the systems of power that sponsor it. Let us remember that addressing microaggressions does not end systematic violence. Equity does not equal liberation. Having equal access to the same institutions that displace, harm, and kill people is not in the visions of Ethnic Studies.

As my final thoughts, I ask, is this what the movers and shakers for Ethnic Studies in the 60’s and 70’s envisioned? If not, how can we imagine an insurgent study against systems of oppression?

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