More than a waste of time

How an ethnic studies curriculum can provide students with important life-long skills.

The demand of ethnic studies correlates with the growth of diversity in the classroom. — CC Julia Moon 2011 All Rights Reserved
“(Ethnic studies) is just (the) giant waste of taxpayer dollars that this constitutes. I took Jewish studies courses when I was at UCLA. There are only two reasons to take a Jewish studies course. The first is to meet girls and the second is to get an easy A. And that’s why most students are taking ethnic studies courses.”

Those were the harsh words former Breitbart columnist Ben Shapiro had for ethnic studies when he appeared on a Fox News segment in 2013. Understandably, Shapiro‘s opinion might be a little outdated; after all, when Shapiro attended UCLA in 2004, Tinder had not been invented yet.

To his credit, Shapiro provided some relatively reasonable arguments on why he is an opponent to ethnic studies. His first argument, is that ethnic studies programs, such as the recently banned Mexican American studies curriculum in Arizona, are “myopic focus(es) on the idea that America is a racist place against certain ethnicities and minorities”. In less pretentious language, he believes that ethnic studies is often too critical of the treatment of minorities, which portrays Americans (especially whites) as villains. To an extent, I actually agree with Shapiro; ethnic studies often has the bad habit of gravitating towards talking about the negative.

Shapiro’s second argument, which is summed up in the quote at the beginning of this article, is critical about the allocation of academic resources towards ethnic studies. He feels like the time and money that is spent on these programs can be used in other places in education where he considers more beneficial for students. While I disagree with this point (which I will expound on later), I can understand why he feels this way. On the surface, ethnic studies does not provide traditional vocational skills to students, especially those who the courses seemingly do not cater to.

An actual excerpt in an American history textbook — Instagram

In 2004, Shapiro said that students were not “exposed to a variety of viewpoints at universities and that those who don’t have strong opinions will be overwhelmed by an atmosphere dominated by liberal instructors even if discussion is encouraged in classrooms” in his undergraduate publication Brainwashed. While I’ve been a little disparaging towards Shapiro, I found that idea to be a thoughtful one, especially in relation to ethnic studies. What he fails to expand on, is that despite the more liberal environment in a college classroom, course materials are consistently Eurocentric. Even those liberal professors themselves, are typically white. So when he suggests that students are often not exposed to a variety of viewpoints, he is correct. Students are often not exposed to a variety of viewpoints by minorities.

And that’s where ethnic studies come in. They provide those different viewpoints that are often neglected. But it isn’t political, it’s experiential; it focuses on the struggles of people of color, usually providing stories that students are almost never exposed to in everyday academics.

Am I crazy to suggest that ethnic studies is most important for people like Shapiro? Hear me out. The opponents of ethnic studies can honestly gain the most from taking ethnic studies courses. Sure they might be just enrolling in these courses just to pick up girls and get easy A’s, but what if higher education started catering towards these people as a means to educated them, rather than to ostracize and critique them?

Just two months ago in Washington, another Sikh man was a target of a hate crime aimed at Muslim Americans. For those who don’t know (and really should), Islam and Sikhism are mutually exclusive religions. The racial illiteracy of these hate crimes are often overlooked due to the tragedy.

Many of these hate crimes occur when the attacker identifies the Sikh man as a Muslim due to his turban and sometimes his beard. Interestingly enough, turbans are not universally used in Islam, unlike for Sikhism. In fact, they are almost exclusively used in Middle Eastern regions, more due to the hot climate than religious purposes. On the other hand, for Sikhs, the turban religiously symbolizes equality and compassion.

It’s sad to see Sikhs endure the consequences of the acts of a few radicalized Muslims and the ignorance of many Americans. While the FBI claims that 94% of terrorist attacks between 1980 and 2005 are committed by non-Muslims, the latter is still a significant issue. The need for ethnic studies for many opponents of diversity can be seen in these attacks.

In 2015, the FBI recorded that 59.2% of hate crimes were racially-related. Could ethnic studies helped with those crimes? I suggest that had some of the attackers been educated about race and diversity, some of those hate crimes could be prevented. While racism will continue to exist everywhere, hate groups tend to cluster in areas with traditional segregation and mono-ethnic communities. By providing those communities with ethnic education on understanding the differences, and the similarities, of groups foreign to them.

For me, living in California is a privilege in a sort of sad way. Being in the most diverse state in the contingent U.S., Californians have traditionally been insulated from overt racism. In fact, half of the 15 most diverse cities in the United States are located in the Golden State.

I feel like it’s sometimes hard to have a conversation with an ethnic studies major. Often times, their passion for activism and community organizing exceeds their ability to effectively communicate with a dissenting opinion. Because of that, I decided to reach out to someone who studies ethnic studies, but not for the intents and purposes of activism and non-profit work but rather purely to become educated in the issues of race and ethnicity.

David Lim, a senior at California State University, Northridge studying Asian American studies believes ethnic studies is necessary for a comprehensive education in the current United States.

“I think ethnic studies is important in introducing me to other cultures. Even with my own culture, there were customs and practices that I wasn’t aware of. I think it’s easy to think of ethnic studies as a platform for political and civil rights activism, but in its core, it should be about educating everyone about everyone’s culture and history,” said Lim.
David Lim is a senior at CSUN this year — Tandy Lau, California State University, Northridge

Lim, who has expressed little interest in way of activism or community-organizing, still firmly believes in ethnic studies as a life-long learning experience. The Cambodian-American business management major has consistently been networking with his multi-cultural campus, and credits his background in ethnic studies to his ability to better cater cultural-awareness to his potential business partners.

David credits his experiences with ethnic studies to becoming more accepting of people of all cultures. Growing up in a conservative Christian family, he experienced some close-minded practices by his family-members, but his mindset changed in college after studying ethnic studies.

“I think it’s (ethnic studies) necessary for us to be complete human beings,” said Lim. “With times like these, it’s increasingly important for us to understand our differences, and to accept them.”