The assault on ethnic studies is unwise and undemocratic
By Leslie Bow, January 11, 2011
As a professor of ethnic studies, I feel under assault.
At the beginning of this year, Arizona’s HB 2281 targeting ethnic studies in Tucson’s public school system went into effect. For those of us who teach ethnic studies — for all educators — this ban represents a call to arms.
Of course, I mean that figuratively. HB 2281 apparently does not.
The bill prohibits K-12 classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government.”
Without such a law, I suppose kindergarteners might use their metal lunchboxes as projectile weapons to take over civil society.
Everybody: Recess! Forever.
Basically, HB 2281 is law motivated by the fear of an educated citizenry.
Tom Horne, Arizona new attorney general and author of this bill, has had an issue with the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American studies program ever since he was the state’s superintendent of public instruction. He believes that such courses proselytize “resentment toward a race or class of people.”
This represents a willful misrepresentation of ethnic studies.
Educators willing to ignite the powder keg of American race relations in our classrooms know how far the misrepresentation of our inquiry extends. At the end of the first day of one of my classes, a college student marched up to the podium to inform me that he was dropping my course. I was, he pronounced, racist against white people.
All I had done was go over the syllabus.
I glanced down at the paper in my hand.
My syllabus offered an overview of the course: information about requirements, workload, and a reading list for each week. But all the authors on my reading list were, in fact, Asian-American.
Shocking, I know.
But then, it was a course on Asian-American literature.
As a culture we are notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to talking about racial issues. Some think that noticing race is equivalent to being racist. But doesn’t that mean that we need more dialogue rather than less?
As an educator, I don’t recognize myself in the eyes of this one student or in the language of the Arizona law.
But then again, maybe I’m more dangerous than I give myself credit for. (Thanks, Arizona! And here I was thinking that my primary contribution was to show up for Diversity Day.)
Ideas are frightening. This is what I take from Arizona’s ban.
So why target ethnic studies?
As a discipline it goes to the heart of how we narrate ourselves into being as Americans. It asks us to consider foundational beliefs about democracy, meritocracy and colorblindness.
And it holds us accountable to those foundational beliefs. It is a field of inquiry that interrogates the promises of political equality against the reality of ongoing material inequality. It puts at the forefront of the classroom our shared legacy of violence and trauma.
It’s not always a pretty history. But it’s ours, nonetheless.
From where I sit, ethnic studies unveils the most American of stories, that of freedom — who has it, how it is achieved, and at what cost.
The attack on ethnic studies sends the following message to our nation’s youth: “Kid — put down the lunchbox. And back slowly away from that textbook, keeping your hands where I can see them.”
Leslie Bow is professor of English and Asian-American studies at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. She is the author of “ ‘Partly Colored’: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thought this might be a good addition to the discussion after the earlier post about conservatives attempting to whitewash the US Founding Fathers in history classes. You can get more background on the Arizona law discussed by Bow in this Mother Jones report.