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Ethnic studies are important for all, white kids included

Published: Monday, April 23, 2012

Updated: Monday, April 23, 2012 01:04

While riding the shuttle recently, I overheard a fellow student remark, “Ethnic studies is like teaching alternative history.” If the timing had been right, I would have asked my fellow Anglo-American to attend the screening of “Precious Knowledge” that occurred on campus on April10.

The title of the film “Precious Knowledge” comes from a poem by Luis Valdez, “En lak’Ech.” The poem, which opens every class when recited by students in the La Raza/Mexican-Studies programs at Tucson High School, is simple: To love and respect others is to love and respect oneself.

“Precious Knowledge” examines the ongoing conflict in Arizona around ethnic studies. Ethnic studies courses are designed to focus on the contributions of marginalized groups, those who have experienced systematic oppression on the part of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and class.

In the summer of 2010, Governor Jan Brewster and then-state Superintendent of Education Tom Horne ordered the termination of the Mexican-American studies program at Tucson High.

Their argument illustrated both in the film and beyond said that the courses teach students to be bitter toward and resent whites, teach students as a collective group rather than as individuals, use materials from a biased perspective and teach students to overthrow the government.

Based on these speculations, if you’ve hated the British after learning about the American Revolution, marked yourself as a part of a group on a census, only learned history as it was relevant to the white majority and read anything by George Orwell while in school, I guess you’re ahead of the curve.

John Huppenthal, current superintendent and a supporter of Horne’s, lobbied for the passing of the ban based on one visit to a classroom at Tucson High. Asserting that the texts and class are meant to insight revolution without taking the time to research and consider the voices contained within them is to enter this fight without any legitimacy.

News flash for Huppenthal and all other skeptics: Ethnic studies classes are good for white kids, too. Not only do they endow skills such as critical thinking and the opportunity to learn history from perspectives we don’t hear (I mean, how many of you knew anything about Native Americans beyond the pilgrim stories when you came into college?), but they also provide those of us who are white with tools we will need if we plan on being present allies in the fight against continual oppression.

Learning about these issues also helps us fit into the world. Unless you live in the middle-of-nowhere where the only people you interact with are your in-laws, you will, at some time in your life, be working alongside someone with a different reality, different history and different social assumptions than yours.

Ethnic studies courses, as well as courses in any other social science, are preparing students to face the world in a positive and productive way.

If we are unable to teach history in an honest and accurate way, which includes the various atrocities human beings have inflicted upon one another, what is going to be taught?

Attempting to suggest that people need to be, as Horne has argued, “Of one history” furthers the rhetoric that we all have a shared history. This argument will only continue to allow for the structural inequalities that these students were bound by before finding voice and discovery of place through La Raza studies.

The political-racial ideology of white supremacy cannot continue to compromise public education and prevent us from learning about one another.

Discovering what it means to contribute to structural inequality is frightening, and I can see fear on the part of those in the dominant group in reaction to courses in which they will have to remain silent when it is something they are systematically unaccustomed to.

It is important to remember, however, that these programs are not exclusive or exclusionary. In order to be an effective ally to those who face different structural inequalities, we as (white, male, heterosexual, etc.) individuals may not have to, it is necessary to participate in classes such as these so that we can all come together and fight for equality for all.

Today, students at Tucson High and around the country are coming together to voice support for ethnic studies programs and the work being done on the part of educators on a national level. We are one among many universities where courses in women’s studies and ethnic studies are offered. Even if it means going beyond your comfort zone, I recommend that during your time here are UCCS, you take at least one. The goal of offering and participating in these courses is to learn about how we as individuals, despite our differences, can transcend social issues together.

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