By Roberta Millstein
When I was in college, I saw little need for Women’s Studies courses. My thinking was that discussion of important contributions from women should be included throughout the curriculum.
Some thirty-five years later, they still aren’t. Neither are the contributions of racial minorities. Yet some people still sing the same song that I song in college. They have failed to learn what I learned the hard way – that change doesn’t just happen on its own, and that sometimes you need what might seem like an imperfect solution in the interim in order to get to the point where you can implement a better solution.
We need ethnic studies now. We’re not at the point where we can just integrate the work of racial minorities into the curriculum. I wish we were there yet, but we’re not.
In a recent editorial in the Davis Enterprise, Rich Rifkin disagrees. He says that “the ethnic studies lobby in Davis (and beyond) has been proselytizing” in favor of a bill requiring an ethnic studies course for high school graduation, but that “[r]ather than forcing students to take a segregated class, ethnic studies should be integrated into existing courses.” In coming to this conclusion, though, he inadvertently shows, in part, why we need ethnic studies courses.
Rifkin surmises that “ethnic studies will be limited to teaching about Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and Native Americans” based “ the ethnic studies majors at UC Davis, UC Berkeley and UCLA.” Let’s suppose that he’s right about that. Would that be a bad thing?
He thinks it is. He says that although he is “all for teaching about those four groups” that “it’s remarkably racist to ignore all other cultures in an ethnic studies program.” He says that such a course would leave out topics such as “the role the Azorean-Portuguese have played in California’s dairy industry” and “how and why immigrants from northern Italy came to dominate commercial fishing in our state.”
But that is to use a very simplistic definition of racism, one that does not take into account who are the oppressed peoples and the systems that maintain that oppression. In contemporary U.S. society, descendants from Portugal and Italy are not oppressed and they do not suffer from systematic racial injustice. Descendants of people from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, as well as indigenous Americans, do.
An ethnic studies course would teach a more sophisticated definition of racism that would show students that prejudice changes over time and that not all race-based prejudice is properly called “racism.”
In a second error, Rifkin quotes poet and veteran civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who passed away in 2014, as saying, “Won’t it be wonderful when black history and native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book? Just U.S. history.” He somehow thinks this quote supports his conclusion. I’ve had trouble tracking down the original source of this quote, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. As it appears in 2012 article in the Guardian (from what I can tell, the source from which most other quotes stem), the point she is making is that she wishes we didn’t need Black History Month, but unfortunately, we do.
An ethnic studies course would provide historical and societal context for its content, not relying on short quips and quotes taken out of context.
Perhaps Rich Rifkin should take an ethnic studies course. They are, after all, not just for racial minorities to find people in history they can identify with (as he seems to suggest) but for people of all races to learn to think about race, racism, and the contributions of racial minorities in a more sophisticated and thoughtful way.