One Powerful Way to Institutionalize Racial Justice in Our Schools

The following content is based on an Everyday Feminism article and part of the Roads to Racial Justice series. 

I’m very White, which makes me right at home as a public school teacher  –  a profession over 80 percent White.

My wife is also White. So are our children. In fact, when one of our White friends (with whom I had never discussed race) met our first child, even she said, “Damn, that’s one White baby.” 

And our children have been cashing in on their Whiteness, romping around our White Seattle neighborhood – blending right in, oblivious to racial discrimination. 

Because of these privileges, they will unlikely catch on anytime soon (at least not without conscientious parenting) that they are living during a movement for racial justice. And I don’t mean the Black Lives Matter movement (at least not in this article). 

No, I mean the movement to expand Ethnic Studies in our schools. 

What are Ethnic Studies? Emerging out of the civil rights movement and “the concerns of minority students on college campuses throughout the United States,” Ethnic Studies center the curriculum – history, literature, perspectives – on People of Color who have been historically marginalized and generally poorly represented in education. 

In the recent student protests against racism on college campuses nationwide, Ethnic Studies are once again one of the top demands

I know many White Americans also want racial justice, but the step that follows awareness always trips us up. And activists generally agree that talking only gets us so far.

Well, here’s a concrete step: Lobby your teachers, principals, school board members, and legislators to mandate Ethnic Studies!

These courses undeniably benefit students of Color, who too often have been poorly served by our public education system – benefits recently confirmed by the Stanford Graduate School of Education. In fact, the researchers who conducted the study were “shocked” by how effectively Ethnic Studies served struggling students in San Francisco, a district predominately composed of students of Color. 

“Attendance for those encouraged to enroll in the class increased by 21 percentage points,” they reported, “GPA [increased] by 1.4 grade points and credits earned by 23.” 

These results are not breaking news. 

In 2011, the dropout rate for Tucson Unified’s now-banned Mexican American Studies program, which served primarily Latinx students, was just 2.5%, while the national dropout rate for Latinx students soared at 56%. Even Hogwarts couldn’t pull that off kind of magic.

The existing arguments for Ethnic Studies (check out herehereherehere, and here for starters) – making public education matter to students of Color, drastically reducing racial disparities, and stemming the school-to-prison pipeline – should be enough to get everyone on board with Ethnic Studies, but I fear it will take even more to spur White Americans to action.

So here’s more: it’s in our own best interests as White Americans to take Ethnic Studies courses.

Here are six reasons why:

1. They Ensure That White Students Learn More Accurate American History 

Perhaps you’ve heard the proverb: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Conventional history is undeniably biased in favor of White Americans, the one group that has consistently benefited from centuries of discrimination. 

That’s why slavery is too often sanitized, for example, through perpetuating the happy slave narrative in a children’s book or mislabeling enslaved people as “workers” in a textbook. 

That’s why we too often call the invasion of indigenous lands “Manifest Destiny” or “westward expansion.” That’s why we too often call the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent “internment.” 

That’s why US history textbooks rarely include “White” as a racial group in the index  –  unless otherwise noted, the entire book is about White people. 

Ethnic Studies challenge this bias, and in the process, students – and teachers – benefit through the inclusion of voices that rarely make the curricular cut.

We teachers teach who we are and teach what we knowConsequently, in a profession so White, White teachers invariably teach curricula thoroughly bleached and warped by our Whiteness. Ethnic Studies ensures that White teachers are not just replicating the whitewashed lessons we were taught. 

They also ensure that both White teachers and students alike receive a counter-education to media’s miseducation.

In short, Ethnic Studies decenter White as the dominant perspective of our education system – at least in one class. If White people are sincere about their desire for racial justice, they inevitably have to give up something. Wouldn’t giving up the role of protagonist in one class, a role that too heavily relies on distorting history, in exchange for honest history constitute a fair trade? 

Once White Americans overcome their fear of facing our history, they may even learn that this “loss” is ultimately a gain. 

2. They Ensure That White Students Understand Systems of Oppression and Privilege

Ethnic Studies are color-conscious courses, ditching the colorblindness ideology that doesn’t work as a solution to racism and keeps White Americans comfortably oblivious to the history and realities of racism. 

And comfort is key here. 

Too often, curricular choices are dictated by the comfort of White students, but when has comfort ever led to meaningful growth? 

In sports, we don’t keep our athletes comfortable. Even White athletes are expected to work up a sweat at practice. So why then, when it comes to discomfort, do they get a pass in the classroom? 

Ethnic Studies fairly distribute discomfort. 

Regardless of the group at the center of an Ethnic Studies course, once race is on the classroom table, White students have to acknowledge that they too have a race. And once they do that, they have to figure out: why the hell have I never had to think about my race? 

This conundrum invariably leads to an exploration of whiteness and White Privilege

Inevitably, the reality of the following slide – from a presentation by Jose Lara, a Los Angeles-based educator championing the expansion of Ethnic Studies across California – clicks.

While such realities are not easy to explore, over 15 years of social justice teaching in primarily White classrooms have taught me that White youth overwhelmingly appreciate the learning, at least eventually.

It tends to be older White people who go ape shit about studies of race and racism. More on them later. 

3. They Enlist More White Students To Fight Against Inequality

Though Brown v. Board of Education is celebrated as the end of formal segregation, integration has become, for the most part, a third rail, a “political taboo.” Schools today are more segregated than they were in 1968, a reality educator and writer Jonathan Kozol has dubbed the “The Shame of the Nation.” 

And it truly is a shame. For one, integrated schools provide valuable lessons on inequality. According to author Carla Shedd, integration opens up students to “different experiences and perspectives so they can share with one another and think within and across whatever boundaries there are: race, class, gender. It gives them a fuller sense of how the world works.” 

Until we can we can get integration back onto our national agenda, Ethnic Studies, even in segregated schools, provide this valuable education on inequality. 

And we desperately need it. 

When 62 people own as much wealth as the poorer half of all humanity – 3.5 billion people – it’s clear economic inequality is one of the most urgent issues of our time, correlated with a rates of life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, incarceration, mental illness, and more. 

Once students understand inequality, they can better understand the concept of fairness. The burden of dismantling these unfair systems can’t be placed on those most negatively impacted by these same systems. 

Fairness means White Americans too must join the fight.

Education professor Katy Swalwell agrees. After a semester-long study of affluent, mostly White schools, she concludes“We do need to focus on low-income students, but if educators don’t also look at what’s happening in these affluent schools, they become the golden standard and we ignore a huge piece of what’s perpetuating the problem. Instead of solving the problem, we’re putting a Band-Aid on the wound.”

With more White Americans taking Ethnic Studies, we can gain the “political power,” not to mention the will, to actually treat the root causes of inequality, not just its symptoms. 

4. They Help White Students Become Part of the Solution Instead of Part of the Problem When It Comes to Racism

Racism takes many forms, including (but not limited to) cultural appropriationimplicit biasmicroaggressions, and, of course, overtly racist acts

Ethnic Studies help White students improve on all of these fronts. 

Ethnic Studies provide the context for White students to better understand the concept of cultural appropriation. So much of the ignorance that pulls blankets of fog over race stems from a lack of context (a context that Victor Lee Lewis reminds us of here in a powerful three-minute clip). 

History is supposed to provide this context but, remember, we tend to learn it from the hunter’s perspective. 

Ethnic Studies courses steeped in the experiences of those directly impacted by people’s implicit biases also help White American students confront their own. 

For example, if an African American Studies class examined the implicit biases of drivers that led to a 32 percent longer wait at crosswalks for Black pedestrians compared to White pedestrians, White students with cars would be compelled to ask: “Do I do that?” “Am I part of the problem?”

Similarly, courses that regularly discuss the challenges that a particular racial group faces tune a White American’s senses to the microaggressions that this group must endure. 

One year, a classroom discussion on race that turned to the topic of touching the hair of Black and multiracial students quickly taught White students that you just don’t do that, an uncomfortable lesson given how many of those White students had touched their friends’ hair. 

In the same way, discussing Asian American experiences has taught White Americans not to ask what too many of my Asian American students have been asked: Where are you from?

Such discussions no doubt require a safe classroom, but if these discussions aren’t taking place, exactly how safe is the classroom? If students of Color have to leave a part of their identities at the classroom door, then the teacher has created a “safe” environment only for some, not all. 

And while some forms of racism, such as microaggessions, can be subtle and instigated by well-meaning White people, overt racism persists. According to one study, Asian American youth “are three times as likely to face web-based taunts and more than 20 percent more likely to face classroom bullying than many of their classmates.” 

Schools readily embrace anti-bullying programs but anti-racist programs are far more likely to make an administrator sweat nervously. 

However, based on studies like this one, anti-racists programs are anti-bullying programs, which means Ethnic Studies also serve as anti-bullying programs – if only we could make Ethnic Studies courses more available to White students.

In his CNN editorial arguing for mandatory Ethnic Studies, “One class all students should take,” Alberta Laguna writes, “Part of the reason why racist incidents persist – swastikas scrawled in feces, nooses hung from trees on campus, for instance – is because universities are failing to do what they do best: teach.” 

Unfortunately, until Ethnic Studies are mainstreamed in predominately White schools, White students will disproportionately instigate such torment, as they did not so long ago at the University of Missouri and Western Washington University campuses. 

5. They Strengthen White People 

Beyond the discriminatory behaviors listed above, a host of White-specific behaviors – all of which are connected to our insistence on White people’s comfort – exacerbate and perpetuate institutionalized racism: White FragilityWhite SilenceWhite Denial, and White Entitlement, to name a few. 

Professor Robin DiAngelo has spent much of her career researching these very White behaviors. She writes, “It became clear over time that white people have extremely low thresholds for enduring any discomfort associated with challenges to our racial worldviews.”

Ethnic Studies work the muscles to raise these thresholds. After all, there’s a reason why we so often bathe our children in foreign languages and music lessons at an early age: children are amazingly adaptable and grow at seemingly superhuman rates. 

Discussions of race with White people don’t have to end in White Tears, not if we start early  –  in fact, let’s institutionalize discomfort so we no longer need documentaries about how fragile we are. 

As I mentioned earlier, it’s the older White Americans who are debilitated by extremely low thresholds for discomfort, not the students. 

It wasn’t students who fought for the ban of the following video, recently shown at Henrico County’s Glen Allen High School during a Black History Month assembly. It was “outraged” White adults, claiming the video, created by the African American Policy Forum, was a “white guilt video” and “racially divisive.”

The president of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, Dr. Ravi K. Perry, defended the video, joined by the NAACP. Students did protest but for its return, not its banning. 

And it certainly wasn’t a youth-led movement that shut down the wildly successful Mexican American Studies program. It was this White guy, Tom Horne, former Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction. In this 90-second clip, he shows his record-low tolerance for other “racial worldviews” by calling racial identity “primitive” and “tribal.” 

If only in his youth he had taken the very course he helped ban!

6. They Embody American Values 

In part because of the horrors against indigenous populations, we are now a country full of those descended from immigrants, even if much of the immigration was forced through chattel slavery. Despite our country’s sordid and painful history, we are now a country full of “beautiful colors.” 

And it’s downright American to celebrate this diversity. We celebrate it through the expansive types of foods we savor and the cultural celebrations we attend throughout our schools and municipalities. 

There’s no reason why such celebrations should be left at the classroom door. 

In fact, it’s practically ironic that that White guy, Tom Horne, and his White successor, John Huppenthal (who was outed not so long ago as the author of anonymous racist blog posts), shut down Mexican American Studies because they deemed it anti-American.

Our diversity is quintessentially American, which makes Ethnic Studies quintessentially American. 

If you remain unconvinced, let’s turn to those who don’t want Ethnic Studies. When I write publicly about teaching about race and racism, I am frequently trolled. Here’s a taste of the character of those who don’t want such studies: 

  • “This guy is typically vapid anti white Jew. And high school teacher.”
  • “Typical BS from the brainwashed liberals. Why not take a long walk after dark thru a black neighborhood.”
  • “Go fuck yourself libtard.”
  • “In America today Whites as a group are the least racist with Blacks being the MOST racist.”
  • “Jon GRENN BERG BERG BERG. Stop antisemitism. Go be a jew and try not to lecture white people on racism. Otherwise, the OVEN is good and hot.”

Is there a more compelling advertisement for Ethnic Studies? If racist and anti-Semitic people virulently fight against Ethnic Studies, shouldn’t the rest of us passionately fight for them? 

Instead of listening to trolls, I’d rather listen to those whose efforts have to led to these headlines from the past year: 

I’m borrowing a line of questioning by Tim Wise here, but when was the last time that masses of people of Color were wrong about racism? 

If Ethnic Studies are what people of Color are fighting for, it’s time for White America to do the same. 

We are living during a movement for racial justice. Will you spend the movement enjoying the privilege to ignore it, or will you join it? 

If my local public school begins offering Ethnic Studies – and they will if White America demands them – I’m confident my very White children, Zinn and Viola, will join it.

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