I am Ethnic Studies!


 “Why have Ethnic Studies, can’t they include that in American History?” “What’s the difference between Ethnic Studies and Sociology?” “Why are people of color the only ones who get special classes? Shouldn’t we teach classes accessible to everyone?”

 These are just a few of the questions that friends, students, and acquaintances asked me over the past few weeks, particularly in light of Governor Jan Brewer’s decision to sign a law that bans Arizona’s schools from teaching ethnic studies programs[i], and the Texas State Board of Education’s adoption of curriculum that deleted the histories of racial, ethnic, religious and gender groups from their history and social science classes.[ii]  Despite being annoyed or frustrated when confronted with these questions, I realize that they exist because of the misinformation about Ethnic Studies.  What we see, as my colleague and friend Nicole Guidotti Hernandez notes, is the false conflation of “a field of intellectual inquiry and racial separatism.”[iii]  This is problematic for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the simple fact that Ethnic Studies arose out of a need to rewrite the existing canons of existing disciplines that failed to integrate the lives, experiences, and perspectives of marginalized groups.  Claims of ‘ethnic chauvinism’ by proponents of Ethnic Studies bans stems from a lack of knowledge or informed understanding of how students and society benefit from the research that stems from centering these silenced communities. Although I could write much more on this particular topic, others have written and commented on the importance of Ethnic Studies far more eloquently then I can.[iv]

Instead of answering the aforementioned questions with an answer informed by both historical and social science research, I realize now that sometimes it’s best to answer these questions by saying, “I am Ethnic Studies!” Of course, the person I’m saying this to usually looks at me with a quizzical look on their face and asks, “What do you mean?”

I am the granddaughter and daughter of immigrants from China. Both my parents arrived in the United States before the age of six. This picture (above left) is of my maternal grandparents and was taken on their wedding day over seventy years ago.  Both grandparents died before I was eleven years old.  Although I have memories of them, I was too young to appreciate their story, history, and experiences, or to even comprehend the magnitude of the sacrifices they made for their family.  In truth, this picture haunts and motivates me personally and professionally.  Trying to fill the space left open by that absence of knowledge is at the core of my work.  What I do know about my maternal grandparents is that my grandfather left China and worked the fields of California, presumably sometime during the late 1920’s or early 1930’s. He entered the United States as a “paper son”[v] or in today’s parlance an “undocumented immigrant.” He worked as a migrant farmworker, traveling the state planting and picking seasonal crops.  While he worked the fields and earned money to support his family, my grandmother remained in China taking care of my aunt and mother.  Although my grandfather returned intermittently, my grandmother was responsible for maintaining the family. The family was not reunited until after the early 1950’s, when they migrated to the United States. Approximately four years after they arrived, my uncle was born.  Growing up in San Francisco, my mom’s family opened up and ran a laundry. My mom recalls that after school she and my aunt would regularly finish their studies at the laundry and then be expected to help out. 

So, why am I Ethnic Studies?  This truncated and clearly overly general retelling of my maternal grandparents’ experiences point to the type of histories traditionally absent from textbooks.  The United States was built on the back of immigrants. Our growth, development, and prosperity is attributed, in large part, to contributions of individuals like my grandfather who worked in the agricultural industry –and then later on worked in the service sector.  Left out of traditional accounts of the history of immigrants in America is family separation resulting from immigrants leaving to come to the United States in order to economically support their families. Where are the stories of the women and children that were historically left behind?  Or, in a more contemporary sense, where are the stories of the children left behind with grandparents, aunts, or uncles while their parents support them from abroad? What does this do to family relations?  Finally, I think that when you look at the success of their children and grandchildren, we can begin to understand the intergenerational implications of the sacrifices that my grandparents made. Yet, despite all that progress their grandchildren are still seen as ‘the other.’  I, for one, am still asked, “Where are you from?” When I answer, “San Francisco” inevitably they say, “No, I mean what country are you from?” When I (purposely) answer, “The United States” the interrogator usually fails to realize that despite the fact I am a citizen, they consider me an outsider, an “other”, an individual who is not a citizen of the United States.  The legacy of these subtle forms of racism and xenophobia are the reason why Ethnic Studies remains important. Ethnic Studies creates the space to honor our collective histories, to bring attention to the rich, diverse histories that make the United States the country that it is.  This does not preclude “traditional” disciplines such as history, literature, or sociology from integrating these topics; in fact, I believe most scholars will tell you that Ethnic Studies has created the intellectual discourse necessary for diversifying most disciplines.

All of our stories are important –and that is what Ethnic Studies privileges.   While my own history, and the desire to recuperate the missing stories of my family’s history has lead me down a road where I teach and research about work, labor, immigration, race relations, and Asian American Studies –it is my hope that students that are exposed to a more inclusive and diverse curriculum will be motivated to learn more about themselves. By finding and seeing ourselves in the pages of history –perhaps we can learn to better honor and respect one another.  I am Ethnic Studies –and so are you.  

[i] Barr, A. (2010). “Arizona bans ‘ethnic studies’ Politico. May 12, 2010


[ii] http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/124374.html

[iii] Guidotti-Hernandez, N. (2010) “In Arizona, Both Racial Exploitation and Resistance Run Deep” in MS Magazine Blog. May 17, 2010 http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2010/05/17/in-arizona-both-racial-exploitation-and-resistance-run-deep/

[iv] For those who are interested, I recommend listening to this Anderson 360 clip where Michael Eric Dyson discusses the ban with Tom Horne, the superintendent of public instruction for Arizona who was the author and major proponent of the Ethnic Studies Ban.  http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2010/05/13/must-see-ac360-az-ethnic-studies-discussion/ 

[v] For a definition of paper son see: http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist11/papersons.html

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