Arizona has been attracting attention lately because of its now infamous immigration bill that mandates that police officers demand proof of citizenship when “reasonable suspicion” exists that the person they have stopped/pulled over/etc. is an illegal immigrant, but there’s another piece of legislation that just passed the State Legislature that bothers me just as much. If Governor Brewer signs the bill into law, it will officially be illegal to teach “Ethnic Studies” in the state of Arizona’s public schools on the grounds that it encourages “ethnic chauvinism” and will apparently encourage Latinos to rise up against the US government and seize portions of the Southwest to form their own state.
The second part of that statement is so patently absurd that it doesn’t even merit anything than an eye-roll and a helpless laugh at paranoid, racist insecurity. But the first part really bothers me, especially as a minority, a person of color, or whatever other term you want to use to describe the fact that I am not a white American.
First, it is offensive and prejudiced in the extreme to assume that ethnic studies teaches “ethnic chauvinism” (a term that I will confess I have NO idea what it’s meant to mean) but that it encourages students of a particular group to self-segregate. Everyone benefits from learning about the diverse history of this country, the history that was made not just by white men with origins in Western Europe, but the history that was made by African slaves, by Eastern European immigrants, by Chinese railroad workers, by Sikh farmers.
I did not know much of this history until I got to college, and then I found myself partially angry wondering why my extremely good education had seen fit to limit what I learned about non-white cultures and peoples to a one-year class on “non-western world history” (which though informative and still more than I assume many received in high school). Why had I never been told about the people of color who had helped shape America before the 20th century? Why did I remain so ignorant of the names, places, events, that had impacted these people? Why, even in a college widely known for its diversity, did it still take effort to seek out this information? Why did we have to fight unsuccessfully for the implementation of Asian-American Studies? Why was it so difficult to make administrators understand why this was important to us, the Asian community, to make them see that having a strong program focusing on the cultures of Japan, China, and to a lesser extent, Korea, was not the same as learning about the experience of Asian Americans in America?
But aside from my anger, I found myself empowered knowing this history, because it made America seem like a richer place. America is a unique place in many ways, and learning these hidden histories helped give me a fuller idea of what America is, what it offers to people, and what its history has been. Nothing I learned encouraged feelings of superiority or segregation, it simply made me more educated and proud. When taught right, ethnic studies is a valuable addition to the curriculum, benefitting not only the students of the minority groups being discussed, but every student in the classroom. We feel that it is important to continue teaching students of all colors and backgrounds about the Holocaust (and rightly so – I have no objections to the fact that the Arizona bill states that this will remain part of the curriculum), so why isn’t it important that all students learn about Mexican labor leaders or Asian immigrants who built the California railroads?
Between this law and the Texas vote to strip the curriculum of people deemed “unimportant” by a partisan committee, I am angry and saddened for the future of America’s students. We are a country that is getting ever more diverse, where these histories will become even more important to learn as students of increasingly diverse backgrounds fill classrooms. Why are the histories that include people who look like them and have the same names as them not important? Laws like this not only display stunning ignorance, they are doing a grave disservice to American students who will grow up, live, and work in multicultural, multiethnic environments.