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Inside Higher Ed

A few months ago, I published an op-ed titled “Who Can Really Teach Ethnic Studies?” After its publication, I received numerous emails from scholars asking me to reconsider my position, since my main criterion for teaching ethnics studies was training in the field. I realized then that I hadn’t really explained what I meant by “training.” Ironically, the question of needing “training” or not isn’t often asked when dealing with disciplines like English, philosophy, math, chemistry and others.

I am using this opportunity, then, to expand on what I meant by “training” in ethnic studies. In my view, it can mainly be gained in one of two ways: 1) by getting a degree in ethnic studies and 2) by being hired to teach in an ethnic studies program or department (regardless of degree).

But exactly why is training important? What makes ethnic studies different from other disciplines that teach (about) race?

To begin to answer those questions, we must turn to the discipline’s genealogy, which I divide into three parts.

History. The main difference between ethnic studies and other disciplines is that it wasn’t born out of abstract thinking, literary criticism or science. Rather, it sprang from the activism of students, which yielded results at the University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State College in 1969. It emerged when Ronald Reagan was governor of California and sent the National Guard to deal with students of color asking for courses that reflected their histories and their and their parents’ living conditions. But the students fought back, and because of this activism and in spite of state efforts to repress it, a department of ethnic studies was created at Berkeley and a whole college at San Francisco State.

Thus, the circumstances that lead to the creation of ethnic studies, along with the relatively recent time in which it was created, makes it both a contested discipline and a relatively new one. It also makes ethnic studies a discipline born out of systematic and historical exclusions.

Institutionalization. After 50 years of institutionalization and academic practices, ethnic studies has acquired different tones, angles, foci and subjects of study. The first scholars appointed to positions in ethnic studies were trained in other disciplines, so the field learned early on to “borrow” from those discipline—most notably history, sociology, psychology and philosophy, among others. But major tweaks were needed. Sometimes the “borrowing” was to point out where the discipline had failed communities of color by not addressing racism, discrimination and inequity and inequality in meaningful ways. Also, the emergence of group-specific fields that also stand as separate disciplines—Black studies, Latinx studies, API studies, South Asian studies and so forth—has created a healthy number of specialties and subspecialties, all under the umbrella of ethnic studies. Still, after decades of ethnic studies in all its forms being taught in academe, a few general principles have emerged.

Principles and purpose. Going back to the discipline’s contested origins, in the beginning, those who studied and taught ethnic studies spent the majority of their time calling out specific disciplines like anthropology (for taking advantage of and making careers—thus profiting—from Indigenous communities without giving back), criminal justice (for perpetuating the mess the criminal justice system is in), political science (for pandering to a political system that was built on and perpetuates inequities), and so on. That calling out took most of the effort.

Then, as ethnic studies developed, scholars began to finally envision ways of building it in ways that extended beyond critiquing what others were doing. As such, ethnic studies now focuses on:

  • Racism. Although we do talk a great deal about race as a social construction, the main point is to talk about how the meanings we attach to racial groups and the individuals who belong to those groups are tied to racism as both a historical legacy and a contemporary social practice. That is, for ethnic studies scholars, documenting racism in the workplace, politics, the educational system and the like is only the first step—whereas for other disciplines such documentation of an issue, trend or phenomenon is usually the be-all and end-all of their research. With ethnic studies, there has to be room for envisioning alternatives and calling for them within institutions, even if the call remains unanswered and goes into the ether.
  • Systems of inequity inextricably tied to racism. Although we acknowledge that all systems of inequities are interconnected, we also presume that most (if not all) are closely connected to and complicated by racism. This, as you can see from the way I worded it, is different from the intersectional theory that women’s and gender studies uses (and which white women in that field particularly love after appropriating it from Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who developed it, and the other women of color who worked on it). Ethnic studies is a way of looking at systems of inequality that places race at the front and the center of any analysis.
  • A history of racism still with us in this country. This history has had a massive impact on the construction of race, the positioning of racial groups within social systems and structures, and race relations today. Chattel slavery, Indian wars and Indian reservations, exclusion acts of all sorts targeting different Asian groups, and legislation managing Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and other Latin American groups have all created a reality that influenced their trajectory and affect us all today—regardless of race and/or ethnicity.
  • Ending social inequities by any means necessary. It is this that sets ethnic studies apart from other disciplines, as it scares the people who want to hide behind the veil of objectivity within the walls of academe. The point is that ethnic studies extends beyond the mere presentation of facts into advocacy and social change—and not a theoretical social change, but an actual one—with the aim of addressing social injustice.

The bottom line is that those of us who teach ethnic studies do not just teach about race—which is why folks who teach about race in other disciplines are not necessarily ethnic studies scholars and why being trained in the discipline matters. Anyone in an ethnic studies classroom should know the disciplinary genesis and history that I’ve outlined above— know where the discipline comes from and where it’s been—and understand their impacts, including the fact that that ethnic studies has continued to grow and expand.

A person teaching ethnic studies should also be able to embrace and maneuver through the interdisciplinary aspects that have been a staple of the discipline since its tumultuous beginnings. In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision and the increasing attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion, disciplines like ethnic studies increasingly become a bastion against these assaults, and appropriately training scholars to teach within the discipline becomes more urgent than ever before.

Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo is professor of comparative ethnic studies and American studies and culture in the School of Languages, Cultures and Race at Washington State University–Vancouver.

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