Last Tuesday, Glee, a television show about the travails of a high school glee club, reminded America why ethnic studies is so important.
In an episode titled, “The Spanish Teacher,” Will Schuester – the glee club coach – tries to gain tenure as a teacher of Spanish, a language he can barely speak, by appropriating and amalgamating Spanish and Latin culture into a final solo performance in which he is dressed as a matador. Santana, the oft-stereotyped Latina student at the school, takes Schuester to task after his performance, telling him that his lack of knowledge about Latin and Spanish culture is a detriment to her education. She tells him: “You don’t even know enough to be embarrassed by these stereotypes you are perpetuating.”
For once, Glee gets it right with regard to race and culture. Although the show often plays to racial stereotypes for cheap laughs (as it did at the beginning of this very same episode when a woman mentions she is taking Spanish so that she can give better orders to her maid), this episode exposes the often offensive and uninformed way in which schools (and society) teach us about other cultures and ways of seeing the world.
Recently, UNIDOS, a youth group that has been vocal in its opposition to the recent ban of Mexican American Studies (MAS) in the Tucson, Arizona schools, began holding its own ethnic studies classes outside of school. In their opposition, these students have reignited a larger debate about ethnic studies programs in general.
These programs, which explore the historical and contemporary contributions to society and knowledge of various cultural groups, have never been free of controversy. The dominant argument against such programs has been the dominant argument used to discredit MAS, namely that such programs foster resentment against whites.
The logic behind the “resentment” thesis of those who oppose ethnic studies is disingenuous. In Arizona, for example, the treatment of Latinos at the hands of individuals like the notorious sheriff Joe Arpaio suggests that the resentment may in fact flow in the other direction. And while it is true that certain sections of some of the texts used in Tucson’s MAS program were incendiary and should not have been included, the cri de coeur of ethnic studies generally (and MAS, specifically) is not, as has been implied by its opponents, anti-white. Equating ethnic studies with anti-white studies misunderstands the objective of such programs and the nature of historical and cultural power in the United States.
In The Wretched of the Earth, the late Afro-Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon argued, “Colonial domination, because it is total and tends to oversimplify, very soon manages to disrupt in spectacular fashion the cultural life of a conquered people.” It must be understood and acknowledged that the United States is a nation whose founding rested upon the domination, marginalization, and displacement of indigenous and enslaved people. While we have come far in incorporating equal rights and privileges for most under the law, our oppressive historical reality is imbued in our nation’s institutions and, by extension, the way in which we talk about the history of our nation and its institutions. The pedagogy of American history and social studies is a byproduct of the exclusion and obliteration of the opinions, beliefs, contributions, and modalities of oppressed groups.
It is this exclusion and obliteration that makes ethnic studies so necessary. Ethnic studies — by encouraging students to question dominant modes of thought — provides a space for critical reflection on our Western assumptions and biases.
The purpose of ethnic studies is not necessarily to reveal white oppression, but rather to reveal the contributions, histories, worldviews, and moral and political worth of people of color. The purpose of ethnic studies is not to make people of color resent whites, but rather to help people of color and whites alike gain a broader understanding of the world and people through a diversity of histories and approaches to knowledge. Ethnic studies does not intend to expunge Western intellectual traditions and approaches, but rather to amend them, to enrich and provide further context to them.
As the fallout over the MAS ruling continues in Arizona, some observers have argued that making a greater effort to include ethnic cultures and histories into mainstream history and social studies lessons might be a solution to the dissolution of MAS. In fact, the district has begun to explore such an option.
While well-intentioned, such a supposedly “inclusive” solution is unviable in practice. In practice, such inclusion often devolves into appropriation. Throughout our nation, schools make sure to mention the same black heroes during Black History Month and make sure their students make the same Chicano-inspired art projects on Cinco de Mayo. This “inclusive” version of ethnic studies, so well portrayed in Tuesday night’s episode of Glee, is bankrupt – a token attempt at essentialist and sporadic mentions of various ethnic groups. What is needed, and what ethnic studies provides, is a rigorous, engaged and normalized approach to non-Western worldviews, histories and knowledge.
Photo Credit: Gudlyf