The Importance of Ethnic Studies

Leah Himlie, online publishing coordinator
Photo of Leah Himlie, taken by author.

Think all the way back to your required American history courses in high school. Remember how the curriculum featured a bunch of old white guys and really no one else? 

If you were lucky, Martin Luther King Jr. got a paragraph or two out of the entire book. Rosa Parks got a sentence. Sacajawea got Anglicanized. There were no Latinos or Asians to speak of. This eurocentric curriculum presents a very limited and racist worldview, promoting the idea that white people are the main characters in life while people of color (POC) are there to support them and have no character arcs of their own.

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) has recently emphasized the importance of ethnic studies in their curriculum. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the school board unanimously voted at a November meeting to make taking an ethnic studies class a requirement to graduate for the class of 2025. The Tribune goes on to state that MPS currently offers classes about African American, Chicano and Latino, Hmong, Somali, Asian American and Native American history as well as a general “Race and Identity” class.

This is a great start, and I’m glad to hear that MPS is taking this initiative to create more inclusive and accurate representation within its curriculum. However, this is not enough. I want to see schools state and nationwide place a greater importance on ethnic studies. The United States contains so much diversity, and the school system needs to do its part in fostering acceptance and appreciation of those who are different. To do that, schools need to change.

The lack of diversity in the curriculum reinforces eurocentric ideas and beliefs while marginalizing other cultures. It allows white students to rely on biased media and stereotypes to form opinions about other cultures without taking the time to gain a deeper understanding of them. This shallow knowledge makes it easier for white students to distance themselves from the humanity of people of color and to perpetuate racism. But people of color are just that- people. Their history, stories and struggles are nuanced and complex. They should be given the same emphasis that is placed on white history. Learning about other cultures will help students connect with those who are of different races and extend compassion for them. People fear and hate what they do not understand, and the best way to understand is to learn.

Ideally, the teachers of ethnic studies classes would be people of color. I know this is not possible for all schools, particularly schools with low funding that would need to hire a new person, so I think the curriculum for the class should contain videos made by people of the culture that is being taught. If possible, live speakers would be even better. There’s a power in hearing someone share their own experiences that cannot be found from a video or textbook. In whatever way possible, a white teacher should give deference to the fact that the culture and experiences they’re teaching about are not their own.

It’s time to change the narrative by requiring an ethnic studies class for all high schoolers. Ethnic studies are classes that focus on “the knowledge and perspectives of an ethnic or racial group, reflecting narratives and points of view rooted in that group’s lived experiences and intellectual scholarship,” says ethnic studies researcher Christine E. Sleeter. Students of color should be able to learn about their culture’s history, and white students should learn about a culture that is not their own.