The Case for Ethnic Studies in the K-12

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Given the recent divisiveness taking hold in the U.S., from restrictions on hair styles targeting African American girls, to the Trump Phenomenon creeping into our K-12 schools, we need to push for comprehensive education reform that includes Ethnic Studies.

What is Ethnic Studies? It is a field of study that focuses on the histories of the people of a nation. Here in the U.S., since we are all either immigrants or children of immigrants (excluding the First Nations peoples), it is important to know where we came from, and how time has helped us become who we are today. Ethnic Studies educates us on the influences of immigration, wars, economic opportunities, and also enslavement (among other things) on the character of a people. It explores our relationship to the international community and how it helps us define who we are as a nation. We are a democracy based on pluralism, meaning we are who we are because of the awareness and influences of our differences. We are enriched by the influx of new people from all over the world, and continue to be nourished by diversity as we adjust to new political and social realities therefrom.

Our children also need to understand where they came from, and how they contribute to this social experiment that is the United States of America. Their existence is the result of cultures, nationalities, races, and religions coming together in the most intimate way possible. They are the hope that our future will be brighter than our past. With that hope comes responsibility to do what they can to move society forward.

In order to live up to this responsibility, they need to be informed, educated, and ultimately motivated to act for the good of all. This can best be addressed in the classroom, and it should involve more than learning about heroes and holidays. Should be about learning the history of all the people of this land, the contributions they made, and the hurt some of them caused to others in the quest for “progress”. Yes, this includes learning about the less glorious events of our past such as the attempt to eliminate Native Americans, the forced enslavement over 11 million people from Africa, the sordid history of lynchings of Mexicans (not just African Americans), and the use of Chinese immigrants as near-slave labor to build our railroads... all in the name of progress. These are just a few examples.

Progress is slow, and happens over generations, but this is part of this education. Even when it takes decades to bring lasting change for the better, this progress needs to continue in an informed and lasting way. This progress is ensured through education. We must teach the generations that follow us a history that is connected to the histories of others. During a recent family visit to Manzanar, my children learned that there was an Irish-Mexican man named Ralph Lazo, who selflessly followed his Japanese friends to the internment camp. He was not Japanese, so he was not technically required to go, but he went anyway. He said: “I know their loyalty. They hadn’t done anything I hadn’t done, and time has proven this.” He realized that he wasn't very different from his friends and neighbors, and that time and education would make that apparent.

Knowing how we are the same as well as how we are different allows us to begin the conversation about how connected we really are to one another. My children are Dutch and Puerto Rican. This combined history will help shape their world view. We are doing our best to let them know where they came from and what responsibility they have to help “form a more perfect union,” as the meme goes. So, like the parents of blended families as well as those of unique heritages, we are doing our best to teach them what they are not learning about in school, but it shouldn't be that way...

To find out more about the scholarship and activism surrounding Ethnic Studies at the national and international level, please visit the National Association for Ethnic Studies website.

To find out more about the movement to include Ethnic Studies in the K-12 curriculum, please visit the Ethnic Studies Now! Coalition website.