The Importance of Interstitial Histories

People that know me know that I'm a super laid-back person. I'm also a 9 in the Enneagram of Personality, which basically means I really, really dislike conflict. No, really. There are few things that get me riled up enough to compel me to discuss them outside of my closest friends and family. So you won't see a lot of posts like this about charged topics, and plus, that's not really the focus of this blog. Nonetheless, this is something I think is important.

Arizona has been a hot topic in the news of late largely because of its controversial new immigration law, SB 1070.

Not as well known is the bill the Arizona legislature passed soon after SB1070 became law. This other bill would ban ethnic studies programs from being taught in the state. Why? Apparently, ethnic studies programs "advocate separatism and racial preferences" and "are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism."*

(EDIT: Oh wait, HB2281 was just signed INTO LAW yesterday. This just gets better and better, doesn't it?)

There are many things I can say about those statements, but it will probably degenerate into sputtering noises, F-bombs, and general speechlessness. That's why I ranted about this first with my sister and let it all simmer for a few days before I blogged about it.** I want to present in a coherent and intelligent manner why ethnic studies is important and why both of those statements completely miss the point of ethnic studies.

History is essentially a story with many, many moving parts and perspectives, and obviously not all of it is going to be represented. That's fine and is indeed necessary to create a coherent and meaningful common past. History, with a capital H, is the most important people and events (the importance of which is itself subjective to one's location) strung together in chronological order. It's meant to give us a general understanding of who we were and where we came from, so that we can see who we might become and where we might go.

But History is written by the winners of conflicts and by those in power.

Think back to your grade school history classes and try to recall how much time was given to covering the experience of women and people of color in America. Ask yourself from whose point of view is the overarching narrative.

Ethnic Studies is about giving voice to and understanding the experience and histories of people of color. It is for this same reason that we have Women's Studies as well. These - what could be called 'niche' - studies exist to give representation to traditionally under-represented groups. These programs and courses aren't about superseding or replacing History as we know it. They are about complementing and supplementing our general knowledge. They are about providing a broader perspective, so that we can create a more complete picture of the American experience.

The reasoning behind the Arizona law banning ethnic studies programs in schools is that ethnic studies "advocate separatism and racial preferences" and "ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals." The Arizona State Superintendent for Public Instruction sums it up like this:

State Superintendent for Public Instruction Tom Horne called passage in the state House a victory for the principle that education should unite, not divide students of differing backgrounds.
"Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds," Horne said. "This is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into. Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism."
My response to these statements is that yes, American education should unite students, teach them to consider themselves Americans, and teach them to treat each other as individuals/judge each other by character, but education should also educate. We DO NOT live in a post-racial world. We can, do, and should teach that everyone should be judged by the content of their character, but that still doesn't change the color of my skin and what some people might think about it. I'm not an exemplar of my ethnic group, but that doesn't stop people from making judgments about me based on my ethnicity.

To ignore that race and racism still exist, to pretend the struggles of minority groups didn't happen or to gloss over them is to marginalize those historical narratives. History is sometimes ugly, but the point is that we've struggled and continue to struggle to overcome the ugliness, to be better.

Ethnic Studies acknowledges race and discusses it in the context of how it shapes history and society. It takes a piece of the American societal puzzle (i.e. the experience of a specific ethnic group), examines it, and then puts it back into the larger puzzle. It is NOT about isolating/separating the piece. It highlights the piece and shows how it is part of the whole.

The new Arizona law allows for the continuance of courses for Native American pupils and English as second language classes. "It also does not prohibit the teaching of the Holocaust or other cases of genocide." I'm guessing teaching the whole Civil Rights Movement is still okay too. The thing is these specific historical events, integral to the dominant historical narrative, have a lot to do with specific ethnic groups. It seems a little disingenuous to say we can teach token bits of ethnic history, but we cannot allow any in-depth classes dedicated to any individual ethnic group and their history in America.

Of course, I'm not asking for History classes to integrate everything. Like I said, it would be impossible to teach (much less learn) it all in a coherent, meaningful way. History is a good, working summary of our past, and that's what it should be - a summary. BUT don't take away the opportunity for people to learn about other narratives, especially if those narratives speak to them and show them how they fit into the fabric of our diverse nation. You hear all the time from students in school, Why should I care about this? What does this have to do with me? Why is all this stuff important?

What if, maybe, all they need is an event or person or movement or story they can relate to?

For some of these students, ethnic studies might be a way to find that - to find an experience that more closely resembles their own, so that they can begin to see how they fit into and belong in History at large.

The United States is a diverse and multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nation. Is it so much to ask for the opportunity to learn about what makes it diverse? Is it wrong for me to want to learn about what the people who came before me went through and what they fought for to give me the rights and privileges I have today?

Ethnic Studies isn't about promoting resentment among ethnic groups or racial preference or separatism. It isn't about how one group struggled or suffered or achieved more than another. It isn't about supplanting the dominant American Historical narrative.

It's about showing that people of color struggled and triumphed and dreamed in America too, and that their experiences helped shape the nation we are today. It's about showing that minority groups DO have a place and role in American History. It's about HOW these groups FIT INTO that narrative, showing them that they're part of the making of this nation too, that their stories are also important.

If anything, Ethnic Studies is about showing us how we are all American, despite our various journeys to get here.

I hope that made sense. Thank you for reading.

P.S. "HB 2281 bans schools from teaching classes that are designed for students of a particular ethnic group, promote resentment or advocate ethnic solidarity over treating pupils as individuals. The bill also bans classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government."

The implication that Ethnic Studies promotes treason against the U.S. government seriously offends me. I'm American. Please don't make it seem like programs about American ethnic experience are somehow UN-American.

*All direct quotes can be found in the linked articles.
1. Arizona Legislature Passes Bill to Curb 'Chauvanism' in Ethnic Studies Programs from FoxNews.com
2. Arizona bill targeting ethnic studies signed into law from LATimes.com

**I heard about the bill last Friday and let myself absorb the news and calm down. Yesterday, when I came to finish this post, I found out about its becoming law. My cooling off period now seems a little pointless because I had to make A;KLLSKA;JFLI@#(*LS;AJF noises for a while before I could straighten my thoughts back in order.


XiXi said...

Wow, Arizona, please continue being more fucked up. Really. Try harder, I don't think you're there yet.


This makes me so mad! It makes me mad the same way people say Black History Month and Asian-American Heritage Month are stupid because "there isn't a month celebrating white people's history and heritage." HELLO, all of the history you learn, pretty much until college, is the history of THE WHITE MAN.

I can't believe this passed. What is wrong with the politicians in Arizona? This is unbelievable on so many levels.

Alz said...

Lovely ethnocentric, xenophobic, isolationist sentiment Arizona promotes, ain't it? If nobody teaches it, chances are hardly anybody learns it or is even aware of it, and therefore nobody knows nothing and you can conveniently erase all contexts, conflicts, and events that don't conform to Arizona's ideal version of (white-washed?) US history.

Lydia Kang said...

It's quite sad. Thank you for the thought-provoking and thorough post. Still can't believe it happened.

Tahereh said...


Krispy said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. It makes me feel somewhat better that I'm not the only one outraged and weeping. Every time I think about it, it's like self-inducing a migraine.