College students by the tens of thousands are heading back to campus in the coming weeks. Because of entrenched segregation and limited intra-racial friendships as well as the persistence of Eurocentric American curriculum, the vast majority of white entrants will arrive without much knowledge or understanding about the histories of communities of color. Even less likely will be an understanding of the operation of racism, whiteness, power, and inequality, given our culture of denial and white America's overall resistance toward look inward regarding race and racism. They will arrive on campus without understanding the histories and cultures of communities of color; the vast contributions in science and arts, in literature and in the academy will be unknown; the importance of leaders of color, of sheroes and heroes, of those who have contributed throughout this history (yes, those who "built it") will be as unrecognizable as advanced calculus. This needs to change.
This generation of students will arrive on campus amid an overall assault on ethnic studies courses. Representative Steve King recently denounced multiculturalism as a threat to democracy given its emphasis on victimhood and efforts to encourage people to eschew personal responsibility:
It's not the multiculturalism that's wrong, it's the victimology, which has been the core of multiculturalism. People are being told that it's not their fault, that it's somebody else's ... That's the excuse path. We need to have individual responsibility, a culture that supports it -- that celebrates it -- and one that discourages the slackers from lining up at the public trough and accepting the benefits of the sweat of someone else's brow.
While I doubt Representative King has taken an ethnic, women's or queer studies class, there is a certain irony in Rep. King and others lamenting these classes as an "excuse path" that leads students of color to refuse to take responsibility and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Isn't the refusal to acknowledge a history of racism, lynchings, genocide, slavery, exploitation, and abuse the ultimate refusal of personal responsibility? Aren't the efforts to deny the contributions of people color amid the myopia about white affirmative action and white privileges emblematic of a refusal to take responsibility, to be accountable?
What is also clear is that students are arriving on campuses believing that race remains significant, even though they often have a difficult time defining and talking about racism. Worse, we are eroding the very spaces to not only learn the language, but also to develop the tools to combat inequality and injustice. According to Dom Apollon:
But before political commentators and journalists officially declare racism dead, perhaps we should gain consensus upon what exactly we collectively believe racism to be. We need to ask ourselves what type of society do we want to proactively create? If racial justice is to be a key component of that ideal society, can we say we have achieved such a society given our past and current racial disparities -- in incarceration rates, in high school and college graduation rates, in household and extended family wealth, in health and on and on.
Until our collective understanding of racism moves beyond the interpersonal level, and regularly includes an understanding of how broad and interconnected policies and practices profoundly impact opportunities and racial outcomes in our society, our spectrum of solutions will remain painfully limited.
Amid all these issues, I often find myself wondering how black studies and ethnic studies have the potential to change America's racial path, and how ethnic studies and understanding the ongoing history of racism is essential to a quest for a "more perfect union." Would more women's studies courses lead to a societal commitment to ending rape culture and/or addressing sexual harassment and glass ceilings? Would ethnic studies courses lead to transformation in immigration policy and the criminal justice system? Would these courses lead to societal transformations or even changes to the culture of our colleges and universities? Maybe more courses, not less, would address the recent wave of campus racism at America's colleges and universities like Fordham University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Northwestern University, and The Ohio State University.
Imagine if every student took at least one black studies course per year during college, alongside of Chicano, Asian American and Native American Studies. What if students, what if white students, starting in kindergarten and through graduate school, American's future leaders, teachers, and voters, learned a 4th "R" -- racism -- alongside of (w)riting, reading, and (a)rithmetic? Surely institutional racism would remain an obstacle, but whites who inhabit those institutions, from the classroom to the Capitol, could surely change.
Learning about minstrelsy and the history of racist imagery could potentially deter white students from donning blackface -- for the sake of fun, parties and Halloween. Learning about the history of slavery and lynchings would hopefully incite righteous indignation the next time a noose happened to appear on campus, or the next time someone scrawled lynch on a chalkboard or dorm room door. At minimum, there would be less claims of ignorance with regard to these histories. Yet, ethnic studies and women's studies courses offer more than interventions into the persistent realities structural violence. They provide understanding and introduction to the experiences, the cultural productions, the community formations, the contributions, and the overall richness of those communities often erased within other classrooms.
Can we imagine a world where white students didn't commonly use the "N-Word behind closed doors because they understood the history of racial violence? Maybe a women's studies class would force students to think about the implications of the "B" word, or slurs against members of the GLBT community or those undocumented Americans? Might the hurling of racist jokes and epithets lessen as students begin to think about the consequences and daily harm of their words? Would the exposure to alternative perspectives, to unseen history, and to conversations with students of color, change those students? I would hope so.
While a freshman at University of Oregon, I took my first African American history class. This class and so many others changed my life. Beyond learning about African American history, beyond reading the likes of DuBois, Frederick Douglas and Carter G. Woodson, beyond hearing for the first time names like Turner, Garvey, Delany, and Hamer, I learned to think for myself, asking why I hadn't learned this history during my formative years, and what does it mean that the history, literature, and culture I learned was a story of whites.
A couple years later, while at University of California, Santa Barbara, I enrolled in a Chicana Feminism class. Although excited to learn, I quickly questioned my decision when I entered a class that had roughly 53 Chicana women and three Chicano men. As the only white male, I felt apprehensive and unsure as to my place in the class. With the encouragement of the professor, I remained in the class. During a small group discussion about race and privilege, I shared my anxiety, explaining how I felt like an "outsider." A classmate quickly responded noting, "Now you know how we feel in every class." But in fact, I did not and couldn't know since I felt uncomfortable, as an outsider, and as representative of "my community" only twice a week for 75 minutes. When class was over, I returned to the sea of whiteness, privileged in my invisibility and empowered by a world that normalized whiteness. Yet, the educational value transcended learning about privilege, racism, and sexism, but in getting exposed to the often-erased rich history of the Chicana community. Yes, it was about politics and larger structural inequalities, but it was a course about literature, art, history, and the beauty of the Chicana experience. I can only wonder how the world might look if more students had this type of experience. To be sure, this is a world worth fighting for.
In the last year, students at Ohio University The Ohio State University protested against racism on their respective campuses. Working to educate and transform their communities, these students have highlighted the power and importance of education, of breaking down the walls of segregation, and exclusion. An expansion of ethnic studies (black studies; Chicano and Latino Studies; Asian American Studies; Native American Studies) and women's studies is yet another way to foster change. It's really simple: read, take a class, break down walls of segregation, be an ally, and ultimately work to change the very institutions and culture that perpetuate violence and injustice. Elon James White offers a prescription in this regard, "We need allies. The marginalized can't be left to speak up for themselves every time. But along with being an Ally comes a responsibility. Remember that." Part of that responsibility comes with the expectation of learning. Remember that.
This piece includes and builds on a previous piece that appeared at Ebony.