Ethnic studies celebrates, doesn’t obliterate ‘E pluribus unum’

Margi Nowak is a professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Puget Sound
Margi Nowak is a professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Puget Sound

It is deeply upsetting to me – a white woman, a university professor, and, many decades ago, a teacher of Advanced Placement high school students in New York State – to read that an AP teacher here in Tacoma regards House Bill 1314 as a potentially tragic mistake.

This bill, if passed and implemented, would require the superintendent of public instruction to develop state learning standards that would prepare students to live in a global society with an appreciation for the contributions of diverse cultures and a model ethnic studies curriculum for use in grades seven through twelve.

Why the opposition to ethnic studies programs?

Too much emphasis on diversity and different ethnic histories might divide and not unite us, goes the argument.

Teaching students about the vast array of cultures and peoples and histories on this planet is inherently divisive? More so that wrenching a child out of its parent’s arms – hundreds of years ago in Africa or at a slave market in Georgia; or throughout the last century, when the federal government forcibly took away and transported Native American children to abusive boarding schools far from family and home; or today, at our southern border?

E pluribus unum – “one out of many” – has never been about, say, transforming speakers of multiple European languages into speakers of the one language family that was already here where these foreigners settled, such as Lushootseed (the local native language of the Tacoma/Puget Sound area), or Diné (the language of the Navajo, the largest aboriginal language in the United States, with well over a hundred thousand speakers).

It’s always been about power, above all, the power to define the situation (“Those others” are savages; we Euro-whites are “superior.”)

Understanding how such truly divisive acts as government-sanctioned child-parent separations could have happened, and what we might do about such past and present instances of injustice – is crucial if we are to work together, with hope and understanding, for our nation’s and our planet’s welfare.

Resisting the honest exploration of this tragic part of our history illustrates all too perfectly the work Dr. Robin DiAngelo has been doing for years, explaining the workings of what she calls “white fragility” (“White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People about Racism”).For AP students and others, it would be well worth exploring her ideas in this connection.

Indeed, the kind of critical exploration that would be included under the rubric of “ethnic studies and global citizenship” could help uncover not only hidden histories of horrible and unnecessary pain, but also the vibrant joy of discovering allies and expressions of common humanity among people whose histories may be different from mine/ours, but who want to work together – all of us! - to make this a better world. It is tragic to deprive students – Advanced Placement or otherwise - of this discovery, knowledge and experience.

Margi Nowak is a professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Puget Sound.