Ethnic Studies, Pluralism and Democracy

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Christine Sleeter, California State University Monterey Bay
This blog entry is part of the Equity Issues Portfolio’s series on ‘interculturalism and pluralism’.

In a multicultural society, is ethnic studies separatist? Is it harmful to students? Does ethnic studies threaten social unity? Is ethnic studies academically weak? I often hear these questions answered in the affirmative to justify eliminating various forms of ethnic studies curricula, or not allowing ethnic studies to be established in the first place. But objections to ethnic studies actually fly in the face of the research evidence.

Before highlighting the research evidence – which largely answers the above questions as “No” – I need to unpack an assumption that an ethnic studies curriculum is racially separatist while the dominant mainstream curriculum is not. It is important to do so because this assumption rests on beliefs that white people commonly make about mainstream institutions, namely, that they are open to and inclusive of everyone. 

Mainstream curriculum as “white studies

When I work with teachers, one of the first things I usually do is ask them to bring in a textbook they are using so that we can analyze closely whose knowledge it embodies. Usually teachers, particularly white teachers, are surprised that we are doing this because in their view, textbooks have become reasonably well integrated. Racially diverse peoples appear throughout, to a much greater degree than was the case when the older teachers were students in school. Some texts even mention painful issues such as racialized violence in history.

Yet, the whiteness of the mainstream curriculum becomes visible after we work through a process that involves counting representation of people by race, compiling findings across the various texts teachers have analyzed, and reading themes in the texts juxtaposed with their treatment in ethnic studies. Using this process, it becomes evident that what is commonly regarded as a pluralistic, integrated mainstream curriculum is actually racialized (white). In other words, most mainstream curricula can be viewed as “white ethnic studies .” Once that reality is visible, one then needs to ask: Is a white studies curriculum separatist? Is it harmful to students? Does it undermine social unity? Is a white studies curriculum that emphasizes one main point of view and set of experiences academically weak?

It has been my experience, supported by research, that teachers and students from minoritized backgrounds had already been asking these questions. I will tell a story, but to introduce it, I must point out that I am white and began my teaching career viewing mainstream curriculum as inclusive and ethnic studies as separatist. High school students in inner city Seattle initially prompted me to question these assumptions.

While student teaching in a high school history class, I remember chatting informally with one of my students. He began to talk about his own multiracial background. While I had identified him as Black, he was of Black, Native American, and European descent. He went on to critique not only the oversimplification of racial categories that are commonly used, but oversimplifications schools teach that result from a naïve view of how race works. These were issues he wanted to probe intellectually, but he regarded school as a rather hopeless place in which to do so.

In an English class in the same school, a young Indigenous woman dared to question my assertion that having a bit of Indigenous ancestry authorized my interest in including a Native American poem in the curriculum. She pointed out that any Indigenous ancestry I might have did not erase my white upbringing and my personal history of not having worked alongside any Native American tribe at all. She went on to point out that what I was attempting to bring to the curriculum was tokenism that I had justified by claiming an identity that was not mine to claim.

Young people like these are clearly aware of the Eurocentrism of mainstream curriculum (as well as of many other mainstream institutions). I have talked with other minoritized students whose critique of curriculum is less cogent but equally critical – students who simply say that school is boring and irrelevant to them. For example, a Chicano student who I worked with at the university level described his growing disinterest in school as he proceeded through it. School was designed “for someone else." It was not until he was literally pulled into a Chicano studies class by a friend at a community college that he had learned to articulate why school felt boring and alienating. In Chicano studies, his intellectual appetite was finally fed.

So, contrary to the way that most white teachers, students, and parents view schooling, the so-called integrated, pluralist, mainstream curriculum functions as a white studies curriculum that has incorporated some representation of minoritized people without substantially disrupting a white definition of reality. This curriculum disengages large numbers of minoritized students, while teaching white students to see racism as a relic of the past and intellectual knowledge of minoritized groups as unimportant, invalid, separatist, or based on emotion.

Research on the impact of ethnic studies
Recently I had an opportunity to locate and review all of the research I could find on the academic and social impact of ethnic studies on students in the United States. The larger report can be found on the National Education Association website . I share here some highlights.

For students who are members of the ethnic/racial group that is the focus of a given ethnic studies curriculum, 15 of the 16 data-based studies I located found a positive impact. One of the strongest programs is the Social Justice Education Project in Tucson, Arizona – the very program that is at the epicenter of the controversy in Arizona over banning ethnic studies. Over four years of comparing students who completed that program with other students in the same schools, using measures such as state tests in reading, writing, and mathematics, and high school graduation, students who completed the ethnic studies program have dramatically and consistently outperformed their Mexican American peers as well as white students in the same schools. The reason is that the ethnic studies curriculum, like well-designed ethnic studies curricula elsewhere, is organized around the intellectual frameworks most relevant to the lives of Chicano students in Tucson, pitched at a level to prepare the students for university, and taught by teachers who care deeply about the lives and intellectual welfare of the minoritized students they are teaching.

White students who complete ethnic studies or diversity courses generally develop improved awareness of how race and racism function, as well as improved attitudes toward minoritized groups, which many survey studies confirm. This is particularly the case when the class includes plenty of opportunity for cross-racial dialog among students, in which students can ask genuine questions. Much of the research looking at the impact of ethnic studies coursework on diverse student populations has been couched around what researchers term “democracy outcomes,” which include learning to see diversity and democracy as compatible and becoming more willing to engage in cross-racial learning. While the white students in such classes may find the content uncomfortable and challenging, for the most part, their knowledge and attitudes improve.

Ethnic studies, pluralism and democracy

Rather than being divisive, ethnic studies helps students to bridge differences that already exist in experiences and perspectives. In a pluralistic society, it is essential that all racial and ethnic communities have voice. Exactly what this looks like varies from place to place because the racial and ethnic composition of communities varies from place to place. Minoritized students historically have demanded ethnic studies because mainstream curricula have not been inclusive. In a multicultural society, perhaps the most democratic curriculum is based on dialog across the various ethnic studies – including but not limited to white studies.

Christine Sleeter is a Professor Emerita, California State University Monterey Bay and President of the National Association for Multicultural Education.


Equity Matters


Thank you so much to Christine Sleeter for writing this piece and to Malinda Smith for maintaining this very effective and critical blog devoted to equity matters. I will be using this post as one of the first pieces in my graduate course in curriculum studies this September.

I echo Carol's sentiments. Christine's piece is on point! Currently I am working on research which examines connections between the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona, the removal of affirmative action, and the establishment of the commission on privatization and efficiency. Ethnic studies, particularly Mexican American Studies, must be silenced in order to maintain neoliberal policies and their consequences. Teaching history and context of the Mexico/Arizona border and how processes of racialization and citizenship have been used (and are used) within that context would disrupt the current order.
Malinda - for your posts, and your work in general on the race list serv....thank you. This is an incredible resource and life-saver.