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Student Well-Being Opinion

‘Nothing to Be Ashamed Of': My Students on Ethnic Studies

By Christina Torres — September 29, 2016 6 min read
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Earlier this year in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill “ordering the creation of a model ethnic studies course for state high schools,” (via Huffington Post), a decision that was met with much praise, but some controversy.

Initially, I was going to write a piece here about that decision. Then, I decided I wanted the opinion of some far more well-informed folks (in my opinion).

Hawai’i is one of the few places (to my knowledge) where a form of ethnic studies is mandated as part of students’ curriculum. Students spend a chunk of their secondary social studies education here learning native Hawaiian history and culture, and local culture has many ties to Native Hawaiian culture.

So, I decided to ask my students.

I asked them to write me their thoughts, and gave them four articles:

California Passes Game-Changing Ethnic Studies Bill” via Huffington Post

Do Ethnic Studies Classes Have Academic Benefits?” via The Atlantic

The Value of Ethnic Studies--For All Students” via Teaching Tolerance

School head fights ‘ethnic chauvinism’ in Arizona” via Washington Times

Here’s what they had to say:

I think learning about ethnic studies to students at school is absolutely important. I think it’s really important because different cultures have a unique and long past. I think that it is very important to learn about someone’s culture, especially in school, while we are learning about different things such as the History of Hawaiian culture, and where that culture originated from, and when It was introduced...

It’s very important that we learn about Ethnic studies, because different people come into one school, and If we don’t learn about different people, we will never know their past or their culture because each and every person is completely different where they were born. For example, my brother was born in Japan, I was born in South Carolina, and my sister was born in Hawaii. So we were all born in completely different places and environments with different people. So that’s very important we know about everyone’s culture, so no one’s culture is left out.

- Kyle M.

[Ethnic studies] is important because when you grow up, it’s likely that you’ll visit another country that has a different culture and ethnicity. If you didn’t study that in school, chances are that you will have a very hard time adapting to the people in the country...

I support ethnic studies, but I don’t think it should be required. People should learn about their own ethnicity, but if they don’t want to, they shouldn’t have to. Many people are saying that we shouldn’t learn ethnic studies because “the children might not feel comfortable”. That why I said that it shouldn’t be required, but recommended. I do think that most schools don’t have ethnic studies and that should change. To make things easier, there should be one Ethnic Studies subject and in that subject, they would learn all kinds of ethnicities, and as a bonus, students will get extra credit if they attend the class.

- Kealoha H.

I learn a little bit more about my past, and I learned more about my ancestors’ relationship to the world. And you never know if someone ancient and someone that did something great could be your cousin! You learn so much, and you sometimes can learn just a little bit more about yourself. It’s a great way to get to know the past, even though you might want to move on, It’s always showing you a path that your ancestors have taken, and how beautiful and powerful your background is, and why you should never be ashamed to let it show, because there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

When I began to learn about Hawaiian history, it amazed me. I mean, knowing that we actually had female rulers? And how powerful their background, and showing that family doesn’t always run by blood? That taught me a lot. And then learning further than that, to when I learned about the ancient time, before Kamehameha ruled? I mean, having to work together within an ahupua’a? That’s better than what some other cultures did. And it showed how independent we were, and how we can live without surviving by Americans and British people. That showed me that money isn’t always having to work for it, you could just trade it. And you didn’t have to worry about needing something, because you could always go to your neighbor and ask if they had some, and borrow it. Nowadays, if you do that, it’s kind of creepy and weird. It really showed me, that not all people are the same, and it taught me a lot. I know a lot more, and I had a lot of fun learning about it. I never had to be worried about what my ancestors were like, because it was like, I actually got to meet them.

- Alycea M.

It’s also good to learn about ethnic studies because it helps you learn about the different views of the world. It helps you see the different views of the world because each ethnic group has struggles and they have different viewpoints of each other. Some people don’t really appreciate other ethnic groups because of the way that they act. Some ethnic groups value certain things that are interesting and no one has ever known about it before.

Some ethnic groups want to try different sort of traditions so that they can stay connected to the other different ethnic groups. Some people don’t like what certain ethnic groups do because they are not used to it or that they are afraid that, that ethnic group is crazy.

It’s a useful thing to bring to students because what if someday we meet a different ethnic group and we don’t know what to do or how to respond then that would not be good because the ethnic group might not feel welcome. Also if we do not have ethnic studies then we won’t know how different ethnic groups live and their different traditions and we won’t know what to do and what not to do. It also is important to learn about ethnic studies because some ethnicities don’t have any money to get anything and we do and it makes us feel grateful for what we have. It is also important because some ethnic groups are getting bullied or harassed because of the traditions that they do. This has affected me because since I have seen different types of ethnicities I now know how to interact with them. I know how to interact with them by learning about them.

- Melissa D.

Different ethnic groups can have new teachings and learnings which could possibly help benefit us or open our eyes to new perspectives. Some traditions can be bought to shared. It also can see the comparison between the groups of their land, resources,religion, environment, culture, language, and the styles that are developed.

But... I’m concerned about if we students get a choice to learn this studies as a requirement or as an option. I think it should be optional depending on your location. It’s more understanding learning the ethnic studies of the land you are living on. But if students are required to learn an ethnic group but some information taught could go against their ethnic group they belong to as a differ to beliefs or religions. It could cause conflict for the studies to continue on if it is being taught in schools. Also, how would they decide what Ethnic study to choose from since there are many different ethnic groups? But it’s really up to the school’s education in which I’m not to concern about since they are going to do what’s best fitted.

- Emily Y.

I am always impressed by my students’ abilities to seek nuance and see multiple sides of an issue. While my students were generally in support of an Ethnic Studies class, they were willing to raise questions of implementation of value based on local culture.

Another consider my students raised was how ethnic studies enabled them to be more empathetic to cultures other than their own. As Melissa mentioned, learning about other cultures gives students the capability to be more empathetic and understanding to the diverse world they inhabit. Once we increase that empathy towards other cultures, we can move towards a culture of inclusivity, where we not just accept, but celebrate and learn from other cultures.

Overall, my students had much more to say than included here. I’m excited to run a series of their work next week. To fellow educators, I hope this inspires you take these big questions and throw them out to your students. Giving them the space to process their thoughts opens us all up to fascinating and insightful discussion.

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.