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Ethnic Studies Should Be a Nationwide Graduation Requirement

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In today’s polarized political climate, censorship is on the rise nationwide, with restrictions on everything: from books and drag shows to critical race theory. Florida Gov. Ron Desantis’ decision to ban an AP high school course in African American studies is one of the numerous examples of this right-wing censorship campaign. 

This agenda is not only harmful to the exercise of free speech, but also silences marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. Therefore, it is more crucial than ever to implement ethnic studies as a national graduation requirement across all levels of education. The course concentrates on the experiences of ethnic and racial minority groups that are often overlooked in textbooks. Making ethnic studies courses a nationwide graduation requirement will challenge students to think critically about the institutions and policies that marginalize people of color.

Some universities in California, including UCI, require multicultural studies as part of their general education curriculum. UCI offers numerous courses that highlight experiences of underrepresented minorities, such as African American studies, Asian American histories and Chicano/Latino studies. 

Second-year sociology Ph.D. candidate Angeles “Rubi” Castorena specializes in the study of race and education. Castorena took her first ethnic studies course, Chicano Studies 1, in her senior year of undergrad. Now, she is a teaching assistant for UCI’s Chicano Studies 62. 

From her time as an undergraduate to now serving as a TA, Castorena has witnessed firsthand the benefits of ethnic studies courses for university students. Castorena believes that a course like Chicano Studies 62 helps students “gain a deeper sense of who they are and where they come from and the history” regardless of whether they identify as Latinx. 

Ethnic studies curricula encourages everyone to account for the perspectives of underrepresented racial groups in the United States and the ongoing social and systemic issues that these populations face. 

“[The Department of Chicano Studies is] one of the only departments that allows you to bring your own experiences as knowledge,” Castorena said in an interview with the New University. 

Castorena believes that this aspect of the class is an essential component of ethnic studies because it gives students of color an opportunity to engage with material that is relevant to their experiences, when other classes may favor eurocentric narratives.

Without ethnic studies courses, all that is left is a “whitewashed” version of history. Often, white historical figures like Christopher Columbus are elevated to a hero status while the curriculum downplays the harm the United States has inflicted on minorities. Another example of this is the “historical” telling of the first Thanksgiving, which portrays the romanticized and false narrative that pilgrims and Native Americans sat down together in harmony. In the case of Thanksgiving, the narrative ignores the genocide of Native Americans with the establishment of the American colonies.

There is a common misconception that ethnic studies promotes racial resentment by teaching students to be “anti-white.” On the contrary, these courses foster an appreciation for different cultures and an understanding of various perspectives. 

According to Castorena, ethnic studies uniquely focuses on the component of empathy, which isn’t always present in other classes. Castorena finds that students “feel very comfortable” and that some students have disclosed vulnerable information such as their parents’ immigration status or openly identifying as a queer person.

 “The fact that they feel safe enough to do it in this classroom means a lot, and I don’t think they would be raising their hands in a biology class,” she said. 

Unlike California, which passed legislation requiring high school students to take an ethnic studies course starting in 2029, states like Florida and Arizona have antagonized these courses. 

“Anything that is going to criticize how the government is running is going to be banned,” Castorena  said.

Castorena shared that she “feels really bad for the students” in states where ethnic studies aren’t required in public schools because those students “aren’t going to grow up knowing the history of where they come from, the history of other people of color.” 

Not everyone has the opportunity to attend college, so it is crucial to establish a national graduation requirement for ethnic studies in the K-12 system as well. At least in this way, everyone can engage in an ethnic studies course and see society through a new lens.

California has established a standard that other states should follow by making ethnic studies required in the state. Diversifying school curriculums should be implemented nationally so that students of color feel heard and represented in what they are studying. People learn from and are shaped by the people around us, and ethnic studies gives students the opportunity to be more emphatic and develop a sense of community. With far-right forces challenging these departments and undermining the value of these courses, it is now even more important to enforce ethnic studies across the country.

Zahira Vasquez is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. She can be reached at zivasque@uci.edu.