Thursday, May 13, 2010

One Humble Opinion Regarding Arizona Banning Ethnic Studies Classes

I have a friend who once told me that he had no interest in visiting an African American historic site, because he did not feel like hearing about how white people oppressed black people. When I heard that Arizona (so soon again, really?) has decided that its elementary and secondary students should not be allowed courses in ethnic studies (African American, Native American, Hispanic American), and that one of the reasons was to deter students from developing a resentment toward a race or class of people (read white folks), I immediately thought about my friend and other white folks who seem uncomfortable when confronted with aspects of American history.

First, there is absolutely no way to provide an honest historical narrative of this country without engaging really tough issues, issues that may enrage some and shame others. No history is pretty. No history is made up of nothing but good feeling stories and anecdotes.

I think that some people think that minorities relish in making white people feel bad for the nasty parts of our shared history. Guess what? Some do. But, there are also a number of white people who want nothing more than to pretend that American history was nothing more than Pilgrims (minus Native Americans, except for Thanksgiving), Founding Fathers (minus the slave holding ones), the Civil War (minus the whole slavery thing), the settling of the Western frontier (minus Native Americans, unless those Native Americans made for American heroes, like Gen. Custer, or the discrimination against Asian workers), WWII and the post-war boom (minus the entrenched segregation and racial discrimination, and racial attitudes of the same era), and the rise of conservatism (as a reaction to what happened during the middle of the 20th century). And that is indeed a triumphant story, but it is not our complete American history.

For all of those people who don't want to deal with "negative" aspects of history, how do you think someone like me felt when I found out my relationship to American slavery and American slaves? I would imagine it would be as similar to the discomfort one may feel when one discovers his/her relationship to American slavery and American slaveholders. It isn't a pleasant story. Slavery was the American "birth defect," as Secretary Condoleeza Rice put it, and we cannot discuss the full scope of our history, as Americans, by pretending it didn't exist, or by pretending its long history didn't have lingering impacts.

It's the same with just about any other racial or ethnic group, from Hispanic, to Irish, to Chinese, to Japanese, to German Americans. There are ugly chapters in our history. One of the things that has made this country great has been it ability, and even it's willingness (to a degree), to discuss these ugly chapters alongside our triumphant chapters. Arizona is doing its students a disservice by taking this tack

I am sure that the author of this legislation has never bothered to sit in on a few (meaning more than one lesson) ethnic studies courses. My guess is that he assumed, as he seems to have done in his various interviews, that these classes were designed and only open to students of that specific background that matches the course. I mean the English literature I studied in AP English back in high school was essentially an ethnic studies class (except that it was called universal), and I didn't leave with resentment toward the Irish. I studied WWII, and I did not harbor any ill will toward German Americans. I didn't look skeptically at Russians after doing a seminar in Cold War Culture, nor did I become resentful of the Japanese during the course of my East Asian survey class in undergrad. I even managed to remain calm at my very very white and male undergraduate school during my time studying African American literature (and I was the only black person in the class). I wonder if any of my white classmates ended up resentful toward me by the end of the final?

I am saying all of this simply to say that what Arizona has done, in thinking it was somehow combating something, is to make it that much more difficult for Arizona students to get an enriched and nuanced (if they wanted it) understanding of American history. I think that even some of the most conservative of historians would agree (I think) that ugly episodes in history cannot be avoided, but it is better to have an understanding of them, than to pretend that they didn't exist, and all to protect (primarily) the sensibilities of white people. Well, that is what I said, essentially, to my aforementioned friend, when he was concerned about his own sensibility as a white man engaging a black historic site.

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