What Ethnic Studies Means to Me

by Koji Pingry

I grew up understanding open mindedness was important and I tried to embody what that meant. Growing up in a society that loves binaries: good and bad; black and white; communist and capitalist; republican and democrat; I’ve found I didn’t even know what open mindedness meant. My ideas were becoming increasingly polarized and other points of view were becoming less understandable. It was not until college in an ethnic studies class where I was told by my professor that open mindedness is just as much about knowing ourselves as it is listening to others. Only by understanding how our own implicit bias shapes how we understand and process the world can we truly begin to listen to one another and grow together. This is what ethnic studies is all about.    

There is a movement in Seattle to make ethnic studies mandatory in Seattle Public Schools, following Portland and the State of California. The argument for mandatory ethnic studies is fairly simple and begins with an acknowledgement that the current curriculum is very White Euro-Centric and does not leave a lot of room for the histories, perspectives, and ideas of people of color. There is now plenty of data which shows, having ethnic studies incorporated into classrooms improves the quality of education for all students, especially for students of color. 

Stanford University completed a study of San Francisco schools and found after implementation of an ethnic studies class, attendance increased by 21% and GPA’s went up by 1.4 grade points. The Mexican American Studies program at Tucson High Magnet School in Arizona, had some of the highest graduation and college acceptance rates for Latino students until the program was shut down in 2010. This is what largely inspired successful movements in California and Portland several years later.

And this is something that makes a lot of sense to me.

Even though I did well in my predominantly white Seattle schools, as a mixed race kid I always felt there was something missing. It’s why I did not feel connected to a lot of the example math questions asking me to count foods I never saw in my lunch box or why I found the Wing Luke Museum so profoundly important when I first visited in my late teens. It’s why I asked my teachers if we could read People’s History of the United States and was told they wanted to include the book in their lesson plan but it was seen as too biased. Too biased? I thought, which makes the textbooks that we are reading unbiased?

This is not to say that my school did not have many little moments where other cultures were explored. Events like our yearly school culture night, our week long segment about Asian American immigration and exclusion in the late nineteenth century in my U.S. history class, and reading Joy Luck Club in my freshmen year language arts class helped me contextualize my Asian American identity. And while some may consider that enough to warrant the ethnics studies label, I believe ethnic studies was not something that I truly received until college.

The reason for this is that not only did my ethnic studies courses in college teach me about different cultures, and different ways of understanding the world but also what it means to be truly open minded and respectful of diversity.

When learning about everything from indigenous social movements in South America, to the history of Japanese American incarceration during World War II, to the Politics of Hair there was always an emphasis on listening and respecting other stories and experiences, and to be critical when something was presented as truth. My professors did this by asking us to constantly reflect on our own biases and thinking about where our biases come from; by challenging us to really engage with each others ideas rather than criticizing; by creating safe spaces where our own identities and experiences could be shared and explored. These teaching practices were intimately connected with the course content if we truly want to help grow a generation of more tolerant, critical thinking, and caring people.

As the idea of a mandatory ethnic studies becomes more mainstream, and as it gains more attention in Seattle and beyond, it is important to remember ethnic studies is more than just what we teach but also how we teach. By pushing for both curriculum development and pedagogical training we can begin to create an ethnic studies program that truly accommodates the ethnicities, religions, abilities, and orientations of students in our classrooms. And we can begin to implement these ideas in all of our classrooms. Whether it’s high school English class or a elementary math class, mandatory ethnic studies should help create spaces where students feel comfortable and confident learning about their own identities, confronting their biases and sharing them with each other. We should be creating spaces where students can explore many different voices and question what we have come to believe as “truth.”

Email the school board, talk to members of your community and talk to teachers so we can make ethnic studies mandatory in our city because it is the right thing to do. And let’s make sure that when ethnic studies is mandatory, we are pushing to implement it in such a way that the content and the pedagogy is pushing us to be truly open minded.

Featured image: Koji Pingry