By the NAACP Ethnic Studies Committee: Tracy Gill, Rita Green, Jon Greenberg, and Tess Williams
Quick quiz. How many of these historical figures can you identify? Bayard Rustin, Benedict Arnold, Sylvia Rae Rivera, Larry Dulay Itliong, Robert E. Lee, Cecile Hansen, Queen Liliuokalani, Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu, Audre Lorde, Lucy Gonzales Parsons.
If you can only identify the white ones, you are hardly alone. These results are invariably a consequence of living in an overwhelmingly white city (70%) and state (80%) and being taught by an even whiter teaching force (90%).
White is so normalized that we know white traitors better than heroes of Color.
This whiteness helps explain why Seattle Public Schools is home to some of the largest racial achievement disparities in the nation, as well as racial disparities in discipline so severe that they attracted a federal investigation by the Department of Education. As Superintendent Nyland himself says, “We can do better. We must do better.”
In January, Seattle King County NAACP launched an initiative to show him how: mandatory ethnic studies throughout Seattle Public Schools.
What is ethnic studies? As Tracy Gill, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Denny International Middle School, states, “Ethnic studies is reversing the idea of white as the default race.”
Emerging out of the civil rights movement and the concerns of students of Color on college campuses, ethnic studies is an interdisciplinary approach to teaching about the identities, history, oppression, perseverance, and struggle for equality and power of marginalized cultures and gender identities in the United States.
These courses undeniably benefit students of Color – benefits recently confirmed by the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Researchers were “shocked” by how effectively ethnic studies served struggling students in San Francisco, a district predominately composed of students of Color. Attendance, GPA, and credits earned all increased.
And why wouldn’t they? White-centric curricula leave students of Color feeling like outsiders in their own classrooms, leading to disengagement and disillusionment. In Seattle, students of Color make up 54% of the district. That’s a lot of potential disengagement and disillusionment.
Ethnic studies interrupts this pattern by educating students of Color that their identities are valuable components of our nation rather than a footnote or a “contribution” to White America.
But what about the white students? Will concerted efforts to better serve our city’s students of Color drive white families to private schools, as integration efforts once did? Not if white families do their research. Multiple studies have shown the academic and social benefits of ethnic studies on white students.
But the need for white students to take ethnic studies runs deeper than GPA.
The fact is, too many white parents do not talk with their children about race, even when the assault of police killings of people of Color provide an overwhelming amount of opportunities to do so. Ethnic studies, on the other hand, institutionalizes these conversations. Studies have revealed that the introduction of such courses reduced prejudice, positively impacted racial attitudes, and increased civic engagement among white students.
Possibly one of the most promising results of ethnic studies is the building of empathy across racial lines, working to undo the implicit biases against people of Color that form in a racialized and racist country.
Thus, ethnic studies is a long-term investment in our community, one that could help eliminate the hypocrisy of Seattle – a city that prides itself on “progressive” values but allows its residents, at least the Black and Brown ones, to be funneled into the school to prison pipeline or gunned down by the police.
White Americans have had their turn playing the curricular protagonists. Their turn has lasted centuries and it’s time for others to take a turn. That’s a lesson so basic that little children learn it on a playground swing set.
Green is the education chair of the Seattle King County NAACP and Gill, Greenberg, and Williams are teachers in Seattle