Ethnic Studies Educator Amanda Hubbard Takes Us Above and Beyond the Winner/Loser Binary

by Ari Robin McKenna

This is the first in a series of articles featuring the words of local ethnic studies educators who are doing work to address systemic racism in our classrooms. To read the series intro, click here.

To Amanda Hubbard, ethnic studies is foundational; it is the basis for effective instruction in the classroom, from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Period. She’s done with students of color being given a footnote’s worth of space in the curriculum — an elective if they’re lucky — while the Eurocentric victors’ tales are taught, definitively, as “history.” She’s done with a White supremacist educational culture that defies all the current best-practice research emphasizing both the process and the power of learning from mistakes — in favor of maintaining a biased, high-stakes hierarchy of winners and losers.

And so, Amanda Hubbard is working, beyond her teaching hours, to develop a better way.

A member of the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group (ESAG), she designs curricular framework — and the units of study nestled within them — that center the identities of students of color while encouraging all students to reach across racial divides. Instead of requiring teachers to check off a few boxes to prove they have dealt with centuries of systemic racism, ESAG seeks to empower teachers to develop an inclusive practice that involves cycles of action and reflection and is responsive to each individual student.

After seven years as a classroom teacher, Hubbard now works as an English Language Learner (ELL) and Intervention teacher at Kimball Elementary School, where she serves just under 100 students in grades three to five. What follows are the highlights from her engaging, hour-long interview with the Emerald in Jefferson Park:

“The number one thing that people have used to squash ethnics studies is to say that it’s too political to bring into anything below a college education, because our duty as teachers should not be to be involved in politics. But we all know that silence is the same thing as taking a political position. And if you’re not calling out injustices and wrongs and things that are racist, then you’re not being antiracist: you’re being complicit.

“If what we’re talking about is really trying to enact change and to change a system, then by definition it is political. And in order to ever have different curriculum in schools, there has to be policy behind it, otherwise it’s just a whim for a time period, and it’s not something that’s lasting. It’s not something that has truly started to battle the institutional and systemic racism.

“The way that history is taught — that way everything is taught — is in that same mode of ‘in perpetuity.’ There’s little to no critical thinking enforced in our education — except within a few parameters of like, ‘Where are the stock answers for this?’ ‘Why did the U.S. become involved in World War II?’ Sure you could critically analyze it and come up with an answer, but that doesn’t give you an idea of, ‘What did it mean for Japanese Americans to join in that fight?’ ‘What was their investment in it — especially after so many of them were interned here?’ ‘What is that dynamic?’ So much of that stuff gets pushed off to the side — the stuff that’s sticky — because there’s a message of ‘the glory’ of the United States.

“And I am not one who is discounting the American dream. The American dream is why I am even here. It’s why my Filipina mom went ahead and moved with my dad — who’s from Kansas and was stationed in the Philippines. They got married so that she could really try and realize the American dream, and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. But I do think that we take it for granted that it is achievable for certain groups, moreso than others. I think all of public education is so thoroughly grounded in that myth of meritocracy that it doesn’t allow for you to question it, because then you’re just making an excuse because you don’t want to work hard enough. When it comes to ethnic studies, it’s more than just being seen, it’s being heard and engaged with.

Brené Brown said that there is a significant difference between being included and belonging. And at the end of the day, if you’re only checking a box that says, ‘Yes that person was there.’ Then all you’ve accomplished is inclusion, whereas belonging says, ‘I am here, and I know what role I am playing, and I know how that is contributing to the whole.’ For White students, everything they’re being shown has some connection to their lived experience in a far more significant way than for students of color.

“One of the essential parts of ethnic studies is action and reflection. I think that without that piece, it’s just another set of social studies ideals. But with reflection and action, it asks both the instructors and the students to be able to say, ‘Now that I know this, what does it mean about how I want to live my life? What does it mean about what I want our society to value and uphold? What role do I play in holding society accountable to those values?’

“At the heart of ethnic studies is humanity and the valuing of all human life and existence as opposed to creating or studying it in a hierarchy of winners and losers. When history is boiled down to winners and losers, it erases the histories and experiences of people who were on the other side of a conflict. I think it also makes it so that our society has to be binary — you’re either a winner or a loser. And that does not lend itself very well to growth, and it doesn’t lend itself to a growth mindset. It contributes to the anger and frustration of when you’re not right, because you’re being taught both explicitly and implicitly that the goal is to be right. The goal is to win. To achieve this thing so that you can go on and achieve the next thing, and it dismisses the process. It dismisses the value of mistakes. It makes it so that it’s so much easier to feel anger and frustration if you can only be right or wrong. Then, when you’re wrong, you can just fully sink into it and despair, [feeling] dismissed and erased.

“The problem with having those binaries is that — especially in White-dominated spaces — they [White students] have so few experiences being part of the minority, being put in those spaces in which the other side of that history, of that story, of those experiences, are being told or shared. You can easily dismiss and take for granted that they could be right, because you never have to actually engage with it. So you can fully sit in your privilege and enjoy it and never have to question it because you are at the top of this hierarchy. But if you don’t want to be that person, that fat cat at the top of society, then you have a duty to engage and listen to the other parts of society and not dismiss or discredit their experiences when the bulk of them are saying that these are the experiences. Once you arrive at that piece, then you have to question the whole thing. ‘Does anyone deserve to be sitting at the top of that hierarchy? Should there be a hierarchy?’ And then what happens is, then you get into the politics side of it because once you see it you can’t unsee it.

“And when I say history, I mean the history of all of the things, as opposed to ‘history’ the subject matter. I did an activity with my third graders [during the 2017-2018 school year] in which we analyzed my classroom library. My classroom library had like 1,200-plus books, and we analyzed it for — What was the diversity in the authors? What was the diversity of the people in those books? What was the correlation between authors of color and kids (characters) of color?

“The kids were able to fully arrive all by themselves. I didn’t analyze my books beforehand. When they did, they were horrified. They were horrified to see that most of the books were either written by white men or featured white boys. The second group was white girls.Then just in its own pile were all of the different people of color. There wasn’t enough in any one category to create a [new] category! In comparison to the massive pile that was like 90% of my books — and I’m also a teacher who really is trying to get diversity into my books, into my purchases, but I’m also a public school teacher!

“There was a subset of students who then chose to analyze the school library, only to find the same conclusion. They found it especially horrific in a dual-language, international school. Why is that? Why am I not in a book? Why are my people not writing these? Why are we not buying books by them? Why in a dual-language Spanish immersion school are there three shelves in the entire library —why is it that there are only that many in Spanish, if one of our goals is to learn Spanish? If the White kids’ goal is to learn Spanish, why wouldn’t that be reflected in our materials? And so you can’t say that we hold these values and then not reflect it in your curricula, in your supplies, in your directive choices towards educators. There’s no incentive for you to spend hundreds of dollars to bolster your classroom library, and frankly there shouldn’t be. Because that should just be part of the school library and part of the system, but it’s not.

“If it [the curriculum] has been handed to us, that means it’s not necessarily being responsive to the children right in front of you. What are you doing, as an educator, to continually ask yourself and check in with yourself about how you are doing for the children that are in front of you right then, right now?

“One of my absolute favorite and necessary reflection practices I learned at my very first school — it was a time-limited activity in which there would be no way for you to write down all of the students that you were serving that year as a classroom teacher. The idea was you have 60 seconds to write down the first and last name of all of your students and one thing that makes them smile.

“What happens when you sit down and analyze it is that you know immediately and can ask yourself:

‘Which students did I not put on this list?’

‘Why were they not on the top of my mind?’

‘Is there a pattern to who I am or am not including?’

‘How do I make sure I am doing my best for all the students in my class or group and not just the ones who know how to get a teacher’s attention?’

“If you don’t know one thing that makes the students smile in your class, then you need to reinvest a lot more time in a relationship with them, because we know that research points to that if you learn something joyously, you learn it faster, you learn it better, and you learn it in a way that you can also share that with others.

“[Ethnic studies] makes it so that all the decisions and choices that you’re making matter, and it shows that they are connected to the people in your life. Whether or not you meant to impact them negatively or positively, your actions do make an impact on others. I think that — especially when your curriculum is Eurocentric — for those students of color, it’s hard to see what their impact is. It’s hard to see what space they occupy. And if it’s just in being conquered then what does that do for your identity development? What does it do for the size of the dreams you’re gonna dream? And that’s not to say that students don’t start thinking outside that box, that students don’t have other ways in which they do end up seeing themselves, like their wonderful parents and community organizations that help fill that goal. But if it’s public education, then it should serve all of the students there and they shouldn’t have to pursue those things outside of it, because the White kids don’t.”

Amanda recommends checking out for more information about the work ESAG is doing.

Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA, and is now settled in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach) and writing. He is currently pitching a novella called, “On a Moonlit Landing.”

Featured image: Amanda Hubbard (Photo: Chloe Collyer)