In Defense of Ethnic Studies

Posted May 14, 2010

In the late 1960s, as a graduate student at San Francisco State I worked with others to set up the first women’s study class and to demand a School of Ethnic Studies. Over 800 were arrested in the course of the 1968-69 strike and expelled. I take pride in the fact I played a minor role in the development of ethnic and women’s studies classes in schools and universities across the country.

SF State StrikersOn the 20th anniversary of the student strike at S.F. State, speech professor Hank McGuckin explained how he was won to the demand for ethnic studies. After a rally, he walked back across the campus and went to his office. He sat down, still mulling over the talks, and looked up at his books.

He thought about the moving 19th and 20th century speeches of Black orators and realized they were missing from the key “texts.” At that moment he realized what students were talking about when we pointed to structural racism within the institutions of our society, and particularly at our “liberal” college.

The history of our country is often recounted as romantic myth. Growing up in California, I learned many heroic stories, starting with Columbus’s “discovery” of America and continuing through the Mexican conquest of California and how the missions cared for the Indians. We learned little about slavery, the U.S. annexation of one-third of Mexico — the place we now lived, the history of the California Indians or working people’s struggles, the fight for women’s rights or the anti-Asian laws that singled out Asian immigrants as undesirables.

As a young child my mother lived in Jerome, Arizona. Her father worked in the mine; her family were one of the two “white” families in town. One day my mother found a child to play with — but when the child’s father appeared, he was horrified to see a white child playing with his daughter. He brought my mother home, and apologized.

Although I was educated in California, I never once heard about the internment of Japanese Americans in any class I took prior to college. I did learn from my mother that a friend of ours, Fumi, owned her parents’ farm because even in the 1950s California law prevented people born in Japan from owning property!

So the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, has lobbied a bill through the legislature that opposes the Tucson school district’s Mexican-American studies program, and the Governor has signed it into law. The law oppose programs that promote resentment toward another ethnic group, and Horne claims the Tuscon district does just that.

Horne validates himself by announcing he was at the 1963 March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King say he wanted a world in which people will not be judged by the color of their skin. Thus Horne attempts to hide his right-wing agenda with a liberal glaze.

The reality is that Horne misrepresents ethnic studies. He promises to make sure the new anti-ethnic studies law is followed or the Tucson district will loose 10% of its state funding. We must support ethnic studies, women’s studies and labor studies and a critical analysis of history! Until we can learn about our own whole history we will be caught in tangled myths that impedes understanding.


3 responses to “In Defense of Ethnic Studies”

  1. Tina Avatar

    Great and timely reflection, Dianne, what with the Arizona attack. As a high school teacher I spent many hours figuring out how to write working people, women, ethnic groups back INTO the history and Spanish classes I was teaching.
    I also like this ‘comment’ format — we might do well to use this at ISR.
    Nice profile photo too! Cool.

  2. palandavis Avatar

    Great post Dianne!

    It is so sad that children here in the U.S. learn so little about the struggles of people of color, women, and labor unions. Instead they are taught to memorize boring U.S. history, usually taught as a succession of wars.

    I completely agree with you that ethnic, gender, and labor studies should be part of every student’s curriculum.

    – Phil

  3. Anne Winkler-Morey  Avatar

    Thanks for the article! Beautiful testament to the importance of ethnic studies.

    Join a national campaign to Support Ethnic Studies in Arizona and everywhere and oppose new Texas state standards for social studies.
    Participate in Ethnic Studies week October 1-7 2010
    Start planning your activities now.
    For more info go to:

    or email

    Facebook: Support Ethnic Studies in Arizona. Ethnic Studies Week October 1-7