May 18, 2010

Fear of a Brown Planet

I am deeply wounded by the recent "outlawing" of the teaching of Ethnic Studies in Arizona high schools.  I have spent the better part of my life looking for myself in the literature that I have loved so much.  As a girl, I reveled in American classics like Little Women.  However, I quickly became hungry for narratives whose protagonists looked like me.  It wasn't until high school when my English teacher (my white English teacher) included in our list of readings Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Maya Angelou's  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that my hunger was satiated.  But of course, literary people's hunger for literature is never satiated.  Hence, my current Ph.D. pursuit, my M.A. in African American Literature, and my B.A. in English.

Is it slippery slope thinking to believe that this law is just the beginning of academic censoring, or does this law set the precedent for what is to come nationwide in high schools and soon in universities?  And, will little black and brown girls all over America retreat into apathy and cynicism because they don't see themselves, their life experiences, and their voices reflected in the curriculum they study at the behest of a school system who believes that those experiences are irrelevant?

Ethnic Studies includes the cultural study of anyone in America who needs to "hyphenate" (Latin-American, Hispanic-American, Native-American, Asian-American, African-American, etc.)  Furthermore, these groups need to hyphenate because, like Toni Morrison says, "American means white, and everyone else has to hyphenate."  If American history, literature, and art included the works of all of its "hyphenated" citizens, there would not be a need for Ethnic Studies, Chicano Studies, African-American Studies, Asian Studies, etc.  Unless, of course, society holds that those voices should be silenced in the first place, or that those people should just blend and assimilate.  We Hispanic, African, Native and Asian Americans are over 100 million strong.  We are here, we have been here, this is our country too, and we are not going anywhere.

Consequently, the national push for multiculturalism in education began in the early 1990s.  The multicultural education movement has attempted to decenter whiteness and white hegemony, offering cultural relativity in order to engage marginalized and alienated students of color, as well as provide white students with cultural relativity and a new perspective.  Isn't it about time that whiteness is removed from the center?  Are not the founding American ideals based on cultural heterogeneity?  Whites are not the only important citizens in America.  Students of color as well as white students need to know that people of color were more than just the conquered and the colonized.  

The proponents of the bill to criminalize Ethnic Studies contend that the teaching of Ethnic Studies promotes "cultural chauvinism" and incites sedition.  If this is true, what kind of cultural chauvinism have we promoted over the past century by teaching American history, literature, or art that either completely neglects literature and art of people of color or marginalizes that art and trivializes those histories?  Is it not cultural chauvinism to reify the notion that anyone who ever did, wrote, or discovered anything extraordinary had a white face?  In essence, supporters of this bill are saying, "Assimilate, shut up, or disappear."   

As for "sedition" -- since when has sedition been an unspeakable thing in the United States of America, the quintessential democratic republic.  The OED defines sedition as speech or conduct which incites people to challenge the authority of a nation or monarch.  This is just the kind of critical thinking and activism that has sustained our country for over 200 years.  The British accused the American colonists of sedition when they rebelled against their "taxation without representation".  Later, the abolitionist movement was considered seditious because it challenged American slavery.  American civil rights workers were also accused of sedition when they incited students to challenge Jim Crow laws and conduct sit-ins in "whites only" business establishments.  I am sure I could go on, but I believe I have made my point.  Positive change always comes out of some grassroots challenge to the status quo.