Evelyn I. Rodriguez is a Sociology professor and a founding member of USF Critical Diversity Studies.
On Feb. 25, 2016, hundreds of San Francisco State University (SFSU) students gathered together to remind SFSU administrators of the need and importance of Ethnic Studies, and to protest massive impending budget cuts to their College of Ethnic Studies. On Friday, March 4, University of San Francisco (USF) student supporters gathered for a “Discussion Based Workshop,” to discuss, in part, what the threat to Ethnic Studies at SFSU means to our campus. Critical Diversity Studies (CDS) at USF stands in solidarity with our neighbors and students in affirming that Ethnic Studies is an essential component of a quality education, and an indispensable tool for helping build an informed and socially connected society.
We need Ethnic Studies because all of us deserve to learn more than the partial histories offered to us in mainstream education. SFSU pioneered Ethnic Studies in the United States, in response to the 1968 and 1969 Third World Liberation Front and Black Student Union-led strikes’ demands for educations that countered and corrected the omission of non-European peoples and their historical contributions in mainstream curricula.
Then, as in many schools today, course materials often only offered histories and perspectives from a white, male, heterosexual point-of-view. At best, such an education is incomplete; at worst, it erases the contributions of non-white, non-male, non-heterosexuals to society, and helps alienate students who identify with any or all of the latter identities from their own learning.
Contemporary Ethnic Studies programs like Critical Diversity Studies at USF and Race and Resistance at SFSU continue to help produce comprehensive and well-designed curricula and scholarship, to ensure that students have opportunities to study full and inclusive histories. CDS, for example—the first Ethnic Studies program of its kind in Northern California—offers all-around examinations of the diverse actors, events, and institutions that have formed our society, especially to help us understand how the intersecting systems of gender, sex, and sexualities, as well as race, ethnicity, and class, have shaped all of us.
Such an education enriches the learning experiences of all students; furthermore, for students at risk of dropping out. A 2016 study published by scholars at the Stanford Graduate School of Education has shown that Ethnic Studies boosts attendance and academic performance.
We also need Ethnic Studies because the healthy functioning of our democracy depends on fully-informed people making conscientious choices. Without the kinds of accurate and wide-ranging understandings of society formed and offered by programs like CDS, it is impossible to truly understand the source and scope of the social problems we face, and, subsequently, to imagine, create, and implement the kinds of policy solutions necessary to address such issues. Therefore, we endanger our government “by the people, for the people” when we do not do our best to provide all citizens with the education they need to actively and responsibly participate in politics and civic life.
Finally, recent events remind us why we need Ethnic Studies now, and in San Francisco. SFSU’s public meeting to defend the College of Ethnic Studies happened one month after St. Ignatius Preparatory High School made national headlines for suspending a group of students for attending a “wigga”-themed party in our city’s famed Stern Grove, where white students offensively attempted to imitate black culture through stereotypes. This event occurred only two days after African American students at Lowell—the crown jewel of San Francisco’s public high schools—walked out of classes because a homemade poster that indecently mocked Black History Month was displayed on campus.
When we are only offered (unspecified) male, heterosexual, Eurocentric views of the world in our education, it is far easier to think that celebrating whites appropriating stereotypes of urban African American culture is harmlessly amusing rather than an instance of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is when a dominant group takes and exploits the culture of a marginalized group without understanding how what is being borrowed relates to the less privileged group’s history, experiences, and traditions. Perhaps it is also easier to ridicule Black History Month rather than recognize that Black history has influenced every aspect of collective U.S. history.
If we need CDS this much in diverse and tolerant San Francisco, then it should be easy to see why CDS is imperative everywhere. And USF—an institution that states its mission on its website is to foster “a diverse, socially responsible learning community… that educates leaders who will fashion a more humane and just world”—cannot stand idly by and allow the nation’s first Ethnic Studies program and only College of Ethnic Studies to be unjustly and recklessly diminished.
If you want to learn more about the state of Ethnic Studies at USF, come to “Critical Diversity Studies Townhall: Taking Ethnic Studies Into a New Century,” on Tuesday, March 22, 11:45 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at the Intercultural Center (UC 411/412). The town hall is also a significant opportunity to show campus leaders that you support providing Critical Diversity Studies at USF with sufficient resources. Critical Diversity Studies advances us all, so we all have a duty to protect it here and elsewhere.