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Watching today’s far-right assault on ethnic studies across the country, I’m reminded of my experience teaching the subject several years ago at Arizona State University.
I sometimes began the first class of the semester by announcing, half-jokingly, “The name of this class is not Get Whitey.”
Most of my students got the joke. A few didn’t.
My point was that the course wasn’t about shaming white people into feeling guilty. It was intended as a frank, fact-based exploration and assessment of the full scope of our country’s history of race relations.
Over time, I found the students who didn’t appreciate my good-natured sarcasm were usually the same ones who at some point during the semester might ask indignantly, “Why aren’t there any white studies courses,” to which I and at least a few of my colleagues would often reply, “There are. They’ve basically all the other classes you’ve ever taken.”
That retort wasn’t a joke. It was an observation based on the fact that people of color in the U.S. have been traditionally taught most of what we know through a white lens.
That should not be a surprise to anyone who’s actually studied the topic. Most schoolteachers in the U.S. are white. As recently as 2016, nearly 82% of public school instructors were white, even though more than 50 percent of students were from communities of color.
Of course, a lot of what we know we don’t learn in school. So, it also matters that book authors in our country have been, and still are, overwhelmingly white.
A New York Times report last year found that 95% of 7,200 of the most popular English-language fiction books published between 1950 and 2018 were written by white people. Furthermore, “Author diversity at major publishing houses has increased in recent years,” the Times reported, “but white writers still dominate. Non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population; in 2018, they wrote 89 percent of the books in our sample.”
Likewise, an industry-wide survey of people who work for book publishers found “76% of employees who responded to the survey were white.”
Things are about the same when it comes to who writes our textbooks. A 2019 study by the Coalition for Educational Research found that even though just 42% of New York City’s population is white, 80% of the books “students see in class from preschool to eighth grade are written by white authors.” And a 2019 study by Data USA found that, in 2019, while the country was 60% white, its workforce of approximately 135,000 writers and authors were nearly 81% white.
All of this is to say that when ultra-conservative critics of ethnic studies, or the related scholarly discipline known as critical race theory, claim that “American culture” is under attack, it makes me want to paraphrase a quintessentially Eurocentric scribe and say, “The right-wing doth protest too much, methinks.”
In many ways, the mounting attack by Republican lawmakers across the country against multicultural (I said “multicultural” not anti-white) education is the lie behind the “Big Lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election.
Follow me here: What the now dominant Trumpian wing of today’s GOP wants us to believe is that President Joe Biden did not win in November 2020 because the Democrats cheated. And the Democrats cheated because they’re controlled by (and I’m generalizing only slightly here) people of color, Jews and “woke” white folks bent on a “radical-left agenda” that wants to blame all white people for the sins of their ancestors, all so they can justify repressing white people, especially white men, and taking everything they own, including their centuries-long grip on power.
Like the ethnic studies classes I’ve taught, today’s struggle for greater equity and inclusion is not about “Get Whitey.” It’s mainly about a belief in basic fairness, social justice, equal access to the polls and our country’s steadily expanding acknowledgement — despite of the lack of diversity in our teaching ranks — that this country was founded not only by white, male plantation owners with a penchant for enslaving Black people and exterminating Indians, but also by a far more culturally, ethnically and racially diverse citizenry than most of were ever taught in school.
In other words, we all helped build this democracy into the economic and military powerhouse it has become.
Like it or not, that’s our history.
So, if you feel guilty about being white, that’s your problem. I’m not asking you to feel guilty about what your ancestors may or may not have done to women, people of color, immigrants, gays and lesbians (yes, they were around back then, too) over the past 400 years. I simply want you to acknowledge that most white people in the U.S. today, thanks to their ancestors, carry inherent privileges.
If there is any guilt to be borne, it should be by those who refuse to acknowledge the totality of our history.
This country’s story, like the stories of our personal lives, has always been an amalgam of good and evil, pride and shame, triumph and failure, and a natural consequence of our innate fallibility.
As such, the danger of denying our flaws, including any sins we may have committed along the way, by insisting instead that we concentrate solely on our shining moments is to serve not a culturally diverse democracy but its narrow and reactionary antithesis.
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