Dear white people…
Okay, wait. Let’s back up—to the 1960s, when Ethnic Studies started to become a thing.
The 1960s Civil Rights Movement shook things up big time in America. One thing the Civil Rights Movement made pretty clear was that ethnic minorities had been economically and politically oppressed for a really long time.
But by the late 1960s, ethnic minority groups started pointing out that the problem was even deeper than economics and politics: the problem was that people's whole system of knowledge—including academic fields like sociology, English, history, and so on—was framed from the perspective of white people (particularly WASPy white people). And, often, these fields were all about white people.
But as it turns out, white people's perspectives aren't the only perspectives, and ethnic groups started asking how their own histories, literatures, and cultures could be brought into the pictures. They began asking schools and universities to take into account their perspectives and experiences, too. After all, these groups had contributed a whole lot to U.S. history and culture.
Now, it's hard to pin down exactly what Ethnic Studies is. That's because "Ethnic Studies" is like a giant umbrella under which a whole bunch of different disciplines and ethnic perspectives find shelter. The four big subfields of Ethnic Studies are African American, Native American, Asian American, and Latino/a Studies. But Jewish Studies, Irish Studies, Welsh Studies, Amish Studies (the list can go on and on) can also fall under the umbrella of "Ethnic Studies."
One of the goals of Ethnic Studies is to challenge the "Eurocentric" perspective of most academic disciplines in the United States. Ethnic Studies is all about studying and understanding the world from the perspective of groups that have historically been marginalized in the U.S., especially those four (African American, Native American, Asian American, and Latino/a American) that have experienced a long history of oppression and racism in the United States.
Maybe you're Native American, or African American, or Latino/a American, or Asian American. Maybe you're Jewish American, or Irish American, or just white American. Regardless of whether you're black or white, Latino/a or not, you belong to an ethnic group, or even several. Everyone in the whole world does. Ethnic Studies, in other words, is relevant to all of us.
But you shouldn't just care about Ethnic Studies because it allows you to learn more about yourself and your own ethnic identity. According to Ethnic Studies scholars, you should care about it because it gives you the chance to discover identities that are different from yours. Being exposed to different cultures and perspectives, different histories and experiences, tells you a lot about the world you live in.
That's because when you learn about perspectives and experiences that are different from yours, your own perspective and experience are enhanced, sometimes even changed. And who doesn't want to have a richer, broader understanding of the world and the people who live in it?
Ethnic Studies posed a big challenge to "theory" in the American academy. That's because Ethnic Studies scholars pointed out that the theory we're fed in educational institutions isn't always neutral. Often, it's produced and framed from the perspective either of white, Anglo-Saxon America.
Ethnic Studies is important because it allows us to become aware of the blind spots of the many theories that we take for granted. To what extent does mainstream literary theory, or historical theory, or economic theory, marginalize ethnic and/or racial minorities? Do these mainstream theories really take into account marginalized perspectives? Does deconstruction take into account Native American perspectives? Does New Criticism take into account African American perspectives?
If not, Ethnic Studies asks, then how can these theories do a better job of being more inclusive? These are all very important questions that Ethnic Studies forces us theory-heads to think about.