Study Guide

Ethnic Studies Basics

  • Beginnings

    African Americans and other ethnic minority groups—including Native Americans, Latino/as, and Asian Americans—fought for equal rights in the 1960s. These groups were tired of being marginalized socially, economically, and politically, so they started demonstrating, marching, and engaging in acts of civil disobedience in what came to be known as the Civil Rights Movement.

    During this time, ethnic minority students also started protesting that they were being marginalized in the academy. They wanted courses and departments that took their views of the world into account, and they wanted the academy to deal with issues like race and racism, cultural marginalization, colonialism and neocolonialism.

    And so ethnic minority students started striking. That's right: they went on strike against the university.

    The first strike for an Ethnic Studies program took place at San Francisco State University in 1968. The second strike took place at the University of California at Berkeley in 1969. Both strikes were successful, and whaddya know? 1969 saw the first College of Ethnic Studies established at San Francisco State University and the first Ethnic Studies Department established at Berkeley.

  • Big Players

    While Ethnic Studies departments and colleges were established on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, Ethnic Studies as a theoretical perspective can be traced back to an African American sociologist, civil rights activist, and historian by the name of W.E.B. Du Bois.

    Du Bois definitely rocked the boat back in the day. He was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, in 1895. In 1903, he published a book called The Souls of Black Folk, which addressed the experience of African Americans. In this book, Du Bois wrote about the idea of "double-consciousness," which became foundational to the field of Ethnic Studies.

    Once Ethnic Studies was established in the late 1960s and early 1970s, African American scholars looked to Du Bois for some insights into what to do with their new field. Pretty soon, African American Studies became one of the major subfields of Ethnic Studies.

    Some of the most important figures in African American Studies include cultural historian Cornell West, literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and bell hooks (rockin' the no caps), who writes about race and gender. While Toni Morrison is most famous as a novelist, she also wrote an important book of criticism called Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), in which she analyzes the way that white American authors write about blackness and African Americans.

    In Latino/a Studies, Renato Rosaldo, an anthropologist, has written about how "objective" knowledge is often framed from a particular racial, cultural, and class perspective. This idea became very important to Ethnic Studies scholars, who like to show how knowledge presented as "truth" is often not so neutral after all. Rosaldo also helped develop the concept of "cultural citizenship." Gloria Anzaldua's 1987 book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, introduced the concept of the "border" as central to Chicano/a Studies.

    The big players in Asian American Studies include Ronald Takaki, a historian who wrote Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (1989), a book about the experiences of Asian Americans. Philip Q. Yang, a sociologist, writes about Asian immigration to the U.S., but he's also into talking about Ethnic Studies as a whole, like in his book Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches (2000), a comprehensive overview of the field.

    Vine Deloria, Jr.'s 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto was formative for to the Native American "Red Power" movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It also helped spur the drive for the establishment of Native American Studies programs in higher education. Clara Sue Kidwell is another scholar who played a big role in helping to establish the field of Native American Studies.

  • Key Debates

    Ethnic Studies is a pretty vast field, bringing together loads of different cultural, social, and racial perspectives. But there are still some big themes that pop up again and again. Given that Ethnic Studies was born out of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, issues of justice, power, and inequality are pretty central to the field.

    While Ethnic Studies is interdisciplinary, one of its underlying goals is to highlight the experiences and perspectives of marginalized ethnic groups as a way of challenging the emphasis on white American culture, history, and identity that dominates in educational institutions. It's for this reason that the four big subfields of Ethnic Studies are Native American, African American, Latino/a and Asian American Studies: historically, these four groups have been the most consistently marginalized.

    Ethnic Studies has some big themes it's tackling, like race and racism. Ethnic Studies is all about looking at how minority groups are disempowered in the U.S.—but it's also all about looking at how these minority groups fight back.

    Ethnic Studies also asks the questions: What does it mean to belong to two or more cultures, or to live in between two or more cultures? How can you "belong" to mainstream American culture while maintaining hold of the cultures and languages of your parents and grandparents? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this in-betweenness for groups such as Chicano/as or Asian Americans? What is culture in the first place?

    Ethnic Studies really got going because university students from ethnic minority backgrounds felt that their education didn't take their perspectives or experiences into account. They felt that their histories were excluded from the history textbooks they were assigned to read, that their literatures weren't included in the reading lists.

    So it's no surprise that Ethnic Studies scholars are really into asking how knowledge is produced, and by whom, and for what reasons. These scholars like to argue that knowledge is rarely neutral: it always reflects a particular point of view—and usually that's the point of view of mainstream white America.

    Ethnic Studies theorists also like to show American culture and identity has been shaped partly by the fact that United States is and has been a colonial power. If you want to know how American colonialism (against Native Americans and in Mexico, for instance) has shaped American history and identity, Ethnic Studies has some answers for you.

    Ethnic Studies can also tell you a lot about how the oppression of minority groups in the United States is similar to and different from the oppression of minority groups in other parts of the world who have been subject to European colonialism.

    When it comes to literature, Ethnic Studies focuses on the literatures of specific ethnic groups and looks at the way that writers from these groups deal with issues of ethnic identity, race and culture. And at another level, literary theorists in Ethnic Studies also examine how white American writers deal with issues of ethnicity, race, and inequality in their work.

  • State of the Theory

    Ethnic Studies went through a rough patch in the 1980s, when budget cuts and backlash from some politicians forced a lot of Ethnic Studies departments to shutdown. But since then, it's recovered.

    Today, there are over 800 Ethnic Studies departments of some sort or another in universities all over the country. Not only is Ethnic Studies alive and well, it's totally thriving.

    Nowadays, people kind of take it for granted that the study of ethnic identity and race is an important thing. They generally assume that it's worthwhile to study and understand the experiences and histories of different ethnic groups. That's largely thanks to those early Ethnic Studies scholars, who worked hard to integrate diverse perspectives and outlooks into education.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    Literature is made up of texts that tell us about ethnic identity. A literary text can show us the same old tired stereotypes about ethnic groups, or it can throw these stereotypes out the window and show us a more complicated, authentic picture.

    What is an author?

    An author is a person who writes about ethnic identity. Every author writes about ethnic identity in his or her work, on some level. That's because every author writes from a particular ethnic perspective—black, white, Latino/a, etc.—because every author has a unique ethnic background that has shaped his or her experiences and perspectives.

    What is a reader?

    A reader is like an ethnic-identity detective, digging through a book to understand what assumptions it makes about ethnic identity. For example, a reader might ask how a given work does or doesn't challenge ethnic stereotypes.