Study Guide

Ethnic Studies Critics

  • W.E.B. Du Bois

    [T]he N**** is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a N****; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

    If you're black, you can't just be yourself in America.

    That's because you're a minority in a white majority culture that looks down on you. When you look at yourself, you see yourself through the eyes of this white majority culture. You see yourself with all the negative stereotypes that white America attaches to you. You're stuck in this "double-consciousness" because you're forced to see yourself not just as a person, but as a black person.

    Du Bois's discussion of "double-consciousness" represents one of the first attempts on the part of a person of color to theorize what it means to be an ethnic or racial minority in white America. There's a reason his book became a big influence on Ethnic Studies, 70 years after it was written.

  • Philip Q. Yang

    [E]thnic studies [i]s an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and comparative study of ethnic groups and their interrelations, with an emphasis on groups that have historically been neglected. […] Ethnic studies scholars study ethnic groups and their interrelations through the combination and integration of perspectives of various disciplines, including anthropology, economics, history, political science, psychology, sociology, and humanities (e.g., philosophy, literature, linguistics, arts).

    Ethnic Studies is a totally interdisciplinary field. It's all about studying ethnicity from all types of different angles: historical, anthropological, literary, psychological, sociological—you name it. Ethnic Studies theorists want to understand ethnic groups individually and as a whole, and they tend to focus on groups that have been consistently oppressed in the U.S. over time.

    The broad definition of ethnic group defines ethnic group as a group socially distinguished, by others or by itself, on the basis of its unique culture, national origin, or racial characteristics…[T]he broad definition includes racial or physical characteristics as a determining factor. In light of the broad definition, ethnic groups include racial groups. […] Both racially defined ethnic groups and culturally defined ethnic groups are within the domain of ethnic studies.

    An ethnic group is any group that self-identifies, or is identified by others, as different in some way. A group can be different because of its culture, and/or nationality, and/or race. According to Yang, an ethnic group can be defined mostly in terms of its racial characteristics (like African Americans), or it can be defined mostly in terms of its unique national or culture background (like Irish Americans and Jewish Americans).

    So an ethnic group can refer to a "racial" group, but it doesn't have to refer to a "racial" group.

  • Clara Sue Kidwell

    [B]asic premises have emerged that appear in most [Native American Studies] curricula, and these premises can be said to constitute the basis for an academic discipline. The first premise is that the relationship between people and the land is the shaping force in American Indian cultures […] [Another] premise, which is particularly problematic for the U.S. government to comprehend, is that sovereignty is an inherent right of Indian nations. In contemporary America tribal sovereignty is grounded in treaties with the U.S. government that assured tribal rights to control of land.

    It's hard to define what Native American Studies is, exactly. But over the years, there have been issues that keep appearing again and again. Two of the most important are the issues of land and sovereignty.

    Native Americans have a very strong connection with their land. They lived on their land thousands of years before any settlers came, and this connection with their land is embedded in their culture. So in order to understand Native American culture, you have to understand the relationship of Native Americans to their land.

    Kidwell argues that Native Americans shouldn't be subject to U.S. government rule—they should have complete political independence. And why not? Kidwell points out that Native Americans were colonized, their was forcibly taken away from them, and the few who survived disease and genocide were shoved onto reservations. What kind of deal was that?

  • Robert Blauner

    Common experiences […] have been historically shared by the most subjugated racial minorities in America and non-white peoples in some other parts of the world…The common features ultimately relate to the fact that the classical colonialism of the imperialist era and American racism developed out of the same historical situation and reflected a common world economic and power stratification. […]The essential condition for both American slavery and European colonialism was the power domination and the technological superiority of the Western world in its relation to peoples of non-Western and non-white origins. This objective supremacy in technology and military power buttressed the West's sense of cultural superiority, laying the basis for racist ideologies that were elaborated to justify control and exploitation of non-white people.

    If you ask Blauner, European colonialism (of non-European people) and American racism (against ethnic minorities) have a lot in common. Both systems are based in the economic exploitation of a group of people, and this exploitation was made possible by the fact that Europe and white America were far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of technology and military power.

    Just because they had better weapons, Europeans and white Americans came to believe that they were also culturally superior to everyone else—and this belief in their cultural superiority allowed Westerners to justify racism and colonialism to themselves.

    Blauner points out that even though Americans sometimes get on their high horse about European colonialism (after all, the U.S. was originally a set of colonies), it's not like the U.S. didn't get into some questionable stuff itself. After all, the Native Americans were colonized, and a big chunk of Mexico was annexed to the U.S. in the 1800s (Texas and California were a part of Mexico once upon a time).

  • Renato Rosaldo

    The truth of objectivism—absolute, universal and timeless—has lost its monopoly status. It now competes, on more nearly equal terms, with the truths of case studies that are embedded in local contexts, shaped by local interests, and colored by local perceptions. The agenda for social analysis has shifted to include not only eternal verities and lawlike generalizations but also political processes, social changes, and human differences. Such terms as objectivity, neutrality and impartiality refer to subject positions once endowed with great institutional authority, but they are arguably neither more nor less valid than those of more engaged, yet equally perceptive, knowledgeable social actors. Social analysis must now grapple with the realization that its objects of analysis are also analyzing subjects who critically interrogate ethnographers—their writings, their ethics, and their politics.

    "Objective" truth is old news, if you ask Renato Rosaldo. The academy likes to try to come up with objective truths, but at least in the humanities and social sciences, "objective" truth is usually generated from a white, often male perspective. Rosaldo is pointing out that there are other kinds of truths, subjective truths that come out of individual and communal perspectives.

    According to Rosaldo, it's not just the white American anthropologist who is capable of analyzing the culture of Native Americans, for example. Native Americans are also capable of analyzing the anthropologist, and his or her culture. And Native Americans' knowledge and perspective are just as valid as the anthropologist's.

    Rosaldo's argument challenges the conventional idea that knowledge is valuable only if it's objective, impartial, and neutral. But studying human culture and human history isn't the same thing as studying the laws of physics: humanistic knowledge is always told from a particular point of view. The knowledge of the poor, of women, and of ethnic minorities is as valid as "institutional" knowledge—which, after all, usually reflects the perspective of a dominant group.

    Let's picture it another way. We're in a classroom. One guy has a really loud voice, and likes to hear himself talk. He interrupts everyone and talks over them. Yeah, we all know that guy. Anyway, because he's the loudest, everyone doesn't get an equal chance to speak. But just because he's loud, that doesn't mean that his thoughts or ideas are better or smarter or more important than anyone else's. He's just loud.

    Rosaldo would say that we need to pay attention to the quieter voices in the room, because they offer perspectives and knowledge that this loud dude is totally missing.

    Cultural citizenship in the United States rests on a seeming paradox. It involves the simultaneous claim to one's cultural difference and to the right to be a first-class citizen. Rather than accepting the dominant ideology that posits difference as a stigma or a sign of inferiority, cultural citizenship asserts that even in contexts of inequality people have a right to their distinctive heritage.

    If you're "different" in some way—say we're an ethnic minority, or we have cultural or national roots outside of the U.S.—then you're often viewed and treated as a second-class citizen. The fact that you're different is often taken as a sign that you're inferior.

    Rosaldo thinks we should focus on what he calls "cultural citizenship" instead. Cultural citizenship is all about allowing people to be different, while also treating them like first-class citizens. Everyone should be allowed to participate fully as a citizen, no matter what they look like, what languages they speak, or what their cultural background is.

    It's sort of like this. Let's say you like to eat cat food instead of normal food. Hey, we're not judging: we totally into Friday night Fancy Feasts. Uh, we mean… Anyway, just because you like to eat cat food, or just because you like to dress up as banana when you to the library, that doesn't mean you shouldn't have full rights as a citizen. People from all cultural backgrounds can and should be full citizens.

  • Ronald Takaki

    Many classics in the field of American history have …] equated "American" with "white" or "European" in origin. […] Eurocentric history serves no one. It only shrouds the pluralism that is America and that makes our nation so unique, and thus the possibility of appreciating our rich racial and cultural diversity remains a dream deferred. […] We need to "re-vision" history to include Asians in the history of America, and to do so in a broad and comparative way. […] [W]e must not study Asian Americans primarily in terms of statistics and what was done to them. They are entitled to be viewed as subjects—as men and women with minds, wills, and voices. By "voices" we mean their own words and stories as told in their oral histories, conversations, speeches, soliloquies, and songs, as well as in their own writings—diaries, letters, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, placards, posters, flyers, court petitions, autobiographies, short stories, novels, and poems.

    We often study American history from the perspective of white people, because we just kind of assume that "Americans" can't be anything but white. But actually, America and its history are way more complex than that.

    America's a melting pot, and Takaki is pointing out that Asian Americans are a big part of that. One way that historians whitewash American history is by excluding Asian Americans, who have been in the U.S. for a really long time, and their history as part of American history.

    Takaki's also saying that if you're going to study Asian American history, you shouldn't just study what white people did to Asian Americans. You should also study Asian Americans on their own terms, as people with their own perspectives, their own histories, and their own cultures. Asian American history is linked with American history overall, but it's also unique.

  • Tara J. Yosso

    Community cultural wealth is an array of knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts possessed and utilized by Communities of Color to survive and resist macro and micro-forms of oppression.

    Community cultural wealth is the specific skills, abilities, and knowledge of a certain ethnic community. This "wealth" is used by members of minority ethnic groups to survive in mainstream white American culture, where they often have to deal with discrimination and racism.

    "Community cultural wealth" is a way of theorizing how members of ethnic minority groups deal with mainstream culture. It reminds us that wealth isn't just about having money (although of course that helps, too). Wealth is also about having an awesome family and community that supports you in what you do. Community cultural wealth is a concept that points to how resilient ethnic minority groups are. They're not just victims; they fight and they survive, despite the obstacles—like racism—in their way.

  • Toni Morrison

    For some time now I have been thinking about the validity or vulnerability of a certain set of assumptions conventionally accepted among literary historians and critics and circulated as "knowledge." This knowledge holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States. It assumes that this presence—which shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of the culture—has had no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture's literature. […] There seems to be a more or less tacit agreement among literary scholars that, because American literature has been clearly the preserve of white male views, genius, and power, those views, genius, and power are without relationship to and removed from the overwhelming presence of black people in the United States. […] The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination.

    An unspoken assumption among literary critics is that literature written by white American authors has nothing to do with black people—which is kind of weird, given that Africans and African Americans have been in the U.S. for 400 years.

    Morrison argues that everything in American history and society has been shaped, on some level, by the presence of African Americans. So actually, works of literature written by white authors are always shaped by the presence of African Americans, even when these works don't explicitly deal with African Americans, because the author's own experience has been shaped by the presence of African Americans.

    Morrison points out that an Ethnic Studies literary perspective isn't just relevant to "ethnic" literature. If you're a literary critic interested in Ethnic Studies, you shouldn't just confine yourself to studying African American literature or Native American literature, for example. Literature written by white authors is also, on some level, always about ethnicity and race. White authors are "ethnic" too, after all, and on top of that, white American authors can't help but respond to the U.S.'s very complicated ethnic and racial identity.

  • Gloria Anzaldua

    Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish between us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A Borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residual of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.

    Political borders are imaginary lines on a map that separate one place from another, one group of people from another. They separate "us" from "them."

    A Borderland is an emotional or psychological state that is a consequence of a political border. People whose lives are divided by a political border (their family's over there, and they're over here, for example) are forced to live in a Borderland emotional and psychological state. Because their lives are split between borders, they're considered to be—and they feel like—outsiders. They don't quite fit anywhere.