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A Bay View On Majoring In Ethnic Studies

photo provided by Jenee Darden
Jenee Darden when she was a freshman at UC San Diego's Summer Bridge.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill mandating that all Cal State University freshmen entering the 2020-2021 academic year must take an ethnic studies course. KALW’s Jenee Darden shares how majoring in ethnic studies shaped her life.

Click the play button above to listen to this audio story.

“There is no question that we cannot begin to deal with people we don’t know,” says San Diego Assemblymember Shirley Weber in an interview with KUSI television news. “And most of the information we have about each other is misinformation”

Assemblywoman wrote AB 1460, the bill that made ethnic studies a requisite for students at Cal State Universities. California is the first state in the country to have an ethnic studies mandate. This comes a little more than 50 years after San Francisco State became the first school to have an ethnic studies program in the nation. 

Before being elected, Weber taught Africana Studies for 38 years at San Diego State University. She explains the transformative power of ethnic studies courses for all students in this interview. 

She says, “And when I see young people at the university who have taken my courses and other courses in ethnic studies, It changes them. It makes them more appreciative of the people we see everyday, more understanding of how we bring change. And they become, as I’ve seen my students all across the nation... different professionals. Whether they’re Black, White, Asian, whatever.” 

Assemblymember Weber is right about how ethnic studies changes students, because it changed me.

Freshman Year 

Let’s go back to the summer of 1997, when I was a first year student at UC San Diego. That campus is north of Weber’s San Diego State University. 

Most of the other students wouldn’t arrive to campus until september but I was at UCSD’s Summer Bridge. The program is for students of color. Many are the first in their families to go to college. this program was meant to help US prepare and adjust to college life. 

We took math and science classes, but what hooked me were the classes on racial inequalities. I knew racism existed and was a hindrance to Black people and other people of color. But these classes really broke down how these obstacles were systemic and intertwined. 

I first learned about the concept of white privilege at Summer Bridge. We read the articleWhite Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. She writes that just like men not recognizing their gender privilege, white people don’t recognize their racial privilege. For instance, white parents don’t have to give their kids the talk my mother gave me when i was a teen about being careful how I interact with police and not driving in areas that aren’t diverse after dark. 

The courses enlightened me on how racial oppression affects how we see ourselves. Sociologist Ricardo Stanton-Salazar gave a lecture on the power of mentorship and representation. He explained that for youth, seeing adults who look like them in certain positions can affect what they envision for themselves in the future. If I grew up around entrepreneurs, lawyers, college graduates, then that’s something I know I can aspire to be. But if the adults in my life are incarcerated or living in poverty with little education, then I may believe those are my only options in life. This made total sense when I thought about how some of the Black and brown kids I grew up with in East Oakland didn’t have big aspirations. 

I come from a working-class neighborhood and i witnessed what systemic oppression does to people, myself included. I wanted to learn more. But ethnic studies didn’t seem like something you should major in. Ethnic Studies is interdisciplinary studies on race, racism and ethnicity. With a focus on people of color. And it looks at how race affects class, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. 

Ethnic studies doesn’t directly correlate to a career like pre-med or pre-law majors. SO I wrestled with declaring an ethnic studies major. I changed my major three times. I started off psych, then sociology, then Human Development. But those classees didn’t move me like ethnic studies.

My peer counselor, an ethnic studies major, encouraged me to take the plunge. I’m so happy I did. 

Knowledge Expansion

I learned about some deep stuff from the past, like the Japanese internment camps. And I learned about intersectional issues today, such as the dangers Mexican immigrant women in particular face when crossing the border. This is stuff that should be taught in middle and high schools because it’s part of this country’s history and present. And like Weber says, knowing this information gave me greater appreciation and compassion for people I interact with. 

I found personal liberation in classes about the history of Black female identity, sexuality and how Black bodies are racialized. 

I found joy in ethnic studies. It opened my world to magical realism in Latin American Literature and Afrofuturism. My awareness of artforms by other ethnic groups was expanding. 

Some people in my life supported me majoring in ethnic studies at the time. But plenty of people asked, “What are you going to do with that?” 

Well, 20 years Later, I’ll Tell You…

People appreciate when you know about their culture. It shows that you see them and their humanity.

As a journalist, I interact with people from all sorts of backgrounds. Depending on the story, it helps to have some understanding of a sources’ culture when I engage with them. And people appreciate when you know about their culture. It shows that you see them and their humanity.

One of the white privileges that Peggy McIntosh mentions in her article is white people being widely represented in the news. I’m mindful about having as many different voices as I can when doing a story or hosting our arts segment Sights & Sounds. I try and think about whose voice or experience has been left out. That includes, race, age, gender, people with disabilities, and so on.

And ethnic studies can be applied to other professions. One of my classmates went on to become a doctor and our major made him more culturally competent when treating his patients and more aware of racist medical practices. I also majored with future school teachers who are not only equipped with teaching diverse students, but they’re also developing culturally-inclusive curriculum so kids have a broader knowledge of the humanities and social sciences. 

The More We Know

Much of the chaos that’s happening in this country right now is caused by ignorance and lack of empathy that’s rooted in not knowing about And valuing each other’s cultures. 

Sadly this doesn’t surprise me. I recall my professors saying over 20 years ago, that if wealth disparities keep growing and we as a country don’t fully address racism, we’re in trouble. And here we are. 

I had classmates, some white and some students of color, who stormed out of lecture halls because they thought the ethnic studies classes were anti-white. From K-12, they were taught to see the world through rose-tinted colonial glasses. And those courses shattered that lens and their concept of reality. 

If more of us learned about the truth of this country’s past, recognized how it continues to oppress people in the present, and did the work to really repair hundreds of years of damage — maybe then this country would be in a better state. 

Now that even more students will be taking ethnic studies courses in California because of this bill, hopefully they can take the information they learn and make some positive and much needed changes to our society. 

Jeneé Darden is an award-winning journalist, author, public speaker and proud Oakland native. She hosts the weekly arts segment Sights & Sounds and covers East Oakland for KALW. Jenee has reported for NPR, Marketplace, KQED, KPCC, The Los Angeles Times, Ebony magazine, Refinery29 and other outlets. In 2005, she reported on the London transit bombings for Time magazine. Prior to coming to KALW, she hosted the podcast Mental Health and Wellness Radio.