I always found school history and literature boring. Growing up Taiwanese American, I never saw myself or my community represented in my school’s history or literature curriculums. When I entered middle school, however, I slowly began to diverge from school-given reading lists. I would find myself obsessively poring over the work of Asian American writers and historians because their works were one of the only places where I could learn about my culture and community.
One of the most memorable Asian American works I came across was the playscript “The Chinese Lady” written by Lloyd Suh. The script chronicles the journey of the first Chinese woman who was brought to the United States as a circus exhibition. Prior to reading the script, I had never encountered literature—or general resources—that so deftly explored the Asian American diaspora. I loved the play script because it seemed to speak distinctly to me and my community’s experiences. It gave me permission to dream a place for myself within the American narrative. This is why it is absolutely necessary for schools to offer ethnic studies classes.
Across the country, many students of color experience the same distance between their lived experience and their school curriculums. Their literature courses might include a paragraph of Confucius to serve as a “comparative perspective” to European philosophers. In world history classes, curriculums tend to gloss over non-Western regions, highlighting their origins and then neglecting them until they interact with the West. Students learn about Imperial Japan, for example, only after Commodore Perry’s voyage and India only under British rule.
Although one of the main goals of implementing ethnic studies is to create a more representative and resonant history curriculum for students of color, the course benefits all students by helping disrupt antiquated narratives about diverse communities that are taught in history and literature classes. They can also help dispel the idea that ethnic histories happen in a vacuum, connecting the effects of historical events and systems to current day happenings. The books, culture, and history introduced in ethnic studies classes provides a more accurate picture of America, introducing students to the complexity, beauty, and pain of our country.
Ethnic studies classes aren’t a second history or literature class for students. They can offer students critical understanding about racial identity. A study published by Inna Altschul and Daphna Oyserman University of Michigan and Deborah Bybee of Michigan State University found that the more conscious a student is of racism and their racial identity, the more likely they are to perform better in school and life. By instituting these classes, schools can introduce students of color to material that speaks directly to them and motivate all students to prioritize racial inclusion and equity throughout the rest of their lives. In addition, ethnic studies benefits all students—and teachers—by immersing them in racially-conscious literature and curriculums and by encouraging dialogues of race and racial identity within the classroom.
Although reading Asian American texts like “The Chinese Lady” empowered me to explore my identity, every student should have the opportunity to read texts that affirm their identity in school. It is imperative for schools to implement ethnic studies because all students deserve the chance to develop a more culturally-conscious perspective, learn about their community’s history and be able to see and imagine a place for themselves within American history.
If my perception of race and belonging in America was able to be radically transformed by just a few books I read extracurricularly, imagine how transformative an institutionalized ethnic studies course would be for all students.