It seems to me that life is one long continuous opening of our eyes to the various perspectives human beings have to offer. You are born and you see the inside of your house and the face of your mother. You grow up and see your city. If you’ve never met a Mexican before your teenage years and you finally meet one, a Mexican probably seems odd, and all you have to go on is what you’ve heard. That is because you have not opened your eyes yet to their point of view. The same can be said if the first white person you meet is your teacher in the first grade. A white person will seem odd at first.
Tolerance is built on this notion: That we as more perfect people withhold JUDGEMENT until we truly understand the plight of others. You are tolerant of the transgender boy who wears a dress only if you don’t judge him. If you judge him, and especially if you snicker with your friends, you are an intolerant person. You have not considered any part of his perspective, you’ve just seen someone different than yourself, and like a caveman your reaction to something different is that it must be bad.
The lawmakers and education leaders in Arizona are cavemen. Their idea of education is in exact opposition to what I’ve just described as the highest aims of humanity: Tolerance, empathy, respect for others.
In 2010, Arizona lawmakers banned ethnic studies. Ethnic studies, as it implies, is the outlandish notion that other ethnicities and cultures should be studied in order to be more fully understood and included in academic discourse. Ethnic studies came about for a couple of reasons: First, it provides a field of study for Americans of diverse backgrounds so that they can more fully understand their history and identity. It also serves as a great way to introduce varied perspectives and cultures to people who have little experience with people of color and minorities (read white people). Basically, ethnic studies is a great way to make white people less racist all while making minorities feel valued, included, and understood.
When put in such stark terms, it makes my caveman accusation so obvious: Lawmakers in Arizona banned ethnic studies because they don’t want white people to be less racist, and they don’t want minorities to be valued, included, or understood.
How else can you explain what happened earlier this month in Arizona where students reciting a poem and discussing its themes in class are deemed a violation of state law because the poem was written by a Mexican? The cavemen in Arizona will offer up idiocy and paranoia to explain it. They will tell you that these authors are undermining American values and calling for discord and rebellion against white society. Read this part of the poem and tell me if that is true.
Tú eres mi otro yo.
You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti,
If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mi mismo.
I do harm to myself.
Si te amo y respeto,
If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo.
I love and respect myself.
The pencil, a unifying symbol in recent weeks, is clearly not respected if a teacher wants to teach a poem written by a Mexican and isn’t allowed to. All because Arizona is a bass ackwards state full of leaders who don’t believe in the value of a perspective different from their own.
Now let me tell you what is going on in California. Luis Alejo (D), a California Assemblyman recently proposed a law that will REQUIRE public schools to offer an ethnic studies elective in grades seven through 12. That is correct, in California we are doing the exact opposite of Arizona. Assemblyman Alejo evidently believes that when you have a state full of different cultures and varied perspectives, you should allow them to be studied in order to be included and understood. Not that it has to be mandated, because many school districts in California offer ethnic studies as a matter of common sense.
This notion needn’t be so controversial. If we become better people by being more deeply aware of the perspectives of the people around us, the idea of allowing a space to examine the intricacies of another’s identity should be encouraged. It certainly shouldn’t be banned.
This is censorship at it’s worst at a time when censorship is such a big issue. The recent attacks at Charlie Hebdo, where writers were murdered for publishing a perspective extremists didn’t agree with, have brought this to the forefront of our consciousness. The situation in Arizona isn’t as extreme, but we do have the government coming down on educators for teaching literature written from a perspective with which they disagree.
Not to mention that this might be the first time in our country’s history where we are beginning to talk about the fact that black and brown people have a different lived experience, one that makes being a citizen in this country downright dangerous. The murders of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner have shown us this very clearly, so if we are talking about a solution I have to mention the fact that the white police officers seem to prove they are ignorant to the cultures and perspectives of those whom they are shooting. Just today, police officers in Florida were found to be using the faces of black males for target practice. I’m just guessing, but I would say those officers went to school in a place like Arizona; in other words, they could benefit from something like ethnic studies.
Let me take it a little further. Let’s say ethnic studies curriculum is full of incendiary rhetoric that questions white society and their treatment of minorities throughout our nation’s history. Let’s even say it calls for action NOW (for the record, reading Gloria Anzaldua and Luis Valdez, one could hardly call their rhetoric incendiary, and it certainly isn’t dangerous), I would still say BRAVO. We should be teaching the REAL history of the United States. We should be teaching James Baldwin’s evisceration of white Christian morals when they bring their young children to picnics to hang a black person. What we can’t have are textbooks lying about our treatment of Native-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latino-Americans. We need to teach the real story and let people make their own decisions based on facts, not censorship.
Let me show you what this looks like in a real classroom. I just taught Zoot Suit, a play by Luis Valdez, the same Mexican writer whose poem came under scrutiny in Arizona. I taught a 10th grade class that is 100% Latino (mostly Mexicans) the history of the Zoot Suit Riots and how sailors on leave during WWII took taxi cabs to the barrios of LA and beat up and stripped any Mexican youth wearing Zoot Suits, and even those that weren’t, and even women and children. Ironically the only people rounded up and put in jail during these riots were Mexican. The play is based on a trial during this time period in which 22 Mexican youths were found guilty of a murder despite blatant racism in the courtroom made worse by the xenophobic attitude of the press who found them guilty every day in the newspapers. It is a shameful part of our history but a part of our history nonetheless, and to pretend like these things didn’t happen is dangerous, but dangerous in a very different way than the illusion of danger Arizona imagines. At the end of the play my students were fired up about stereotyping, racism, history, and identity, and they wrote a great essay about how Pachuco, the imaginary spirit of the main character, is symbolic of the varied experience of Chicano identity.
Can you believe I did that? Do you want to know what happened next? Did my students run through the halls of my high school hunting down white people in cardigans? Did they go through the streets of Oakland pulling plaid shirts off all the Lumbersexuals?
We engaged in some great discussions having to do with society’s perception of brown people, and how it was their job to overcome it. We talked about the importance of knowing the issues and getting the Latino community to vote. We wrote letters to our state senator, and she even came to our high school and talked with my students. My Latino students felt included as members of this country, and they also learned about their own identities as Latino-Americans, and where exactly it is in the hyphen they exist. When you teach students in this way, you can close the achievement gap. But in order to help our black and brown students catch up to the white and Asian students, you have to acknowledge and place value in their existence and experience at school and inside the classroom. This notion is at the heart of any decent pedagogy.
Look, if you have a classroom that is mostly black students, the first book you should teach them is a book by a black author where the protagonist is someone just like them. It is the same with any group of students. White students don’t have that problem because by and large most of the books available in the book rooms of this country are old dead white guys. We teach enough books written by ODWGs, if you want to include your students of color in the conversation, and if you want them to buy in to what you are doing in your classroom, you have to be multi-cultural in your selection of texts and curriculum.
This is why you teach ethnic studies, because we are a country comprised of more than just white people. It is kind of crazy I even have to say that out loud. It is sad I even have to bring it up. Lawmakers in Arizona are wrong on education because if you ban ethnic studies, what you are saying is that ethnic people are not worthy of study. Those are the words of extremists, that is the lens of ignorance and intolerance, and it is also something a caveman would say. Thank you Arizona, for showing us exactly what not to do with education in this country, or any country.