For Real Teachers In Our Toughest Schools
Saturday February 17th 2018



Why the State of Arizona Knows Nothing About Educating Students Who Are Not White #Jesuischarlie #blacklivesmatter

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.

In Lak’ech

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.

Reader Feedback

7 Responses to “Why the State of Arizona Knows Nothing About Educating Students Who Are Not White #Jesuischarlie #blacklivesmatter”

  1. Gisah says:

    Thank you for this. Would you mind if I shared this with a transracial adoption group I’m part of?

  2. Amy V. says:

    Wow, Matt–
    You hit the nail on the ethnic head, so to speak! I teach mostly black high school kids in Milwaukee, WI and I completely agree with you! My students need to read books with characters who are relatable to them and with whom they can identify with. It can be frustrating when dealing with curriculum but it’s such an important issue. I’m glad you’re standing up for what is right and you inspire me to do the same.


  3. Ellie says:

    I always appreciate your posts. Thank you for your candidness and outspoken truthfulness. I teach in an urban setting and 95% of my students are African-American. I always notice a pique in interest when we read “Raisin in the Sun”. I have traditionally divided my American Lit class into sections and include as much diverse literature as possible.

  4. flip says:

    I wanted to point out the flaws in your article and the smug and stupid attitude.
    First I will take a second to let everyone know I am a nobody with a high school diploma.
    San Francisco is another planet away from mexico.
    I live in Arizona and have for 50 years.
    You are a teacher and as such feel pretty smart. Proof is this article where you feel you know what your talking about even though you are clueless. Your label and use of the term white shows that your as racist as those you portray as racist.
    Most stories have more to them than you wrote into this.
    You wanted to speak and you feel you are smart so why waste time with attempting to understand another groups viewpoint.
    Why bother with others viewpoint or attempting to understand the facts or the realities of how this came to be in Arizona. You are quite the hypocrite to preach that arizonans should have a class to learn about ethnic studies yet you label arizonan’s as racist without even attempting to learn about this law and how it came to be.
    All people have insecurities including you.
    This law you wrote about is not as simple as you would like in your desire to bash Az..
    I am certain that you want to feel superior to Arizonans. This law could exist and we could still be intelligent. Life is complicated and grey.
    I am not racist just because I tend to agree with the thinking behind the law. The thinking is that the class causes racial hostility also to ban any class targeted only to one ethnic group. Totally understandable.
    Here is a link to begin to educate yourself on this issue you felt qualified to write about:

    America really does not need ethnic studies since we are at the center of ethnic study for the universe and I might add Arizona certainly does not need latino classes. In other words ethnic study belongs in china or any mono culture like iceland.
    To teach ethnic studies in American schools is not needed.
    Although you want to paint yourselves as a special group you are not special or better than any group that came before yours.
    I have no thoughts on latinos although I resent the lack of desire to assimilate and I wonder what about your race is unable to assimilate and learn the language. If the chinese learned english why can’t your race? Germans russians and every other group came and assimilated without special provisions being made for them. In Arizona some business are conducted in spanish without any english menus.
    I totally understand the reality and fact is Arizona was once part of mexico but only for a year or so prior to that it was spain but none of that matters now.
    Hopefully you will examine yourself and realize that things are not as simple as black and white.
    By the way being white is not a big disco party.
    I find making excuses for race stupid and thinking about race is playing into what they want you to do. They want race problems rather than the citizens looking at the real problems.
    Corporations given personhood is the real problem along with the stupid belief that unions are bad.

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