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Ethnic Studies and Me

I’m a white guy from Denver who transferred to Hunter College, in NYC, intending to major in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. In my second semester here, I changed my major to AFPRL—Africana, Puerto Rican, and Latino Studies. That decision has been met in many cases with, if not hostility, certainly skepticism. I usually encounter that skepticism (or sometimes just outright surprise) during the introduce-yourself segment of the first day of class. “Yes, my name is Ryan Morgan; I’m a junior here at Hunter; I’m taking this class because I’m really interested in the subject, and my major is AFPRL.”

Students and faculty don’t typically ask the question, but I see it on their faces—why would you be doing that? Often I get raised eyebrows and an “oh, really? Huh.” I find myself defending my choice to people I know inside and outside of school. Not because they attack it, but because they register such surprise. I’ve taken to responding to their doubts without being asked, because I think the answer to the question of why I would do this is important. And I’d like to explain it.

It starts with the politically unstable ground on which ethnic studies programs in the United States currently stand. The stated reason for the attacks on these programs—that ethnic studies programs are divisive, or encourage ethnic pride over American pride— whatever that means—strikes me as absurd on its face. It suggests that Black Studies are only of interest to Black people, that Puerto Rican Studies are only of interest to Puerto Ricans, and that, accordingly, they encourage disunity. That idea is fundamentally wrong. The question for me was what I could do to refute it. And though it may not be much in the grand scheme of things, one thing I realized I could do is be a statistic in the other direction—a tally mark that says these areas of study are, in fact, of interest to white people and to others who don’t match the ethnic identities delineated in the program names. I could be a tally mark that says, no, Black philosophy is American philosophy, and human philosophy, and Puerto Rican literature is American literature, and human literature.

The point seems so obvious that it’s disheartening that the current political environment merits making it. But this is how I’ve chosen to make it—by making my academic career a counter-point.

This political argument isn’t my only motivation; it may not even be my main motivation. More important, perhaps, is my basic philosophy about what getting an education is about. On a fundamental level, I reject the idea that college is simply a trade school for white-collar jobs.  I hold the archaic and naïve view that the purpose of higher education is to seek out voices and ideas outside the normal canon. And for someone like me, who is a member of the privileged class, it specifically means seeking out the sort of voices that are studied in ethnic studies programs—voices that are disenfranchised and marginalized. This isn’t about divisiveness; it’s about learning the silenced histories of marginalized groups. It’s about understanding the ethnic complexity of American society, and its richly textured history that stretches far beyond the traditionally-taught philosophies and stories of white men.

Critically, when it comes to marginalized voices, it isn’t just about Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael and Pedro Albizu Campos. In Arlene Dávila’s book Latino Spin, she explains how extremely qualified economists, historians, anthropologists, political scientists, and so on, have been moved out of their fields of expertise when they get academic jobs and into ethnic studies programs that match their own superficially-defined ethnic identities. They then enter a vortex wherein their work is considered less scholarly and legitimate, if it’s even read at all—after all, it’s published under an ethnic studies label, so it isn’t part of the mainstream of the social sciences. This perpetuates the marginalization of women and people of color, and the invaluable perspectives they could be adding to their fields. Some of the best work being done in the traditional social sciences is shelved differently, is categorized differently, because of this phenomenon.

What does this mean for me as a student? Once I knew this was happening, I couldn’t un-know it. And it inevitably became clear that by majoring in a more traditional discipline, the current scheme of things would ensure that I missed out on some of the brightest minds in that discipline—and that if I wanted to expose myself to those professors and their ideas, the best if not only way to do that was to take ethnic studies courses. It’s depressing to consider how many students overlook the courses offered by many of the best professors I’ve had at Hunter, and it’s especially depressing to reflect on the extent to which this happens throughout the American higher education system. It boils down to this: I would have missed out on nearly all the best and most important things I’ve learned at Hunter had I chosen to major in a more traditional discipline.

If I may return, briefly, to those tedious first-day-of-class introduction sessions. One question I do occasionally get asked is how did I, a 27-year-old white guy from Denver, end up at Hunter, of all places? Why not NYU, or the New School, or Columbia? My answer is that I was and am attracted to CUNY generally—and Hunter specifically—for historical, political, and theoretical reasons. I believe strongly in the vote-with-your-dollar idea, and an institution that has specifically sought to provide higher education to marginalized people is an institution I want to be a part of and support with my tuition.

More specifically, I am inspired by the genesis of what is now the AFPRL department at Hunter. It was forged in fire. It reflects a time when campuses were hotbeds of radical political activity, a time when students and faculty alike demanded to be heard and represented—demanded, in a sense, to get an education rather than just a degree. It has occurred to me that on a superficial level, I’m about four decades too late, and that some amount of institutional cynicism has set in. However, I’ve been justly accused in my life of being a hopeless idealist. So I believe even if I am four decades too late, in this small way, I can be a part of that. By enrolling in AFPRL, I can pay tribute to and show solidarity with the people who fought so hard to create the program and the people who, to this day and against long odds, fight to sustain it.

I realize, of course, that one student at one school isn’t going to stem the tide of anti-ethnic studies sentiment. But I do feel very strongly that if more white people exposed themselves to the ideas and social issues that AFPRL explores, they’d come away with a better understanding of the specific history and context of marginalized peoples, which could help promote social change.

I think if one considers everything that majoring in ethnic studies provides—the value of studying minority viewpoints, the access to otherwise marginalized writers, thinkers, and professors, and the political necessity of fighting both the bigotry that insists that ethnic studies programs are divisive and the other sort of bigotry that insists that they’re nevertheless where scholars of color belong—and if one considers that I’m not the only student in the city who is seeking an education rather than a degree, and that I’m not the only one attracted to CUNY for its radical political history—if one considers all that, then one should realize the question I get almost-asked is not the right one.

The question should not be, of me, why I would want to study that. The question should really be—why doesn’t everyone else?

Ryan Morgan is a senior at Hunter College, CUNY, who is majoring in Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies, and minoring in Human Rights.

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