I wish the authors of Arizona State House Bills 2120 and 2281 (introduced in 2017 and 2010, respectively) that threatened the teaching of ethnic studies would present real evidence for their claims that these programs “promote the overthrow of the United States government.” Instead, the authors offer baseless pronouncements that studying racial, gender, sexual, religious and cultural “difference” in a public high school, college or university classroom makes folks feel bad and fails to “treat pupils as individuals.”
The proposed HB 2120, introduced in January 2017 and subsequently killed for the year, has been described by some as Arizona’s previous ethnic-studies ban “on steroids”: It extends beyond public K–12 schools to include community colleges and public universities with courses, programs and events that essentially deal with issues of diversity.
Having taught, published, lectured and delivered workshops on American literature, culture and identity issues in Arizona, across the country and internationally for 30 years, I know that the assumptions by the authors of these bills are simply untrue. The courses and culture-specific activities denigrated in their efforts critically explore and engage issues related to racial, gender, religious, regional and national identities and promote respect, compassion, empathy, self-reflection, kindness, forgiveness and integrity. These seven principles define our individual and shared humanity and form the basis for what Arizona State University’s Project Humanities initiative calls Humanity 101.
My African-American literature courses are about literary themes, devices, theory, techniques, points of view—and individual and group experiences within the larger context of the American experience. They are also about lived and imagined human experience. My courses and those others listed in the proposed HB 2120 build community and help individuals better understand themselves, our world and our place in this world. These courses center the marginalized, make visible the seemingly invisible and insist that there must never be a single “master narrative” controlling what and how Americans think and act in the world. To suggest that “pupils as individuals”—the language of the proposed bill—are not aged, raced, gendered, classed, abled and the like is disingenuous. This narrow perspective typically comes from those who see themselves as the “norm” and their realities everywhere valued, validated, legitimized and perpetuated. This is the perspective of those who allege they “don’t see color” and, by extension, “difference”—that we all are the same. We are not.
Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us of “the dangers of a single story”: “[T]o create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.” Ethnic studies courses, activities, programs and events are under attack because they acknowledge and celebrate human difference and render the perspectives of those historically silenced, absent or marginalized. These differences in perspective and experience do not divide; they enhance by bringing individuals, cultures, generations, religions and races together in greater understanding. They also create awareness of social injustices.
Herein lies the fear of education that prompts HB 2120 and others like it—a fear akin to that of American slave owners who worked tirelessly to keep their slaves illiterate, unable to read and write. These Americans who owned people as property and as chattel knew that reading and writing would no longer contain slaves’ imaginations and awareness of the world around them. They then had access to possibility, not to mention the real chance, literally and figuratively, to write their own passes from one plantation to another and potentially to freedom. By the same token, those who see social injustices challenge and take action. This is the lesson we learn from our various histories of oppressions on multiple fronts. This lesson is not about overthrowing the U.S. government, as the author of HB 2120 would have us believe. However, it may well lend itself to protests and other forms of civil disobedience and resistance.
Everyone wants to be included and feel validated and important. For one group to become self-aware doesn’t mean that it has to disparage or denigrate another. Indeed, ethnic studies courses and activities help create a sense of belonging, legitimacy and human dignity for both individuals and communities; they show that everyone on the planet deserves basic civil and human rights, something our history of American experiences has not always granted to all Americans.
We cannot and should not accept an American history devoid of the contributions and experiences of women, of people of color, of LGBTQ individuals, of those in various religious communities. Current conversations about “illegal immigration” in Arizona and across the country are steeped in ignorance, denial and irony when we consider how the United States was “discovered” through the genocide of indigenous peoples and built upon the backs of those stolen from their homeland. This is our America. This truth liberates those absent from, dehumanized by and ill-defined from that dangerous single narrative. There is absolutely no evidence that knowing and respecting different points of view and perspectives leads to anything destructive. In fact, these are the multiple narratives that make our nation what it is. As Adichie contends, we all evolve and progress “when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place [or any people].”
Lester is Foundation Professor of English and the founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.