But some scholars find no reason for that caveat. Camille Z. Charles, a professor of sociology, Africana studies, and education at the University of Pennsylvania, says there are distinct advantages to all students taking ethnic studies, regardless of whether they are academically at-risk. “For students of color, who often feel so alienated in school settings no matter their class backgrounds, I don’t think we should minimize the ‘feel good’ component,” she said, asserting that it’s vital for all children of color to see themselves “in the important parts of [American] history, as well as in the history being made right now.” Siobhan King Brooks, an assistant professor of African American studies at Cal State Fullerton, also points to far-reaching benefits for all students of color—inside and out of the classroom. “The critical-thinking skills and self-esteem they develop in ethnic studies helps them advance in their education, communities, and careers,” said Brooks, describing the feelings of empowerment that come from knowing the full extent of one’s involvement in U.S. history.
Indeed, today, school leaders and student activists, in communities of all sizes, are embracing ethnic-studies courses as a way to expand and diversify classroom content. Earlier this year members of the Providence Student Union, a youth-led organizing group, kicked off a new campaign advocating for ethnic studies for all high-school students. In making their case, student leaders called attention to the glaring disparity between the city’s public-school curriculum and the students it teaches; 90 percent of those enrolled in Providence schools are students of color. The student union’s review of a nearly 2,000-page history textbook found that less than 5 percent of the book was devoted to the contributions of people of color. "I’m Nigerian. I’m Muslim. I’m also an American,” the high-school student Latifat Odetunde told The Providence Journal, noting stories like his are what history books “leave out."
But both Brooks and Charles state that this shift in knowledge and understanding is equally important for white students. Ethnic-studies courses dispel myths, Brooks said, and build connections among students as opposed to divisions. “Similar to students of color, white students have been miseducated about the roles of both whites and people of color throughout history,” she said, and culturally relevant lessons allow white children to “not only learn about people of color, but also white people’s roles as oppressors and activists fighting for racial change. This is very important because often whites feel there is nothing [they] can do to change racism.”
Likewise, Charles is adamant that all students need ethnic studies to unlearn watered-down versions of historical events and learn America’s inconvenient and necessary truths. “The way that we teach our history and culture … the way that we exclude and minimize certain groups and their experiences, while privileging others, feeds prejudice and negative stereotypes,” said Charles. She insists that ethnic-studies classes, and rethinking traditional courses to be more accurate and inclusive, is the path to countering centuries of misinformation—what W.E.B. DuBois critiqued.
“I tell my students that prejudice and discrimination is in our cultural DNA, because the vast majority of American holidays and rituals, and our understanding of American history and culture, all of these things reinforce the superiority of Anglo-American or white American history and experience,” she said. “And we all suffer the consequences of that.”