Know what you wanna major in yet? I do, now—but I didn’t for a long time. I’ve changed majors a lot during the time I’ve spent in higher education: I did nursing prereqs at community college for a year, dropped out to work for about 3 years, transferred to a university, took business courses for a year, switched to communication for a year, and finally switched to my current major.
I am now on my second year of Black Studies coursework. It took those first six years to figure out what I really wanted to be learning, instead of what I thought I should be learning. There’s been a lot of emphasis on funneling people into STEM fields or Business majors, and how you need to have an amazing, high-paying job the second you graduate, but a degree in Ethnic Studies has a lot to offer, and that sometimes gets overlooked. In fact, I think more students should major (or at least minor) in ES.
What is Ethnic Studies?
According to Wikipedia, Ethnic Studies “is the interdisciplinary study of racialized peoples in the world in relation to ethnicity. […] Ethnic Studies was created to teach the stories, histories, struggles and triumphs of people of color on their own terms.” The field emerged in the late 1960’s, when a coalition of ethnicity-based student groups at San Francisco State University organized a student strike and demanded the school create a program that specifically addressed the historical contributions of Black, Asian American, Latin@, and indigenous Americans within the broader context of American history.
Though initially limited to examining the historical cultural bias in teaching American history, the field has since expanded to include the study of many facets of ethnicity, such as critical study of race as a social construct, the role of ethnicity in national identity, and how we form an awareness of our own racial identity (racial identity formation).
Some ES programs are schools with departments for the study of different ethnicities — Black Studies, Chicanx/Latinx Studies, Indigenous Nations Studies, and Asian American Studies — while some are departments that offer specialisations in one of those areas. Some simply confer a degree in the broad topic of Ethnic Studies and call it good. Obviously, each has its merits, and it’s ultimately up to you to look at each program and decide which one’s right for your needs and desires.
Why should you pick this major?
What do you know about the daily lives of Black slaves? Do you know who Bayard Rustin is? Or Cesar Chavez? Have you ever heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act? Do you know what the American Indian Movement was? What have you read about the Hawaiian monarchy?
Chances are, you’ll have a cursory knowledge of these things, at best. K-12 schooling turns us out all uniform, like cookies made from the same cutter, but when we graduate high school we don’t actually know that much about any history outside the mainstream. When people say that we’re a nation of immigrants, they actually exclude the indigenous people who were here when European immigrants came here. And the word “immigration” doesn’t really account very well for the importation of enslaved peoples. ES provides for a more nuanced understanding of the history of the United States, as well as other countries around the world. By examining, for instance, the lives of indigenous peoples prior to the colonization of South America, we are able to gain a more inclusive picture of the world.
In the US, and in many other places, intercultural mixing and exchange is the norm. ES can prepare us to be international citizens, by giving us a better understanding of ourselves and our relation to others in the world. For instance, the invention of the car in the western world spurred rubber consumption, which resulted in human rights atrocities in the Congo, a legacy felt to this day. The devastation of Haiti by natural disasters can be traced to poor infrastructure, a result of the reparations they were required to pay to France for the “loss” of income experienced when Haiti staged the most successful slave revolt under modern imperialism. US drug policy has a direct impact on the quality of life that many Central and South American people experience. Our world is so interconnected, and failing to examine the history of these links leaves us with an incomplete view of how exactly we got where we are.
On a less macro level, ES classes are more accessible, more connected to daily life, and less, well, boring. Many of my profs have been younger and cooler. I’ve gotten to take classes about really interesting stuff like the Black Panther Party, racialized humor and satire, and hip hop. (Who wouldn’t want to get credit for listening to hip hop?)
Despite the less stolid subject matter, ES helps students develop skills in critical thinking by reading and analyzing books and articles, by writing critical papers, and by engaging in class discussion. Students are encouraged to relate their own lives to the subject matter, and build upon previous education by digging deeper to find the links that stretch between peoples and back into history.
But what can you do with it?
Sure, learning about the histories and cultures of marginalized ethnic groups is great, but is it 4 years and thousands of dollars great? I mean, what about jobs?
Turns out, there are actually plenty of jobs that you can do with a BA in ES. This degree provides those who seek it with specialized knowledge about marginalized and underrepresented groups, knowledge that’s applicable to a job in journalism, marketing and public relations, medicine, public health, community development, social work, community and labor organizing, government, human resources, research, teaching, non-profit development, counseling, law, and more.
ES degree-holders can easily go on to higher degrees in counseling, law, business, social work, public health, and other fields, using their background in ES to be more effective, informed and compassionate in serving communities of color and immigrant and refugee communities. But in some careers, it’s possible to just jump in and start working.
Majoring in Ethnic Studies will help you be an effective global citizen, a compassionate person, exposed to diverse backgrounds and with a well-rounded understanding of the ways that people from different cultures operate in the world. It’s rooted in a long history of students speaking out for what they want to see and learn, and an even longer history of resistance and resiliance. Learn the history—on your own terms.