Readers offer their insights and experiences to today’s college students and educators.
By Conor Friedersdorf, staff writer
The Atlantic, March 30, 2016 —
Why do college students take, or fail to take, black studies courses? Looking back on their educations, how do they feel about their choices? The correspondence that follows covers the range of responses that Atlantic readers offered to those questions. Many of the emails include insights that may be useful to students choosing next semester’s schedule or to ethnic studies educators hoping to attract more pupils.
The perspectives vary widely. Some reference my recent exchange with a black Yale student and a followup post soliciting the correspondence below.
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Some emailers who never took a black studies course felt that they couldn’t afford to spend time or money on credits outside their major and unrelated to their career.
Here’s an example:
I am not a Yale Student. I am a 29-year-old accounting major at Davenport University in Michigan, which is probably as far from Yale as you can get while still being a college student. However, I still found this question interesting, because to me, it is a very good example of exactly why so many people in the world do not understand campus protests.
Simply put, it is very difficult for many of us to understand how students “privileged” enough to be attending Yale can have that much to complain about. Now, I do not mean to make light of issues of racism, sexism, free speech, and the various other serious things at hand… Yet the question asked still upset me in a way, because for most students the answer is simple: we can’t. If anything, I already hate that I’m required to take certain classes that have nothing to do with my major. I can barely afford them, and scarcely have the time for them. I am working two jobs to pay my way through school, and regularly have 80-90 hour weeks.
This makes it a struggle for me to understand why I should put aside my own problems and desperate struggles to learn more about someone else’s. I would love it if I had the time and money and connections to attend a school like Yale for 5 or 6 years (or more) and take every interesting elective. African American studies would certainly be among them. But few people in this country, and I suspect that few students who are fortunate enough to attend Yale, can afford to do this.
I do not mean to say that I merely have no time or interest in ‘thought’ based courses such as this, but simply anything that doesn’t involve my major. The historical ideal of college may have been to give every student a broad education. To prepare them for the world. But that is simply no longer the point for most college students. We went to college not because we had time to learn, go to parties, and grow as people, but because we had to if we wanted to advance in our lives and find any level of economic security. I went to school to learn about Accounting. That’s my job, I like it, and I’m good at it. I didn’t want to take classes on advertising, advanced English composition, geology, or diversity in society, but I did, because I had to. It’s often more important today to have a diploma from a decent institution than to actually know things.
And that is why most people go to college. It’s not to gain a better understanding of their fellow man, to learn about society, to challenge their own perceptions and privileges. It’s to survive in the world. That may well be a tragedy, but it’s one most people face every day. And it makes it awfully hard to sympathize or understand protests at our most elite universities, people we generally view as the very faces of privilege and wealth.
…Most of us can only shake our heads and wonder what life is like for those who have time and energy to study what they want, rather than what they need.
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An engineer who took two black studies classes at Virginia Tech recommends that others do the same, despite having experienced an uncomfortable moment in one of the classes:
The first class: I signed up for it after I was encouraged to do so by the professor who hung out at the coffee shop where my then boyfriend worked. The course, “Black Aesthetics,” focused on the portrayal of blacks in film. We saw excerpts from Birth of a Nation. That was pretty horrifying. Taking it made me more attentive and critical of the media I consumed.
The second course was: “Black Women in the U.S.”
The teacher (Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd) is amazing. I had one of the Top Ten Uncomfortable Moments Of My Life, when we were discussing tokenism and I said … Condoleezza Rice. I wasn’t attacked personally or yelled at or anything, but the room went silent. That roaring vacuum kind of silence that’s sucking into a single point, and that point is in your chair! Then people explained why I was wrong. I learned about my privilege and entitlement, but it’s not like me or my failings were the focus of the class. It let me be more objective and honest with myself.
This class was much more personal than the other, but I loved it.
Take a class! That way you’re not hearing these concepts for the first time when you or someone you know feel under the spotlight and/or defensive. I learned the (academic) language of racism. I learned how, by that definition, I will always be benefitting from systemic racism and will always be racist in that sense. It stung, but I adjusted my framework and moved past it.
I also learned that I can change my personal prejudices, but that’s pretty useless against systemic racism. There were times when I felt uncomfortable realizing things about myself, but I used that discomfort to grow.
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A black woman avoided African American Studies because she didn’t want to focus on the marginalization of blacks in her coursework and felt that the courses would:
Bria Godley presents the purpose of taking an Af-Am course as a means to better “articulate injustices, no matter how nuanced” using “the vocabulary and theoretical framework that these classes and articles” provide. It’s not as a means of understanding African-Americans beyond the seemingly overriding historical context of slavery, segregation, and systemic racism, but as a means to sharpen how one engages those topics.
As a black person, these topics are not new to me; they are coded into my very existence. As a college graduate who majored in English literature, I avoided Af-Am classes for that very reason. If all an African-American Studies or Literature course can offer me is a better way to talk about marginalization, then I understand why some white students would be reluctant to take it. Just as many black students wish for their institutions to be more inclusive, so too do I wish that a course devoted to African-American scholarship and life would depict the nuances of being black in America beyond injustice and brutality.
Despite Godley using “people of color” and “minority” in her discussion of racial issues at Yale, she is single-mindedly focused on black students. Godly wants white students to be able to empathize with black students by taking courses that will, ostensibly, allow white students to feel the pain of historical exclusion and racism. But empathy isn’t limited to understanding the pain of another, or in Godley’s view, black people. It means recognizing the same triumphs and failures, the same love stories, the same traditions, the same feats of imagination. Godley demands white student recognition and participation, but what about the fellowship of other people of color and vice versa? It escapes me how Godley expects empathy when she rejects the possibility that the black experience is not just mired in existential agony, and that there are, in fact, experiences that are not African-American.
Also, and I find this peculiar, does Yale really present itself as a “diverse” institution? To me, it is an institution of extraordinary, primarily white, privilege. It is distinctly exclusive. That’s the Yale, and Ivy League, brand. So maybe the word Godley, and this movement in general, means is inclusive.
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Many who decided against taking any ethnic studies courses did so because they worried about uncomfortable moments. “I didn’t want to be a target in the class,” one emailer wrote. “The ethnic studies students were infamous for verbally and emotionally abusing anyone of a different ethnicity, let alone a White kid. The only exception was the Native American, then known as American Indian studies students.”
Among white students who actually took ethnic studies classes, a few reported being treated as if they didn’t belong by other students while many reported being welcomed. Here’s a correspondent who says he was treated like an outsider by a few students:
I took a black culture studies in my freshman year at GWU that focused on the history of African-Americans in Washington DC. My primary academic interest is in history and black history is one of the areas in which I felt I needed more study… the professor teaching the class is renowned for his knowledge of American history and his teaching style is very conducive to learning. I was the only white male in the course, a fact that was commented on by several other students throughout. The tone of these comments ranged from amusement to barely disguised contempt.
Some of the comments implied that I had no right to be there in the class: “Why are you even taking this class?”Others seemed to imply that I had some kind of secret agenda by taking the class: “It’s suspicious that a white male would take this course.”
Perhaps the most egregious: “This class isn’t for you and you’re taking he place of someone who would appreciate it more.” I must say that the folks that made these types of comments were a very small minority and most of the class was either supportive or indifferent towards my presence. The course itself was very interesting and I felt as though it broadened my horizons in terms of understanding the history of Washington DC through a lens that is different from my own. I ended the semester with a better understanding of the black history of the city.
Here’s one who was welcomed:
I did not have the honor of attending Yale, but I did take a black studies class at the University of Texas at Austin…Now, as you could easily find out from my digital footprint, I am a privileged, cisgendered, white, professional male, which as your article suggests, may have prejudiced me against taking these classes. So why did I take them? In short, I loved them. The professors were brilliant. The assignments were engaging and intellectually stimulating. And the class conversations were lively and interesting (contrary to what some might expect, I could speak my mind in these classes without fear of privilege-shaming or anything of the sort).
It’s fascinating, this perspective that there are just too many other interesting classes. I can’t begrudge a person for freely choosing courses they want to take. Certainly I enjoyed Black Feminist Theory & Praxis infinitely more than some of the required science credit courses I took.
But that’s me…
You could have an intro course—such as the Cultural Studies & Gender Studies course I took—that would introduce students to many frameworks for critical analysis that might then inspire them to delve deeper, or might not.
For me, that class was Cultural Anthropology, which I took the first semester in college. That class blew my mind. I still remember the first day of our TA break-out class, when our TA walked to the blackboard, flipped the world map upside-down, and asked us why we didn’t represent the world this way all the time? After all, the universe has no sense of up or down. The implication, of course, is that we put the Northern hemisphere on top to perpetuate the North’s hegemony over the South. Check out The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore—he uses a South-side up map.
Recently, there has been a kind of cultural backlash to campus liberalism. Some of what I read rubs me the wrong way. Would I have been as welcome in those classes I took 10-15 years ago if I were taking them today?
I don’t know.
And from those classes I do know that part of my reaction is inevitably informed by my position of privilege. I do not invest a lot of emotional energy into feeling guilty about my privilege, but I do think that there is a valuable, fundamental lesson that cuts across many of these leftist schools of thought—context distorts your perspective, whether race, gender, class, age, and so on, and so on. To understand this, I think, makes you a better critical thinker and communicator, and potentially benefits everyone. I would not favor making a black studies course mandatory, and I do worry that some progressive campus movements may have taken their agendas too far. But then again, I’m not on campus anymore, and as I learned from these classes, there is wisdom in lived experience that often cannot be captured in an article or a book.
Here’s another correspondent who had a good experience:
I just read “Why Didn’t You Take a Black Studies Course in College?” I’d like to share my experience as an undergrad at Miami of Ohio. I graduated in 2004 and haven’t been back since, so everything that I have to say is really only a reflection of what the school was like about 15 years ago for a white guy trying to get a B.A. in mass communications.
At the time MU required at least all of its liberal arts students to take at least one class that was, I believe (the exact details are a little hazy), referred to as a “non-dominant perspective” class. That class didn’t have to be a black studies class. It could have been a feminist theory course or a Native American-centric history class. The point at the time was to get the (almost overwhelming white) student body to think outside their own experience. So I ended up taking the intro black studies class.
While I don’t remember many specifics, I do recall that it was the only class where white students weren’t the majority. Most likely (and excluding large, lecture-style courses), it was the only class I took in four years that had more than one or two students of color. I remember the professor beginning each class by making us repeat after him, “White people are not guilty. Black people are not victims.” I also remember being consciously aware at the end of the semester that I now had a new lens with which to view the world. I may not have perfectly understood the concepts and what I did understand no doubt lacked a lot of nuance, but it was one of the few times I actually recognized feeling, mentally at least, a bit broader. So, Miami’s plan worked on me…
Miami at the time was a very white, politically and temperamentally conservative, medium-sized university pretty much in the middle of nowhere. If you weren’t forced to consider life outside of your own experiences, you probably weren’t going to, either because of a lack of interest or opportunity. I didn’t have any real sense that the majority of the students I knew had much more than an abstract level of understanding that perspectives outside white/middle-upper class existed or were valid. That’s where I was at when I entered the dorms. So, while I personally think it would be great if every student at Miami, at the end of their college career, possessed, “the educational and theoretical foundation to address race” that probably would have been pushing it. Just making some of us aware that there is an educational and theoretical foundation to address race was something of an accomplishment.
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A Wesleyan graduate argues that white people have a lot to gain by taking African American lit courses:
…as a recent college graduate whose primary focus wasn’t African-American studies, I can say that the three English classes I took with a focus on the African-American literary tradition were central to my education.
Here are two reasons why:
1. Although African-American literature is often in conversation with white American literature and the literary traditions that birthed it, it’s also its own complete, rich tradition with its own set of theoretical and narrative concerns. White students of literature won’t just get “ur-theories of race” from African-American literature courses; they stand to benefit from valuable perspectives in structuralism, narrative theory, feminist criticism, and other critical traditions. These are perspectives that they won’t get anywhere else.
2. The second (and bigger) benefit white students stand to gain derives from the unfortunate dynamic that Bria Godley points out: our underrepresentation in these classes. White students with a certain level of academically-inclined verbal reasoning skills will have the option of sleepwalking through many undergraduate humanities courses and getting decent grades without stepping too far outside of their comfort zone. Even if they struggle with the material, they can rest assured that their classmates are struggling too. This won’t be the case in a capably taught AfAm lit class. I wasn’t the only white student in those classes by far, but it was still a big ego-deflater to notice that many of my black classmates had a leg up on me in understanding those texts by virtue of their skin color and the experiences that came with it. I made mistakes in classroom discussions and was respectfully called out.
To engage with the material, I had to try to combine critical thinking with humility and empathy, a practice that is foundational to a good liberal education. White students might not have to develop this practice unless they’re themselves the minority in the classroom, or are otherwise confronted by their racial and cultural backgrounds in an academic setting.
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A college professor with a PhD in critical rhetorical theory posits that outside the Ivy League, some students avoid ethnic studies classes because they perceive them as lacking rigor:
I think Yale is too unusual a setting to draw much from these anecdotes. Obviously, if you have a student body admitted under extremely selective criteria being taught by the kind of faculty Yale attracts, I would expect these courses to be rigorous and theoretically informed.
However, I think the perception of black studies courses at other institutions (justly or not) is that the course may not be rigorous or theoretically driven. Take the public controversy over the University of North Carolina using such courses to keep basketball players eligible. In talking to many of my students and advisees over the years, I hear the same refrain: those classes are not rigorous, will not prepare students for graduate school, and are not deeply grounded in theory. I can’t say how much is true, but I’ve seen the same student perception at multiple institutions.
The same correspondent believes that some students are deterred by “the trend toward weaponization of identity politics both on campus and in social media,” writing:
My students have lamented the overuse of the phrase “check your privilege” from their peers, and I could see how the proliferation of such discourse might lead to simple avoidance of contexts that might feature more of the same. I think there is a very important discussion that needs to happen about how social movements and subaltern groups can cultivate and welcome allies from across identity boundaries.
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Another correspondent feels torn about ethnic studies classes despite having enjoyed one:
I am white, and completed my bachelors degree in English at Bowie State University, a historically black college. I started my degree at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a school that was predominately white. By far the best class I ever took (either undergrad or graduate) was a required Seminar in African-American Lit. course I took my junior year.
Quite simply, we read fiction, and talked about it.
While there were several white students in the class, most of the students and our professor, Dr. Virginia Guilford, was black. I was exposed to great writers I had never heard of before, and we had some real tense, but meaningful conversations over the course of the semester. Not only that, I think it is always instructive for white people to see African-Americans disagree and debate with each other, which also happened quite a bit. It opens up your world to the richness of the black experience.
I would recommend that experience to anybody.
Here’s the problem—that happened in 1992. Things were a lot less political. No one threw out buzzwords like “white privilege” to shut down debate. No one was demonized or vilified for saying the wrong thing, even though there were some very intense discussions. It wasn’t a zero-sum game, and if someone had tried to make it so, our professor would have shut it down.
She was really an outstanding teacher. I can imagine why many white students now wouldn’t want to take a African-American studies course. Why get your brains beat out every day? Today’s academic climate doesn’t seem to be about discourse; it seems to be about bludgeoning. In my heart, I think every college student should be required to take an African-American studies course. However, in my head, I know that these days when an institution tries to bureaucratize “diversity” or “inclusion”, it typically backfires. There probably aren’t enough Dr. Guilford’s in the world.
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Yet another student avoided the classes after perceiving an orthodoxy with which they disagreed:
I attended a small liberal-arts school, not an Ivy, but never even considered taking an ethnic studies course… I think there is a profound disconnect between the prescriptive and descriptive aspects of ethnic studies. Its description of institutional racism rightly centers the particular experiences of minorities, bringing forward their individual stories of discrimination, stereotyping, and victimization. However, its social prescriptions tend to be all-encompassing, programs like affirmative action and mandatory college curricula that leave little room for individual variation.
And as the tempo of anti-racist activism has justifiably increased in recent years, the prescriptive side has engulfed the descriptive side, such that it now centers only the individuals whose experiences reinforce its preferred policy platform. Bria Godley’s statement that she “question(s) the utility of diversity of opinion when the goal is to present a clear, unified front against an oppressor” exemplifies this latter approach.
The problem is that individualized descriptions should support fluid responses, ones that change and react to people’s subjective experiences.
As a Filipino-American, I have experienced racial discrimination, albeit in ways subtler and less injurious than that directed at Black people. But I’m also a survivor of mental illness, and the intersections between those (and other) aspects of my identity mean my story radically differs from the usual narratives. My pursuit of social change has therefore been equally distinct – shaped by contact with stories both very different from and eerily similar to mine, and people with whom I’ve agreed and vehemently disagreed. It didn’t seem like the classes offered would do the same.
By and large, I don’t have a problem with the blanket solutions being prescribed by today’s anti-racist movement. But I do feel alienated by way its narratives are ostensibly informed by people’s stories, even as those with nonconforming experiences are pushed away. It seems to privilege the need for people to share (certain kinds of) pain over the need to overcome the systems which inflict (all kinds of) it. I’m not sure if it’s possible to present a unified front against an oppressor without diversity of opinion.
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Another correspondent who makes the case for African American studies praised how his professors handled the subject, and posited that avoiding ideological orthodoxy is key:
I am a 2013 grad of Bates College, and majored in History while minoring in African-American Studies. I am a white male. My African-American Studies classes were some of my favorite I have ever taken at any level of education, and I am convinced that those classes are essential in order to better appreciate the racial issues that still exist today. Minoring in African-American Studies was one of the best decisions I made.
Story time: On the first day of a class called Black Feminist Thought I walked into class and immediately realized that I was the only male in a class of forty. That was initially intimidating, but it ended up being perhaps my favorite class. That class taught me about subjects that I would otherwise never have confronted in a traditional academic setting like male and female sexuality, racial and gender identity, and countless others.
I also gained an enormous appreciation for respecting others’ ideas. As a white male in an otherwise entirely female class that focused on African-American thought, it would have been incredibly easy for the group to shut me out as the ignorant Other in the room (case in point: the week we spent discussing how rape is an expression of white male power. Awkward). However, I ended up being one of the more vocal students in the room, and genuinely felt that people were there to listen and think rather than shut down people who didn’t agree. This strikes me as indescribably important given the way certain college campuses are trending now.
I believe these classes are crucial in today’s world.
However, their successful implementation relies on them being taught as thought exercises, and not as indoctrinations of an ideology. I am a firm, almost fanatical believer in moral relativism, and these kinds of classes certainly run the risk of denying that by suppressing all schools of thought other than the one they teach (think of the language you hear from the activists who demand the creation of these classes). If they are taught as vehicles to foster critical thinking skills and impart a greater understanding of racial and cultural issues in America, they will succeed. If they are taught as little more than single-minded cult meetings, they will meet stiff resistance, not be taken seriously, and fail.
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Some correspondents who doubted the rigor of black studies weren’t devaluing that particular field in isolation so much as the humanities in general. Here’s how one emailer put it:
Especially when I was younger, I gravitated to fields with “objective” answers and data. I took only the bare minimum of humanities classes required to graduate, and I think I lost out on exposure to ideas of bias and personal stories in the process. I also completely missed how much ideas of objectivity are influenced by the dominant cultural narrative. On the hubris front, I am aware that I felt like I already understood racism, and so probably felt like an introductory college class wouldn’t be worth my time. I knew about blackface being a bad idea, and enough historical context to understand why. I felt like I would have argued for abolition of slavery in the 1850s had I been alive then. I had read all of six books by authors of color while I was in high school, plus a play. I was doing better than my white friends, so I didn’t need to search out anything else.
I’ve since broadened my outlook. I actively try to include a wider range of people and media sources in my regular consumption. I have started studying history and reading fiction in my spare time. And I’ve made a wider range of friends and acquaintances. I wish I had been pushed to do this earlier, or had understood better my own blind spots. But it’s better late than never, and my life is definitely better now than before I made these efforts.
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Other correspondents were turned off by the perception that ethnic and gender studies classes were aimed at indoctrination. Here’s one email that reflects that perspective:
My daughter is currently a student at the University of Washington, Seattle campus and will be graduating this summer in Civil Engineering. She will be continuing for her Masters, specializing in Structural Engineering.
She had been interested in taking some of the Women’s Studies classes, which sounded interesting. I suggested that she talk to some of her peers in the honors program to see what their experience with the classes was before she signed up. She did, and immediately decided that she had no interest in taking any of the Women’s or various Ethnic Studies classes. It appeared to her and her honors peers that many of the classes were ideologically driven and that one’s grades were more dependent upon your absorption and regurgitation of the professor’s ideological viewpoint than mastery of the material. Instead, she took work on the theory and structure of the mind and its relation to the brain, and creative writing.
I didn’t take any area studies courses at Pomona. I should have been an English major, because I loved literature first and foremost, but outside of language classes and philosophy, I stayed out of the humanities. All for the same reason: I found them intellectually brittle. For example, I took a course in art history — a survey course — to satisfy a GE requirement. I was doing well in philosophy, but I kept getting atrocious grades in art history. I decided for the final project I’d just write whatever I thought the prof wanted to hear. Exasperated, I called it “Women as Food”.
I think I compared Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (arguing that the hips in the painting were more suggestive of the female form than the male, which was ridiculous, but I had to say something, so I pinned it on Goya’s latent misogyny), Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, and some 18th century painting where I claimed a woman dressed in pink was wrapped up like a bon bon. I hadn’t cracked a B in the course up to that point. I got on A on that final paper. The prof wrote in the margins that it was testimony to how far I’d come along in the course. I didn’t mean a single word of any of it. It would have been an act of nihilism to put myself through that again.
And this student explained that his willingness to take a black studies course turned largely on whether he believed open inquiry and discussion would be permitted:
To be blunt, critical race and gender studies have developed a reputation for being overly dogmatic and political. You can argue there is reason and value for this, but it’s also hard to deny that it would be a deterrent to someone who was taking a survey class to get a basic grounding in the subject. And, since we’re talking about a decision to take a class, rather than whether the class would be good, reputation has some bearing. If I thought that a class on environmental studies was going to impress on me a full-blown environmental justice agenda, I would probably have the same reaction. The same could be said of a religion class.
Here are a few examples:
Can I comfortably argue, that, say, cultural appropriation is a concept that has some utility (I think it’s useful with things like Native American headdresses and the Bindi, where you’re taking an object of highly spiritual significance and using it as a fashion statement), but that claiming, say, only black people can wear cornrows is taking it too far and becomes a detriment to the sharing of culture necessary for a pluralistic society?
Can I argue that, while, of course, people should be careful when writing about cultures other than their own, there is a rich tradition of literature that comes from an outside perspective? “Democracy and America,” widely considered the most profound book ever on the U.S., is written by a Frenchman. “Black Like Me,” where a white reporter underwent treatments to appear black and traveled through the south for six weeks, also had a profound impact on me… I love talking about race and culture, but that reality is often messy and, at first glance, somewhat counter-intuitive.
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Several readers from older generations shared their stories too. This reader took a black studies course back in the 1980s at Dartmouth with visiting professor Addison Gayle, Jr.:
It was one of the best courses I took in college. I’m the son of a white American father and Japanese mother, and grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Richmond, California. When I arrived at Dartmouth, the anti-apartheid South African divestiture movement was in full swing. The place of women and Native Americans, blacks, and Latinos on campus was the topic of ongoing discussions, writing, and protests.
After a short while, coming from a public California high school to a place populated by the sons (and a few daughters) of Exeter and Andover, I came to understand why the world was so fucked up. One of the reasons that hit me as I was canvassing dorms for signatures calling on the college to divest was that the rich and powerful are, more often than not, racists to their core. Taking the Black Studies course was borne out of trying to find some fellow students with a critical view of the world and their place in it, students who did not unquestioningly accept their privilege as a natural right. What the Black Studies course taught me was political, economic, and intellectual history that was not available in the standard courses in the history and political science departments…
A reader asked, “But is African American studies more important than understanding the philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy, or the likely effects of climate change, or the impacts of oil prices on U.S. policy in the Middle East, or the feminist critique of modern capitalism?” For an American the answer is clearly, “Yes.” Asking that question betrays a lack of awareness of American history that serves as an indictment of the standard Ivy League education, absent Black Studies.
And this reader relates his mindset as a college student in the 1970s:
As a South Asian American who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, I never would’ve even considered taking a course in “Black Studies” or any other kind of ethnic studies, even if it had been offered when I was in college in the late 70s. (U. of Chicago, if that matters – and it might – due to the conservative nature of the institution: I suspect UC was a Johnny-come-lately in this regard.) What I did take a lot of was History, including American history.
And it’s just about impossible to have any grasp of American history without learning a whole lot about the antebellum South, as well as the role of women as well various other ethnic groups (e.g. E. Asians in the West Coast, Chicanos in the S.W., and of course Native Americans). Or – for that matter – understanding the struggle of non-WASP people generally to become accepted. You’d be hard-pressed stumble across the acronym “WASP” in common parlance these days, but I distinctly recall that it was a fairly big deal when America elected its first Catholic *and* (?) Irish President (JFK). Nativism and ethnic prejudice are simply two sides of the same coin. Think: marijuana laws or the “red scare” of the 1920s.
Your piece seems to be premised on the notion that Black Studies helps non-African-Americans understand what it’s like to be African American. Hmm, I think I already had that one figured out, because I was effectively “Black” to most people of European origin. Even among my classmates who did recognize “Indian” as a distinct ethnic group, few could find India on a map, and most were unaware that “east” Indians were entirely distinct from Native Americans. Outside of a few places in the country (such as California or perhaps NYC), there were only two ethnic groups. If you weren’t “white,” you were “black” by default.
This state of affairs still persists in the UK, where S. and sometimes even E. Asians are considered “black.” That said: no amount of “Black Studies” would’ve given me an understanding of the experience of having much darker skin, and kinky hair. Ask any African-American woman about the hair issue. Remember the barber shop scene in Spike Lee’s movie, Do the Right Thing? (Caveat: I am giving that scene short shrift here, it has much more significance due to the role of barber shops in the Black Community.)
And the reality is that in virtually every society with a large number of people of African and/or Asian descent, skin color and hair type make all the difference in the world. I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, Mississippi Masala: – “You can be poor and light, or rich and dark, but you can’t be poor and dark.” (And that was a description of Indian cultural attitudes which is sadly still very much accurate today.)
There are plenty of people of European origin who understand that dark-skinned people with kinky hair still get the rawest deal in America, even today. One could go a bit further and note that males in this category are most often the victims of unjustified police shootings. And there are many people of European origin who are utterly clueless about this (without being in the least bit racist). That’s not a function of whether they’ve studied American history, “Black studies,” or any other kind of history. It’s a matter of mindfulness. Some folks are just not very astute.