The Future of Ethnic Studies: Teaching Race at the University of Michigan

Sunday, April 17, 2016 - 7:39pm

On Monday April 11, more than 100 students and faculty gathered in the Michigan League for The Future of Ethnic Studies, a teach-in organized by a broad coalition of graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Michigan. The goals of the event were to develop interest and investment in ethnic studies across the University and to build structures of collaboration and coalition among graduate students, undergraduates and faculty of color. We organized this event to encourage the growth of ethnic studies programs and demonstrate to the University administration that there is a need for these units to secure more resources, especially in light of the current diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Ethnic studies programs across the country are experiencing a moment of crisis and opportunity. We see these crises manifesting from San Francisco State University, where the first ethnic studies programs were founded and where the administration is threatening devastating cuts to its budget, to here at the University of Michigan, where the slow attrition of faculty of color and ethnic studies faculty constitutes its own crisis. At the same time, college campuses in the past year from Yale to Mizzou have mobilized en masse to make their demands for racial justice heard. As the University designs its plan for diversity, equity and inclusion, we need to ensure that the histories, cultures and communities that make this campus diverse remain a central feature of the curriculum.

 

The event on Monday was the product of several years of faculty and student activism. This vision for this event is shaped by the graduate students in the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program in the Department of American Culture. In the past few years, seven faculty have left the A/PIA Studies Program, and only two faculty have been hired by the department. There has been one graduate course offered in A/PIA studies since 2013, and no graduate instructor positions for classes in A/PIA studies. Undergraduate enrollment has also dropped dramatically in the last five years. However, these problems are not unique to A/PIA Studies.

 

This university does not support ethnic studies but asks for our units to do the labor of educating a largely white and affluent student body of issues on race and ethnicity. The lack of support for ethnic studies is apparent both inside and outside the classroom — faculty of color are departing this institution in droves; graduate students are continuously invalidated by their departments if their work addresses issues of race, gender, sexuality and ability; and undergraduates are left to deal with a campus climate that allows for racist parties to be thrown by fraternities and for public spaces to be chalked with messages of hate. The macro and the micro cannot be separated. The lack of institutional support for classes that address issues of difference and identity is reflected in the interactions between students and faculty that leave people of color fearful and tired of every-day acts of racism.

 

This is not the first time students have gathered out of concern for ethnic studies. In 2008, graduate and undergraduate students organized the Campus Lockdown teach-in, an event protesting the lack of institutional support for recruiting and retaining a critical number of faculty in ethnic studies, women’s studies and other departments. The 400 attendees of the event brought to the University’s attention that only 3 percent of faculty are women of color, and many of these few faculty were forced to continue teaching at other institutions because they were not supported by the University. The organizers of the Future of Ethnic Studies teach-in follow the footsteps of the 2008 coalition in our push for more resources to support faculty and students of color at this institution.

 

Our framing around the future of ethnic studies is intentional. While ethnic studies programs around the country are being cut and reorganized, our goals are not just to defend ethnic studies programs from institutional attack, but also to push ethnic studies beyond its current boundaries to transform and grow. Rather than simply responding to crises in the University by advocating for a return to what once was, we can put forward our own visions of what ethnic studies could be. What would ethnic studies look like if we imagined different forms of relation beyond the “food group” model that keeps African American, Arab and Muslim American, Asian/Pacific Islander American, Latin@, and Native American studies in our own departments and programs? How might ethnic studies challenge divisions between the classroom and the community to cultivate ethical practices of community engagement? Or help us develop the tools to fight for racial, gender and economic justice in and beyond the University?

 

The University’s plan for diversity, equity and inclusion is a moment of opportunity. However, we can’t let the terms of this conversation be confined and defined by the administration as a push for multicultural inclusion rather than racial justice. The current framing of the conversation on DEI is to include more people of color without radically transforming the exclusionary ways in which this institution is already run. As Barbara Ransby reminded us during the Speak Out for Racial Justice in 2014, “If we’re going to embrace the notion of diversity, it has to be one that is contextualized and that is unapologetically political. We can have a Baskin-Robbins, pick your favorite flavor of diversity, which is cosmetic and decorative, or we can have a version of diversity that says inclusion is based on the history of exclusion and oppression.”

 

What would it mean for us in ethnic studies to reframe the conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion to be a conversation about racial justice? In other words, how can we call into being a university that challenges injustice in its own structure and in its surrounding communities? A university that is responsible to Aura Rosser who was murdered by the Ann Arbor Police Department, a university that is responsible to the residents of Flint who have been abandoned by the state, a university that is responsible to the surveilled communities in Dearborn, a university that is responsible to the communities whose land this institution is built on and a university that is responsible to the students, faculty, staff and workers upon whose labor this institution thrives?