Colonialism, power and race. Inside California ethnic studies classes
By Melissa Gomez, LA Times
What is settler colonialism?
“A group of people coming into another person’s land or any space, or property or territory, and replacing their beliefs with theirs, and their traditions, and taking over their culture,” Talaya said to the group. The three others nodded in agreement.
Earlier in the week, the students watched videos and read articles about the nation’s Indigenous population, including the insensitive use of their culture for sport team mascots. Just the day before, Talaya said, she read an article about how Native children were separated from their home by the U.S. government and forced to live with white families, a symptom of the legacy of settler colonialism.
“It’s very heartbreaking, you know, because not a lot of us learn about this every day in regular history class,” she explained.
But this is no regular history class. It’s an example of what’s ahead for every California high school student who will be required by 2030 to take an ethnic studies class to graduate. Over the course of the semester, Talaya’s class has discussed how identity can be defined through race and ethnicity; students learned about the five faces of oppression; were introduced to resistance movements such as the fight for Mexican American studies in Tucson; they read about the Native Americans who once called California their home.
At a time when schools throughout the country are under siege for how race and history are taught — with at least 12 states passing legislation to limit the discourse — California is barreling in the opposite direction, the first state to mandate a high school ethnic studies course. The California law envisions a class designed to help students understand the historic and ongoing struggles of marginalized people — Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous Americans and others.
But ethnic studies courses have been dragged into political attacks by conservatives and right-wing activists against critical race theory, an academic framework used mainly in universities that examines how race and racism are embedded in American institutions, policies and law. Ethnic studies in California high school classrooms encourages students to think more broadly about history by considering the perspectives of other groups, races and cultures.
The state law allows school districts to design courses that are particularly relevant to their communities. For instance, a high school in East Los Angeles may delve deeply into the Chicano movement while in Glendale, schools could decide to examine the Armenian immigrant experience.
Yet, in California, too, activists have invaded school board meetings — often in communities outside their own — to protest ethnic studies curricula in Los Alamitos, Placentia-Yorba Linda, Tustin and Paso Robles.
And far removed from the angry shouting and politics are California students like Talaya and her classmates, whose respectful yet frank discussions about race, power and colonialism unfolded in Kimberly Young’s Culver City class throughout the fall semester.
A look inside two elective California ethnic studies classrooms at Culver City High and Edward R. Roybal Learning Center in the Los Angeles Unified School District shows teachers’ intent on creating an environment without judgment, one where students are learning as much about their own cultural roots as those of others.