Understanding Ethnic Studies: An Interview with Dr. Alexandro Gradilla

Students of color come to think, it’s not just me getting a degree so that I can become a professional, but it’s me getting a degree becoming a professional and having an impact on people beyond anything I have even thought about or even imagined.
Alexandro Gradilla

Editor’s Note: Even as the system deals with massive upheaval created by the Covid-19 virus, the Chancellor’s Office is continuing with the development of an ethnic studies requirement.  The statewide Academic Senate (“ASCSU”), following extensive campus consultations, offered their proposal in November of 2019.  The Chancellor’s Office made an alternative proposal on March 17, 2020 to which the ASCSU responded on March 19.  A key point was how broadly ethnic studies might be defined and whether the Chancellor’s definition “may no longer meet the original intent of the ethnic studies proposal.”

This article is designed to help the campus better understand what ethnic studies is as a field from one of our campus experts.  Please note that a brief annotated bibliography appears at the bottom of this article.

Can you explain what is ethnic studies?

Ethnic studies is an interdisciplinary field that comes out of the various social movements from the 1960s and in particular and more importantly from the students’ struggles on the university campuses. In the 1960s, we tend to focus on the larger external social movements such as the Black Panthers, the Chicano Power, the American Indian movement, independent activists such as Angela Davis the work that she was doing, differently radical right and left movements throughout the United States from the 1960s to the 1970s.

Why is Ethnic Studies important? 

We are heavily invested in the idea that learning and education in  ethnic studies is a partnership, not merely a one-way relationship.

I think one of the great things about ethnic studies is that as a field it comes out of California and more importantly ethnic studies comes out of the entire 3-tier system of California’s public education. There was an ethnic studies movement at the community colleges, the Cal State and the UC system. Now, people will also say “well, hasn’t black studies for instance existed longer than ethnic studies?” Yes, in terms of having African American scholars who have been doing the work that existed before the label of ethnic studies, there have been some scholars who did the interdisciplinary work that focused on the critical lens of ethnic studies before it was ethnic studies.

Ethnic studies have a couple of aspects to it. Such as, it is the interdisciplinary nature of ethnic studies and its pedagogy. When we talk of pedagogy it’s how you teach students about learning and the pedagogy of ethnic studies doesn’t ever assume that the student is coming to us completely empty, right? So, the great scholar, Paulo Freire, talks about the banking concept. In the dominant model of education, the student is the vessel. The professor has all the knowledge and they will then proceed to fill the empty student with knowledge. Ethnic studies assume you’re bringing knowledge from somewhere and your knowledge and experience and voice is valid. So, we are heavily invested in the idea that learning and education in ethnic studies is a partnership, not merely a one-way relationship.

In addition, ethnic studies focus on those communities that have been historically ignored or excluded from the larger discourse of not only the American imaginary but even from progressive scholars who talk about a labor movement but do not talk about the historical involvement of African American, Chicano, Latino, or Asian American workers. When people talk about American Women’s history and not looking at the position and opportunities that white women have gained from having the freedom to do different work because they depended on the labor of African Americans, and in the 20th century, Latina workers helping them with their families.

Ethnic studies are meant to have a debate and a dialogue, and I think we need to look at the work of people like bell hooks. They remind us that one of the goals of this kind of radical reestablishing of knowledge is that we [people of color] are putting ourselves at the center of the story. We’re no longer just a side story, it’s about centering people of color. It’s about centering women of color, people of color, all the different groups in terms of how we exist in the world and understanding that we do not fit this socially constructed narrative of universal. We too, instead say we are part of the universal that is ignored or not incorporated. 

How is ethnic studies different from the diversity education requirement?

When we’re talking about a diversity requirement versus an ethnic studies requirement there is a big difference… Ethnic studies is more concerned about the systemic institutional structural ways that communities are shaped even before they come into being.

When we look at general diversity requirements, general diversity requirements tend to be very large, very ambiguous and are meant to introduce students to the general idea of something different. On our campus the diversity requirement currently includes the global experience, which could mean learning about a population from another country in the 1600s and that would count.  But how well does a general diversity requirement prepare students for the people and the communities that they will be in contact with today? History is extremely important but when we’re talking about a diversity requirement versus an ethnic studies requirement. There is a big difference because what happens sometimes when you talk about diversity is that, everything gets washed into the category of diversity.

Ethnic studies requirement is important because it focuses on certain populations and their historical relationship to the United States. There are other groups that have faced historic and systemic discrimination but there is something to the persistence to the exclusion that racialize minorities’ experience in the United States. Ethnic studies is more concerned about the systemic institutional structural ways that communities are shaped even before they come into being.

Ethnic studies in many ways is like a flashlight and say, “Let’s shine some light in here in terms of what are we talking about when we discuss race, culture, and differences?” Ethnic studies address the larger racial issue within our American society so that it is not just kids in college struggling to graduate. But a problem persistent in all the institutions because as many of the black and feminist radical women of color always mention that these institutions were not made for us.

Should the ethnic studies be a part of a general education (GE) package or a standalone course?

As many of my colleagues have said in many colleges, how would we do this? None of us were trained in ethnic studies. How would we do ethnic studies in engineering courses?

If it is part of the G.E. package than it has to follow the same rules and guidelines of the G.E. package curriculum. Which especially in the last 3 years we understand to mean that G.E. can be taught by any department and at any college. The ethnic studies requirement is very unique in the sense that it specifies that it must be ethnic studies curriculum and more importantly taught by ethnic studies faculty. So, it would only function then as a standalone course. As many of my colleagues have said in many colleges, how would we do this? “None of us were trained in ethnic studies.” “How would we do ethnic studies in engineering courses?” “Or ethnic studies in the science department?” The measure of having ethnic studies faculty and certain courses that have been certified and rigorously vetted count for the requirement, is meant to maintain quality of the courses. We have a very baseline kind of approval of courses and we’ve talked about this among faculty leadership, that we really don’t dig into “is this class really meeting these criteria for G.E.?”  We don’t. We just trust that departments are doing their job and due diligence. However, the ethnic studies requirement is specific in examining and comparing and contrasting the experiences of the four main groups with the dominant white group, you have to have somebody who knows how to move between those comparisons.

If we keep the criteria extremely high, and commit to keeping it high, then we could prevent some of the problems that we are seeing in terms of non-experts in other colleges and departments teaching courses. Because the goal is to have students develop a critical understanding and being exposed to the pedagogy of ethnic studies, which is also part of the criteria.  So, we see how it will work out.

Do you foresee any challenges that the department might be facing with fewer than 15 full time ethnic studies professors for a campus that houses 40,000 or more students?

We work collaboratively with the faculty and administration.  This is something that I think the ethnic studies faculty have sounded enough alarm bells about…

I can only speak for Cal State Fullerton and our faculty. We have a very good chance at being well prepared for this. We have different things on campus where we have extremely well spelled-out guidelines and rules. We work collaboratively with the faculty and administration.  This is something that I think the ethnic studies faculty have sounded enough alarm bells about that if we are going to be tasked to do this by ourselves without any support from the university this is going to look really bad because we’re going to be very limited in resources. The university is going to have to look at providing resources similar to the math department, similar to the science department, and similar to other departments that do these very large lower division G.E. requirements. Do we have to the classroom space? Do we have the personnel to do this? How many sections are we talking about?  We’re talking about 20-30 sections per semester to get all the students through? Do we have enough resources and are we thinking in an innovative transformational way or are we being very conservative about what we think the need is going to be?  When we low ball the estimate is when we get in trouble.

That is daunting but it’s I feel like it’s been done before, so it can be done.

Between African American, Chicano and Chicana studies, there are only ten full time faculty members to serve the CSUF student population.

It’s just going to be a lot of all hands-on deck. The university really has to be invested right from the start. There might be a few glitches if they just leave us there to do it without any support, then it could be a disaster. People could have a bad taste in their mouth about ethnic studies which wouldn’t be our fault. It would be the fact that we couldn’t get any support. Between African American, Chicano and Chicana studies, there are only ten full time faculty members to serve the CSUF student population.

How do you believe these departments will educate the total student population?

We’re going to need some faculty person tasked to be in charge of the oversight of these courses, especially for the first 6 to 9 years  to make sure it’s in a flow and ongoing and that there’s no glitches.

As standalone departments with standalone curriculum, that is not enough to meet the criteria for the FSA’s requirement, so we are going to have to work collaboratively. We, currently, have very few classes that would qualify as ethnic studies courses. They do exist so we’re not going to be totally caught flat-footed. There are other Cal States that have zero courses as well as zero experts or one or two experts for the whole campus. We’re in better shape. That said, we’re already servicing and dealing with our students currently in our majors and our minors. So, I’m not sure what this will look like in terms of having this significant new requirement and dealing with our own students in our major. That’s going to be a challenge, and this is where the administration has to come in and provide that support. We’re going to need some faculty person tasked to be in charge of the oversight of these courses, especially for the first 6 to 9 years of this to make sure it’s in a flow and ongoing and that there’s no glitches. We are more than capable of being able to do it but we’re going to need the support to do it. Our other challenge is that as a G.E. serving departments we get students who welcome ethnic studies and are eager to learn about their communities and it also satisfies a G.E. requirement.

Why do you think ethnic studies course is important to academia?

There is evidence that students of color who take at least one ethnic studies class have a higher rate of graduating and finishing because it presents to them a purpose and a reason for their existence in college.

It’s important because, when you look at many of the mainstream disciplines, they have a racial ethnic blind spot. And they don’t understand, or they struggle with understanding the larger dynamics of how racism plays a role in education. There is evidence that students of color who take at least one ethnic studies class have a higher rate of graduating and finishing because it presents to them a purpose and a reason for their existence in college.

When we start looking at the benefits of this, especially at a university that is Hispanic, minority, Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander serving institution, you can see why the ethnic studies requirement would give people a sense of purpose as well as understanding. Come to think, “it’s not just me getting a degree so that I can become a professional, but it’s me getting a degree becoming a professional and having an impact on people beyond anything I have even thought about or even imagined.”

Bibliography

The following sources have been provided by Robert Collins of San Francisco State, and we encourage all faculty to expose themselves to the professional literature on ethnic studies to best position themselves to understand the issue beyond a surface level.

De Novais, J., & Spencer, G. (2019). Learning race to unlearn racism: The effects of ethnic studies course-taking. Journal of Higher Education, 90(6), 1-24. doi: 10.1080/00221546.2018.1545498

This study addresses the challenges of Ethnic studies courses, and in particular their effect on two distinct types of racial attitudes including student understanding of structural racism and student cross-racial empathy.

Dee, T., & Penner, E. (2017). The causal effects of cultural relevance: Evidence from an ethnic studies curriculum. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1), 127-166. doi: 10.3102/0002831216677002

Ethnic studies courses provide an example of such culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP). Theoretical support and empirical evidence on the effectiveness of these course is limited. However, the study highlights the use of CRP course materials to address and support a positive effect on at risk students.

Peeples, J. (2006). The new politics of race: Globalism, difference, justice. Rhetoric & public affairs,9(4), 718-720.

The racial disparity that exists in the United States maintains patterns of oppression similar enough to those in other parts of the world for serious reflection on whether the “democracy” practiced by U.S. politicians has provided any “answer” to the “problem” of race or only created one of many variations in a global dynamic of white supremacy.

Takaki, R. (1988). Ethnic studies 130: A brief note on “Different Shores”. The RadicalTeacher, (34), 13-15.

Currently there is a scholarly debate over the nature of racial inequality in American society, and whether or not it can be (or 0has been) overcome. In this course, we will try to enter and also assess this debate from a historical and comparative perspective, analyzing the experiences of Asians, Blacks, Chicanos, and Native Americans from 1600 to the present.

Wright, R. (2015). On Omi and Winant’s racial formation in the United States. Dialogues in human geography, 5(2), 252-253. doi: 10.1177/2043820615574445

A racial project is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial identities and meanings, and an effort to redistribute resources. When it comes to critical race studies and incorporating a much greater sensitivity to race and radicalization in our research and our discipline, it’s not as though geography is silent on the topic.

Note: This interview was conducted by graduate student Malcolm Gamble and transcribed with the assistance of the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral History and Public History.

One thought on “Understanding Ethnic Studies: An Interview with Dr. Alexandro Gradilla

  1. As a taxpayer of United States and now 82 years of age,I totally agree that an Ethnic-Studies program is needed in every State of the union,especially in Texas.
    Since the 1600 and especially after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,1848,the United States Constitution sustains that all Chicanos/Chicanas and people of color and our students have the right to the highest degree of education that our taxspaying citizens and educational system can provide.

    Liked by 1 person

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