Why ethnic studies matters

December 10, 2015

In my application to Yale in the fall of 2011, I wrote my “Why Yale” 50-word statement about Yale’s ethnic studies program: “I am most intrigued by the ethnicity, race and migration major, which resonates with my interest in racial injustice and civil rights. It affords one the unique opportunity for interdisciplinary, historical, contemporary and comparative study and research.” Four years later, these words still ring true. As a senior double-majoring in ER&M and political science, I am extremely grateful for interdisciplinary, historical and contemporary ethnic studies — courses that analyze and unpack the causes and consequences of prejudice and ethnic conflict in the U.S. and globally. My experience in ER&M has ensured that I will leave Yale with critical knowledge of the human experience.

As a white Jewish female from a privileged town outside of Boston, I am often met by critical, quizzical looks when I share my major with fellow Yalies — or anyone else, for that matter. I am constantly asked to explain the themes and mechanics of the ER&M major and my reasons for choosing it. In preparing for post-graduate fellowships and job opportunities this fall, I was explicitly advised that those who have graduated from a European university system, for example, might consider my major to be diffuse and not sufficiently intellectual — not a “serious” discipline.

Yet, ethnic studies is rigorous and vital. The Yale administration is beginning to come to this realization and commit more resources to the discipline. President Peter Salovey included ethnic studies as a crucial tenet in the initiatives he announced on Nov. 17 in his campuswide email. Earlier this week, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler and Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway emailed students to highlight courses offered next term that “engage thoughtfully with issues of identity.”

But ethnic studies is more than the study of “social identity” that Salovey, Gendler and Holloway suggest. As Lok Siu, a professor of ethnic studies at Berkeley, explains, ethnic studies examines power and not merely identity. According to Siu, the heart of ethnic studies lies in examining processes of marginalization and the reproduction of power and social inequality globally.

Critics argue that ethnic studies does not inform students of the human experience. But it is precisely the power structures within our society that deeply impact all lives.

The knowledge I have gained in ethnic studies classes at Yale has broadened my understanding of what it means to be human and the ways in which law and policy interact with that experience. Through reading Audre Lorde’s words, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own,” I have learned how my own life experiences connect me to those of differing backgrounds. Learning about the court case DeGraffenreid v. General Motors (1977) in “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” by Kimberlé Crenshaw, I have come to understand how legal systems often filter lived experience through a monolithic, privileged lens. Probing the purpose of torture in Anne McClintock’s “Paranoid Empire” and recognizing the lack of black agency in Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” I have engaged in thoughtful critiques of race relations and discriminatory policies in the U.S. and abroad.

Political systems do not exist in a vacuum and cannot be studied as such. Understanding power dynamics and the process of marginalization is critical to understanding politics. We must recognize the potential for political systems to entrench inequality. We cannot merely wait to ask “general questions” about the role of politics and law in human life, before moving onto “secondary” questions about race and identity. That division does not exist. One needs only to listen to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s political rhetoric to realize the immense danger that will result if we continue to ignore how politics disparately affects those of minority ethnicity, race and religion. Asserting that issues of ethnicity are “for them” will only serve to divide. These issues concern us all. It is only when we can learn our shared history and the power dynamics that have molded it, when we recognize ethnic studies as an issue of humans qua humans, that we can hope to move forward.

Gina Starfield is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact her at gina.starfield@yale.edu .

Published by Yale Daily News