In a struggle that is eerily similar to the battle for the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson a decade ago, teachers, students, and community activists in California are fighting to defend the content and pedagogy of ethnic studies. Their opposition? California politicians and right-wing lobbyists who are trying to turn transformative knowledge into a pale, ineffective shadow of itself.
At first it seemed that educators who have spent years pushing for ethnic studies as a high school requirement had won a major victory. In September 2016, almost 50 years after the historic Third World Liberation Front strikes at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley that gave birth to ethnic studies as a discipline, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation directing the state’s department of education to create an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) to provide direction for districts interested in implementing high school ethnic studies courses. As a Palestinian American teacher and parent of twins, Samia Shoman was elated. “I don’t want my children, or any other children, to have the experience I did as a student,” she says. (See “Independence or Catastrophe? Teaching Palestine Through Multiple Narratives,” Rethinking Schools, summer 2014.)
“I am the daughter of Palestinian immigrants,” Shoman explains. “At my Sacramento elementary school, we had class parties for holidays like Halloween, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Chinese New Year, but no parties that reflected my culture or religion. I didn’t see my parents in the room or my history in our lessons. My parents taught me at home to love my Palestinian culture, but I couldn’t find a place for it at school and, apparently, neither could my teachers.
“All this made me just want to fit in with the ‘Americans’ — and to me that seemed like the white kids. When I reflect back, there are so many details that make me see how colonized my mind was. I never invited my parents to school. I didn’t like my name and had all kinds of ideas for changing it. I was a senior in high school when the first Gulf War broke out, and the news was full of negative stereotypes of Arabs and the Middle East. I worked hard to distance myself from that, even leading a campaign to tie yellow ribbons around trees in support of our troops bombing Iraq. I never fully felt like myself. I was living in two worlds — a U.S. world at school and an Arab one at home. I didn’t understand that I could be both.”
So when the California Department of Education (CDE), responding to the new mandate, created an advisory committee of ethnic studies K–12 teachers and university scholars to create the ESMC, Shoman applied. “At the time,” she says, “I was leading a push to bring ethnic studies to my district and we visited ethnic studies classes at James Logan High School in Union City. Seeing how engaged the students were and how meaningful the curriculum was to them — it was life-changing.
“Our social science curriculum remains predominantly Eurocentric. In my 21 years in education, 16 of them as a full-time classroom teacher, I have seen too many students like me — lost in navigating multiple identities, not knowing their histories, and trying to change themselves instead of the society and world. Ethnic studies is an opportunity for teachers to create a classroom community that is grounded in a humanizing pedagogy that uplifts and revitalizes students, especially those who have been largely ignored in our school systems,” she says. “It is an opportunity for youth to explore what is happening in their communities and why, and to build their capacity to change things. It has the power to save lives. That is why I wanted to participate.”
Shoman and the other members of the advisory committee designed the ESMC to give students the tools to understand U.S. history so they can be confident, critical thinkers and activists for change. Centered on the voices of Native American, Black, Latinx/Chicanx, and Asian/Pacific Islander communities, the curriculum focused on how struggles against settler colonialism, slavery, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression have defined U.S. history and current reality. Following decades of ethnic studies practice, Arab American studies was housed within the Asian American studies section.
In August 2019, the draft curriculum went up for public comment. A well-organized right-wing campaign headed by a pro-Israel lobby committed to preventing any critical discussion of Israel, flooded the CDE with demands to remove the Arab American curriculum — especially all mention of Palestine — and the anti-colonial, anti-racist framing of the entire curriculum. The CDE and Gov. Newsom bowed to the pressure. As Melissa Weiss reported in a Sept. 25, 2020, article in the Jewish Insider, “After an uproar, Newsom apologized for the language of the draft, promising an overhaul and that the original draft ‘will never see the light of day.’”
The CDE disbanded the original advisory committee and the ESMC was revised under a cloak of secrecy — they refused to release the names of the consultants or the writers in charge of the revisions. They did, however, continue to meet with pro-Israel lobbyists. Media headlines targeted the ESMC’s mention of BDS (the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel for its human rights violations against Palestinians) in a list of social movements students might want to research. But, in fact, the pro-Israel lobby’s opposition extended to any mention of Palestine or acknowledgment of Arab American studies as integral to ethnic studies.
Arab American, Asian American, and other ethnic studies educators, students, and community members started organizing to defend the ESMC. University faculty joined forces with K–12 teachers and community activists to enlist support and public comment. The Association for Asian American Studies, the Arab American Studies Association, Black Lives Matter, Jewish Voice for Peace, veterans of the 1968 strikes, and internationally recognized scholars — including Angela Davis and Robin D. G. Kelley — all came out in support of the ESMC. Progressive Jewish educators and activists made it clear that the pro-Israel lobby does not speak for them.
Ten days before the Aug. 13, 2020, public meeting of the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), the body charged with overseeing the process, a revised version of the ESMC was released. The Arab American curriculum — including all mention of Palestine — was gone. The Asian Pacific Islander lessons were gone. And the ethnic studies values, principles, and pedagogy throughout had been turned into a watered-down “all lives matter” curriculum.
As thousands of comments from ethnic studies advocates flooded the public comment email, the CDE realized that a lot of educators were angry, and that the ESMC was in danger of losing credibility with teachers and parents across the state. In a last-minute reversal, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond started the Aug. 13 meeting of the IQC by saying: “There is an acknowledgment that Arab American studies is part of ethnic studies. . . . We look forward to continued dialogue as we collaborate to finish this critical resource at this critical time.”
But, after the meeting was over and a new round of revisions began, there was no continued dialogue with the original advisory committee or with recognized ethnic studies scholars. Once again, the revision process was opaque and the original advisory committee, ethnic studies scholars, and the Arab American community were ignored. Then, on Oct. 1, Newsom went a step further and vetoed AB331, which would have mandated an ethnic studies course for all California students and set a deadline for implementation. Were we back at square one?
Once again, the movement took their campaign public. About 4,500 people attended four Save Arab American Studies Coalition webinars that discussed the significance of ethnic studies, analyzed the problems with the revisions, and mobilized public comment. Shoman taught an online workshop, demonstrating what an Arab American studies lesson steeped in ethnic studies pedagogy looks like. (See “Resources” at the end of this article to watch her lesson.) Arab American, Asian Pacific Islander, Muslim, Chicanx, Sikh, and other activists collaborated on joint campaigns, supporting each other’s demands. Almost 20,000 people submitted public comment in support of Arab American studies as central to authentic ethnic studies curriculum. Students posted selfies saying why they need ethnic studies.
That solidarity and collaboration is an important advance for the movement, but it seems to have had no impact so far on the CDE. The most recent version of the ESMC was discussed by the IQC on Nov. 18 and 19. Despite Thurmond’s commitment only a few months earlier, the few Arab American lessons aren’t in the main document as part of Asian American studies; they have been relegated to an “interethnic bridge-building” appendix. The lessons submitted by Arab American studies teachers — e.g., a study of the reasons for and impact of Arab immigration to the United States, an exploration of Arab American identity through hip-hop, important historical and current Arab American figures — have been rejected in favor of a problematic lesson that focuses on Arab American stereotypes in The Great Gatsby. The principles and pedagogy of ethnic studies as a discipline are gone, buried, or twisted out of recognition.
Once again, ethnic studies advocates turned out in force for the public comment section of the virtual IQC meeting. A number of the speakers were young students, who made it clear what’s at stake. “I am a Palestinian Arab student,” said Hedaia. “Do you know how it feels to be called a terrorist by your teacher and classmates? It’s dehumanizing. As much as I tried to assimilate at my high school, I was always a scary Arab with a hard name to pronounce. This is how I grew up, facing Islamophobic and Arab slurs in and out of school. Explaining myself in classes where Arabs and Muslims are mentioned for one day each year: on Sept. 11. My people are not the stereotypes. We are teachers, students, healthcare workers, politicians, everything. By removing Arab American studies from the central curriculum, you are removing the existence of people who have contributed to this society and need to be represented in a positive light. Representation matters.”
Ethnic studies educators were incensed by the process and the lack of respect for experts in the field. “I am deeply disturbed by the hijacking of ethnic studies,” said Elias Serna, professor of English and Chicana/o Studies and president of the Association of Mexican American Educators, West LA chapter. “Since when does a one-sided public comment determine the tenets, principles, and pedagogy of an established academic discipline about the study of race, racism, class, gender, sexuality, history, intersectionality, and power? Where are the ethnic studies scholars and practitioners? It takes audacity to attempt to redefine the field of ethnic studies, and the ease and arrogance with which it is going on has to remind some of us that colonization has not ended. Ya basta!”
It was also clear, from the public comments of the opposition, what their goals are. “We don’t want ‘critical’ ethnic studies,” caller after caller said. “We want ‘constructive’ ethnic studies.” Their comments echo Trump’s Sept. 17 announcement of a 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education.” “Critical race theory, the 1619 Project and the crusade against American history,” Trump said, “is toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.” “Constructive ethnic studies” — even with the inclusion of uplifting stories of people of color — is not ethnic studies at all; it is another name for the dominant narrative of U.S. history.
As Jason Ferreira, associate professor in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, explained to the IQC in an open letter: “Ethnic Studies is not diversity studies, nor another name for multicultural studies. Ethnic studies explores the intersection of race and power. . . . The sidelining of the original committee, composed of actual ethnic studies practitioners, echoes an all-too-familiar feeling amongst people of color of having our experiences and our expertise denied because it makes others uncomfortable. But the avoidance of that discomfort for most of U.S. and California history is precisely why ethnic studies is necessary.”
There is one more set of revisions before the CDE approves the ESMC in March 2021. The Save Arab American Studies Coalition and other activists are frustrated but determined. “The curriculum is so far from what we originally created,” says Shoman. “Arabs have been taken out of our rightful place in Asian American Studies. Palestine has been identified as a polarizing issue and deleted. We are constantly having to defend our existence, and this seems like another of those moments.
“I need my kids and others like them to see themselves in their classrooms. To be proud of who they are — not only because we say that at home, but also because it is being reinforced at school. I don’t want my kids, or any other kids, to feel embarrassed about who they are or their ancestral roots. I want them to find their voices and speak up for justice,” she says. “That’s why we’re going to continue fighting for ethnic studies that is anti-racist, decolonial, and liberatory for all our children.”
For more information on the Save Arab American Studies Coalition and to sign an educators’ petition in support, go to: savearabamericanstudies.org
For more information on teaching about Palestine, including the Arab American studies lessons from the original ESMC, go to: teachpalestine.org
For Shoman’s webinar on Teaching Arab American Studies, access the video here: bit.ly/3rG06iy — and the slides here: bit.ly/2WR551B
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