Recently someone wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper criticizing our university's Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies programs for being divisive by their focus on "tiny subgroups" (African Americans, Chicanos, Asian Americans, LGBTQ people, women) rather than the larger human population.
In other words, this writer believes we don't need Ethnic Studies (ES) and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) because we should be teaching about our common humanity rather than our different identities, experiences, and cultures.
He could not be more wrong.
First of all, human beings do experience themselves as people who have gender, race, sexuality, and culture. And those differences lead to different experiences in the world. If we are to broaden and deepen our understanding of human experience, we have to examine it in all of its diversity and understand the difference difference makes. Ignoring social differences in human experience in academic study would make as much sense as ignoring differences in fish or stars or flowers. Commonalities don't negate differences.
Second, those "tiny subgroups" are actually the majority of the human population, and, yet, those subgroups are still mostly ignored or marginalized in much of the curriculum of higher education. Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies ensure that students have an opportunity to develop skills to understand how race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of difference work in the world.
Third, research shows that taking Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies classes is good for students and helps achieve the goals of higher education.
Many Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies students are members of the groups studied in these courses, and they are attracted to courses that focus on their communities, identities, and histories because they do not find their experiences and concerns centered in many other classes throughout the university. Research shows that ES and WGSS courses have positive impacts on these students. Taking these courses improves students' sense of empowerment and their sense of self-worth and enhances student engagement and academic achievement.
ES and WGSS courses also have positive impact on all students, especially heterosexual white men. White students who take Ethnic Studies courses experience reduction in prejudice and bias, and they become more democratic in their orientation. Students in ES and WGSS classes become more empathetic and more accepting of diversity.
Additionally, students who take ES and WGSS courses develop greater cognitive complexity and higher levels of thinking because of their exposure to diverse experiences and ideas.
And on campuses with strong attention to diversity, students across all groups report that they are more satisfied with their college experience than students who do not engage diversity in college.
Finally, ES and WGSS faculty contribute essential scholarship to local and global communities. Here at Oregon State University my ES and WGSS colleagues are involved with research on motherhood, immigration, minority health, student success, and transnational adoption, to name a few topics. One just returned from supporting a medical team working with refugees in southern Iraq. Another works with Latino/a communities in Oregon. One was nationally recognized last year for work on behalf of transgender people. Another was recently honored by our local community on MLK Day for his work with students and other people of color on campus and in the community.
Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies bring unique analytical lenses to academic study that help us understand how race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of difference shape individual and group experiences. They help us examine social institutions and the roles these institutions play in maintaining social inequality. And these academic disciplines also help us think about how people can work to bring about changes in the world that create more inclusive, equitable, and just workplaces, families, schools, churches, and other social organizations.
We still need Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies because race, gender, and sexuality are still important facets of human experience that give shape to the ways we are in the world. We need ES and WGSS because people from those "tiny subgroups" need an academic home to explore their concerns. We need ES and WGSS because all students benefit from exposure to diverse people and ideas. And we need ES and WGSS because the world still needs academics who can help us see things in a new way and develop skills to create a world that is life-affirming for us all.