The Failures of Ethnic Studies (And How to Fix Them)

What Now?

Welcome to part 5 of the 5 part series, The Failures of Ethnic Studies (and how to fix them); Ethnic studies educators advise administrators. Unlike parts 1-4, I will not be analyzing data collected from educators, but instead offering some of my own personal thoughts and reflections on what I have learned from the data coupled with my own experiences leading an Ethnic Studies initiative in Seattle Public Schools. I have been kind of dreading writing this part, but I’m also uncomfortably aware that some people look to me for insights and answers, so I’m offering what I have here.

If Not Ethnic Studies, Then What?

#ReWhiting, that’s what. In my district, Ethnic Studies has been effectively eliminated and replaced with “Seattle Excellence,” which seems to have become interchangeable with “Black Excellence.” District administrators are claiming this is being modeled after the Kingmakers of Oakland, which is a fantastic program from what I can see, but I need to know more about the systemic changes that occurred to make the Oakland program a reality. In Seattle, it’s being plopped down into racist structures. We are hiring “Seattle Excellence” coaches for buildings with large Black student populations and we have an African American Male Achievement “team” at the district level, but nobody is really sure what any of them are supposed to be doing. If it’s anything like other, similar initiatives, like My Brother’s/Sister’s Keeper, it will look something like a homework help/test prep. group. I know that’s not the purpose of these groups, but I’ve seen them in action, and under white leadership, that’s exactly what they become. Past initiatives to “support” (change) Black students have done nothing to change the organization structure or policies, so it is unlikely this new initiative will. 

Here I am reminded of the Paul Gorski quote Sarah used in part 1 of this series: 

Equity efforts should never be about fixing anything about students who are marginalized in schools. They should always – always – be about fixing whatever is marginalizing students in schools… Effective equity efforts focus not on fixing students of color, but on eliminating racist conditions.

From my perspective, this focus on “Black Excellence” implies that Black students are in need of fixing, especially when an entire department is created and coaching positions are needed in schools with high Black student populations. I try to imagine being a Black student and seeing these coaches coming in to help me be “excellent” while students in predominantly white schools have no such coaches. This is more about window dressing to alleviate white guilt and not at all about Black students or racial justice. 

Here I provide a couple of logic models – one for “Black Excellence” and one for Ethnic Studies, as defined by educators in this series.

Notice how the inputs differ from the first to the second? Ethnic Studies inputs focus on the system, while the Black Excellence inputs are very limited in scope. But, more importantly, I want to point out that at no point does the Ethnic Studies model suggest changing students. Students and their families are part of the inputs and outputs, but the responsibility for change is on district staff. I have recently stopped saying “family engagement” because that is too surface level for me. Participation seems more appropriate, as a viable Ethnic Studies program must start and finish with students and families. The district and staff are only vehicles. I created a much more detailed Ethnic Studies Logic Model you can read here. All of the outputs are supported by peer reviewed research that I intended to link before I was put on leave. I will get to it, eventually.

It’s hard for me to put aside my initial response to the “Seattle (Black) Excellence” initiative, one of a deficit model. We need to work towards building an educator force that recognizes and values the excellence that ALREADY EXISTS in Black students and other students of Color. Ethnic Studies can do that. 

This brings me to my next topic:

Ontological Distance

If you’ve ever been a teacher you’ve no doubt heard, “for the students,” to justify ignoring the needs of educators. When I was receiving hateful, racist messages after the Ethnic Studies math framework went viral, a district administrator told me to “suck it up,” “put on my big girl panties,” and “remember to put kids first.” I argue it’s this mentality that sticks us in this deficit model loop; always trying to fix students instead of fixing ourselves, and thus, the system.

I think what is clear about themes that emerged from the data is that we need to fix ourselves; we need to overhaul the system, not just how it operates, but who is operating it. Michael Dominguez, in a chapter of the book Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies, wrote about a concept called “ontological distance.” What Dominguez means by this is the distance between where we are in education and where we want to be in our praxis. I see ontological distance as the answer to the “opportunity/achievement” gaps that put the focus on changing students instead of changing systems and educators. 

But how do we get there? What does Ethnic Studies in the form of education reform look like in practice? Dominguez gives five ways that we can decolonize our practice and center the change on systems instead of students; thus closing the distance between where we are and where we want to be. In his chapter, he’s speaking specifically about teacher preparation programs, but I argue that we can and must do this with in-service educators:

  1. Decolonial teacher education must displace colonial epistemologies, and foreground epistemologies reflective of youth and community wisdom.

To me, this means we must completely discard the way we view education, much like what Jacob said in part 2 of this series. 

At its core, ES [Ethnic Studies] is about disrupting racial inequities through education and action. In practice, this requires that teachers and students learn and work in solidarity with each other (and their communities) to disrupt racist policies and practices within their own communities. For me, this means revisioning what it means to learn and how we learn.

Instead, we must create a system that reflects the wisdom and needs of the people we serve – the youth and community. Current initiatives in various districts, including social/emotional learning (SEL), positive behavioral interventions and support (PBIS), and programs like My Brother’s/Sister’s Keeper continue to work in a deficit model and focus on students instead of the racist structures that oppress them. Displacing colonial epistemologies means creating a new, asset-based framework created by and for the communities we serve. Students and families must identify their needs and define education and then we work to realize it.

  1. Decolonial teacher education must engage educators with frameworks of race that capture the dynamic ways in which youth racial and cultural identity is being produced and reimagined. 

“Dynamic” is the key word here. Too frequently people see Ethnic Studies as a pre-packaged, corporate curriculum, but it can never become that otherwise it’s status quo and no longer Ethnic Studies – which must come from the communities it’s meant to serve. Identity and the definition of race are constantly evolving. We must provide educators PD and a framework to work with, not “curriculum,” at least not in a traditional sense. Above all else, educators need to learn how to get out of the way of their students who are experts on their own racialized identities and experiences. This is what respondents in this series called for in part 3

We don’t need some corporate watered-down version of Ethnic Studies. We need this to be led by strong educators of color – not someone who is bought off to shut down the anti-racism work.

I argue we must go beyond the quote above from Sarah and include community and families. This is something I tried to do in my role, but I had limited success because of systemic barriers. I was not able to compensate community members, family, or students because district policy requires payees have a business license. There is also a policy against paying students for any reason. This is one way the system needs to be restructured; policy needs to be written and/or revised to make room for this kind of meaningful participation of community, family, and students. 

Individual classroom teachers, however, may be more successful than I was. They can ask students to co-develop lesson plans and ask community members and families to come in and volunteer their time and expertise. Teachers must be given a framework for this to help them center the voices of their most marginalized students in a way that is asset-based and works to restructure the learning environment and content, not students. For a district-wide curriculum however, asking people of Color to donate their time and expertise only perpetuates a system of racism and oppression. It’s common practice for families to volunteer in their own children’s classrooms, but to expect families and community members develop curricula for free labor for an entire district is exploitation. It’s antithetical to the concepts of Ethnic Studies to exploit the intellectual and emotional labor of the very people who are working to be liberated.

  1. Decolonial teacher education must rethink the ways that field experiences position the expertise of educators in relation to youth and community knowledge. 

We have to redefine what expertise and leadership are. This was clearly reflected in the data of this series. Educators are experts in things like pedagogy and, to a more narrow extent, content. For the most part, we received the same white-washed curriculum our students are expected to endure. Unless we’ve done a whole lot of self-learning, we are not experts on a lot of the issues our students face. It’s impossible for us to be experts on every student. We need to reprogram ourselves out of thinking we know what’s best and work with our students and communities.

Dominguez is specifically addressing the “sage on the stage” phenomenon, in which teachers believe their work is to fill empty vessels, but I argue further that all definitions of leadership need to be redefined. In addition to redefining who we identify as “leaders,” we need to remove systemic barriers to leadership that marginalize our most effective educators – EOC. Linda expressed her concern about such barriers in part 4 of this series:

I think there are historic barriers of who is promoted, who is connected, and who is seen as a leader. Those barriers need to be addressed and removed. Also how people who are already seen as leaders are then continually tapped for other things (leading to burnout) or on the other side people are designated as a leader and then are not encouraged or forced to keep learning and leading…so they get stagnant.

I don’t even think we should be using the term “leader” when referring to district administrators. That word and the expectation that comes with it supports hierarchical structures and practices that necessarily oppress and marginalize “subordinates.” I recognize that some people need to be in management roles, particularly in large organizations, but “leadership” is a concept we must redefine.

Michael Fullan talks about “named leaders” vs “emergent leaders” in his book Change Leader. He discussed how “named leaders” are often so named because they meet the needs of those in power, while “emergent leaders” emerge into visions of leadership, even though they usually lack positional power, because they motivate people to change. Emergent leaders can be more effective than named leaders because they have the support of their colleagues. This creates a situation in which those who have positional power work to discredit emergent leaders, like Dr. Kinoshita confirmed in part 2 of this series:

However, in fact, what’s actually happened in this effort is that [some] top district leaders have actually treated this as something that is threatening, and so, therefore, has put limits upon the entire initiative, and put limits on all the stakeholders.

  1. Decolonial teacher education must actively confront coloniality and create alternative frameworks and identities endowed with hope and possibility. 

We can’t just tell educators to be anti-racist and dismantle the status quo without providing concrete examples of what that looks like. We have indigenous frameworks that we can draw from, but they are so starkly different from what we know that we have to re-learn everything. The XITO collective uses the Nahui Ollin, a Nahuatl framework, to train educators to decolonize their practice, but there are other indigenous frameworks from around the world to draw on while at the same time offering alternative identities for our students through their ancestors – drawing on their strength and wisdom.

Again, this takes me back to Jacob’s quote, “For me, this means revisioning what it means to learn and how we learn.” The Nahui Ollin, which is Nahuatl for “four movements,” is cyclical, which means we are always acquiring new knowledge and shedding disproven information. Nearly all examples of indigenous epistemologies I have learned about are cyclical in nature, yet our current education system is linear. It’s literally based on mass production models of the Industrial Revolution.

Sankofa Bird Lined Journal: Ghanaian Adinkra Symbol Meaning Go ...

Indigenous American frameworks focus heavily on decision making that takes into account the knowledge of ancestors while looking forward to future generations. In some ways, there is no concept of time because the actions of one affect the lives of all. There’s the Ghanaian concept of Sankofa – to look back before you look ahead. But Western epistemologies are unrelentingly linear. “Progress” is valued above reflection so much so that when I do PD on racial bias and tell people most of the work lies in reflecting on our own beliefs and value systems, invariably someone asks, “But what actions can I take??” because reflection isn’t seen as a useful action in Western epistemology.

  1. Decolonial teacher education must engage practices that unpack coloniality and explore liberation in the mundane, everyday work of teaching.

The beauty of creating Ethnic Studies curricula is that it’s all around us. A teacher can pick up a textbook and critique the coloniality of it, and it’s a practice not only in Ethnic Studies but critical thinking, reading, and analysis. It’s not an Ethnic Studies program if it only passively covers racism. We must confront it head on and teach ourselves and our students how it is actively affecting us in the moment. And we have to do it in such a way that makes students feel hopeful about their ability to change the trajectory white supremacy set them on, but we can’t do that until we fix ourselves first – including administrators. 

Our job, as educators, is to illuminate realities that have existed in the shadows and provide a language to our students they can use to name their everyday experiences and create the tools they need to liberate themselves. And we need to provide these to our students right now, not when they enter “real life.” In many ways, our students are living “real life” more than most of their teachers. When people ask me what my goal is in my work to eradicate racism in education, my answer is always, “To work myself out of a job.” What I mean is, I hope to provide students with windows and mirrors that help them understand why they are where they are and how to get where they want to go. When we’ve created an education system that does this for all students, not just the privileged ones, I’ll be able to rest.

What Now?

See what I did there? I returned us to the beginning because Ethnic Studies must be a circular practice, always returning to our purpose. Our goals will determine our work. Is our purpose to fix students, or fix ourselves? I believe our goals should be to fix ourselves so we can serve our communities. If our goals are to serve our communities, we should constantly be reflecting on where we are in our personal philosophies and paradigms, how that’s shaped by the needs of those we serve so that we can work together on a racially just, pluralistic education system, and then we’ll come back around again to redefine our purpose and goals. That’s my definition of an education system; it’s cyclical and never ending with educators and administrators learning alongside those we serve.

Closing “Achievement/Opportunity” gaps is a Western way of thinking about education. It’s linear and views students as lacking something and needing to be turned into some ideal, which is defined by white supremacy. Ontological distance, as defined by Dominguez and expanded upon here, is a process, especially since race and identity are dynamic and constantly shifting. The needs of the communities we serve will change depending on circumstances. For these reasons, ontological distance should always exist. We should never “close” that gap because it provides space for reflection and growth.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening on an administrative level. I can say I only know of two administrators in my district that even come close to being able to realize what’s been discussed in this series. Three if you count me, but I won’t be an administrator for much longer. The Borg has come for me.

What’s next? I think the solution lies in students, communities, and critical educators who are willing to keep fighting. Maybe the folks who say Ethnic Studies must always be a struggle are right.

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