Race and ethnicity are silenced and downplayed in America’s education system. We learn about the origins of Thanksgiving, that many Native Americans died, that blacks were slaves and that people like Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King came along and made things better. If you were lucky, you might have had a few days in school to celebrate Black History Month, or had a teacher who made an effort to teach about the history of black and brown people here and there. But that was it. 

Our schools say that American history is the history of white citizens and their struggles and accomplishments and that the history of minorities are only small supplements that we add here and there, but can be left out because they aren’t important when looking at the big picture.

Instead of going into detail and learning the big picture, our schools teach us the same history lessons year after year. And don’t get me wrong, it needs to be taught. But through it all, most students forget that our country’s racial history is our history. They don’t learn to see racism when it stares them in the face because no one ever bothered to tell them what racism’s many forms are. Of course, if you’re black, it’s safe to say that you learned about racism from your parents or from your own unfortunate encounters with it. Nevertheless, few of us learn the history and cold hard facts that back up the existence of institutionalized racism in America.

That is why I major in American studies with a concentration in race and ethnicity. I want to learn about the complexities of race in our society, the policies that hold minorities back and those that help them reach equal opportunities. But not everyone sees it that way.

When I say that I study race and ethnicity issues, it’s common for people to say that I am limiting myself, a phrase that I didn’t fully understand until recently. How would concentrating in race and ethnicity limit one’s self? Isn’t the catch of concentrating in something that you have to limit a majority of your studies to that subject matter? If so, you can argue any major or concentration limits yourself. For example, by choosing to major in economics, you are limiting yourself to only learning economics in great detail. Or by concentrating in financial accounting as a business major, you are again limiting yourself. You see where I’m going here? No matter what, a major/concentration “limits” yourself. So why is it that when a student chooses to major in Africana studies or the like that they are limiting themselves?

It all goes back to how we frame what is important in our society. Black bodies do not matter. Black minds do not matter. Black history apparently does not matter. Our education system, intentionally or not, perpetuates this implicit bias toward people of color. Because we don’t matter in society, why should we learn about ourselves in our schools?

I think the reason why students like me, who choose to learn about the conditions minorities face, frequently receive negative remarks about our majors is because people deem our history as unimportant. They think by learning about race and ethnicity that we are not seeing the big picture. But I must argue the opposite.

The truth is that my major can teach me the basis of public policy or constitutional law like any other government-related major. However, I get to focus on the details. I learn how to fill in the blanks and figure out why a racial divide continues to exist in our country. And not many government-related majors can say the same.

Many of us, whether we are white or black, have grown accustomed to seeing racial and ethnicity studies as something we can go without. We chose to study government and political science and write racial studies off as useless. But it is anything but. I know that by studying race and ethnicity in America, I will have better insight on what problems exist and how to solve them so that our country can be a better place for all.

It’s frustrating that few understand this; that I have to constantly defend what I wish to learn. That I have to defend learning my country’s real history. That even in higher education we degrade learning about issues that concern minorities.

However, when someone tries to underrate my education, I stand by my beliefs. I know that by allowing others to undervalue racial studies I am allowing them to minimize the issues minorities face.

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