by nubia correa
The first ethnic studies program was created in 1968 at San Francisco State University and was the product of the longest student protest in US history: The San Francisco State Strikes, led by the first-ever Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front. Many students faced police violence, harassment, and imprisonment in the fight for a space of activism that works to address systems of oppression.
Ethnic studies looks at the history of people of color in an interdisciplinary measure of critical thinking and analytical processing. Today, students and faculty are fighting for funding, courses, and respect for the intellectual rigor and demand of ethnic studies.
I spoke with Zachary Williams, an ethnic studies teacher at KIPP King Collegiate Highschool to talk about the need, breath, and aid of ethnic studies.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
NC: I would first like to touch up on how you discovered ethnic studies. Where were you and how did that make you feel?
ZW: I studied Asian American studies and Africana studies. In general, this focus of ethnic studies is critical race theory: this idea that race and other identity markers impact a relationship to power. The first time I studied it was actually in high school. My breaking point was in the Running Start program, [where] I could get two years of community college credit and I could be transferred to a university. So I took Asian American literature for one year. I took Black studies and another year [I took] sociology, stuff like that.
NC: And as our first ethnic studies teacher in our school, how would you describe ethnic studies to a young student?
ZW: I usually start by explaining it’s a class closely related to social justice. However, I don’t think that truly catches the weight of the class. But if I’m explaining it to someone who’s never heard of it, I usually explain that it’s a class related to social justice and the ways in which identity impacts our experiences in society. Most of the class is about connecting your lived experiences in society to forms of injustice and oppression.
NC: As a person of color, how has your experience influenced your stance as an ethnic studies teacher?
ZW: I think it’s certainly something extremely connected to who I am and also forces me to recognize [that] not everyone looks like me or shares the same experience as me. I need to make sure I am expanding or relating this content to students who maybe have similar experiences so we can empathize and navigate this world by recognizing the same institutional practices that are still inherently there because that’s the role of white supremacy: to place one type of living as the dominant structure and everything that doesn’t follow is demonized.
NC: Why do you think high school students should learn ethnic studies?
ZW: I always tell kids if you want to be a critical thinker you’ll take this class because it really makes you challenge dominant narratives. I think the strength of this class [is that] it forces you to think differently than how you’ve been taught to think for 14 years of your life. I think one of the first aspects of the class is you immediately recognize the world we live in, where oppression exists and, based on who you are and where you are from, there are things that you can ignore. And so I think there’s a lot of power in taking that blindfold off and exposing society for both its beauty and for its incredibly ugly truths. It’s like a requirement for every facet of the professional world and [it is] so important to be a person who pushes that critical narrative.
NC: When we think of pushing our critical thinking, usually it’s in the margins of a classroom, how can we expand these margins into our daily lives?
ZW: A good ethnic studies teacher will look at what’s going on now and bring it into the classroom at every opportunity. Around six weeks ago we had this insurrection or storming up the capital. Your typical history or English class maybe doesn’t have the time or the planning to say, “we’re witnessing history in action, how can we talk about that now?” But an ethnic studies teacher will bring in that topic and analyze what’s going on. I think that’s the strength of this class, it’s almost required that the instructor makes it as relevant as possible. I think the power allows kids to immediately see what’s going on in the classroom and what’s going on outside the door.
NC: And as an ethnic studies teacher, how are you making sure this course is open to all people from all different ethnic and cultural backgrounds?
ZW: You have to know who your students are. That’s a big thing. A lot of the schools will kind of cater this course to a younger audience to build your building blocks or a foundation of historical thinking and so the requirements or workload is lessened. I like to stay in the depths of critical thinking and I like to go really deep into a specific silo of learning and to try to do my best to make it as relevant as possible. But the deeper you go in a subject the harder it starts becoming and so, as a teacher, I do my best to make it very accommodating. I like to provide sentence starters and the tools to help students be successful. But I think at the end of the day, I’m asking big historical questions and the kids fill in the blanks through choice. By giving kids choice, that’s one way to accomplish the accessibility feature of ethnic studies.
NC: And with this accessibility, what is some advice you have for young high school students that want to open up an ethnic studies course?
ZW: The more students can organize and maybe conduct surveys, get hardcore data, and create a clear plan or even a list of demands to provide reasoning. That’s how students from San Francisco State and Berkeley organized and created a list of Demands that they wanted to be reflected in their schools. They went through all the history classes and they said “we’re learning this eurocentric lens and we want to change this aspect of our school culture”. I just think the more you plan, the more successful outcome will be. Organize, that’s my answer.