Before this week Roger Li, CC ‘15, didn’t know much about ethnic studies. But on Thursday night he found himself face to face with one of its most important defenders at Columbia: Jane Sung E Bai, a Columbia alumna, who organized a 15-day hunger strike for a creation of an ethnic studies program in 1996.
This week Columbia students observed the first ever Ethnic Studies week, to honor the sometimes contentious discipline that focuses on retelling history of racialized peoples on their own terms.
“The most important purpose of events like these is to spread awareness. I am completely ignorant about ethnic studies, pretty much,” Li said after Ethnic Studies Week’s closing event. He added that hearing from speakers “may provide me some basis to talk to other people and spread the word. It’s all very grassroots.”
Ethnic studies has a long and not always smooth history at the University. In 1996, then-University President George Rupp rejected a proposal from students to create a Department of Ethnic Studies, prompting Sung E Bai and others to organize a highly publicized hunger strike. In 2007, a group of students also went on hunger strike, demanding among other things an expansion of ethnic studies programming. In recent years, though, Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race has grown significantly—it now offers over 40 courses per semester and the center has been adding more core faculty members this year.
Cindy Gao, CC ’12, a comparative ethnic studies major and one of the organizers of the week, said students should be aware of the recent passage of Arizona HB 2281, a bill signed by the governor of Arizona that prohibits a school district from teaching courses that promote ethnic divisions. Critics of the bill, like Gao, say that it unfairly targets ethnic studies.
“I think part of conscience-raising is getting people to understand why HB 2281 is such a messed up law,” Gao said. “The language the lawmakers used to explain why the bill was necessary was kind of like ‘these programs are racist’ and ‘kids shouldn’t be taught that you can’t achieve your dreams in the United States.’”
Ida Girma, CC ’12, said that attending Ethnic Studies Week events was an important way to voice opposition to the controversial bill.
“The Arizona legislature can only ban something as important as ethnic studies if no one’s there to say anything about it,” she said.
Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner, director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, said that the field of ethnic studies is not about “ethnic separatism or the promotion of specific ethnic groups.”
“It’s about producing new modes of inquiry, challenging core assumptions of existing disciplines, and offering a more nuanced understanding of the role that race has played in U.S. nation-building and the making of the modern world more generally,” she said via email.
According to Negrón-Muntaner, the national ethnic studies campaign has already proved effective.
“Due to these and other efforts, the Arizona law will likely be history soon,” she said.