UC Berkeley must mandate ethnic studies requirement

Illustration about ethnic studies
Karissa Ho/Staff

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What defines an American? According to most American history classes, an American is a product of settler colonialism. The lack of diversity in American history classes is only representative of settler colonists and not the Indigenous people who were in “America” before “America” was conceptualized. This is why ethnic studies classes are invaluable to our broad student groups — the American primary education system teaches history from a largely Eurocentric perspective. UC Berkeley must mandate ethnic studies classes in order to give the campus community an understanding of the diversity of California, to value our diverse ethnic histories and to contribute to the unlearning of a Eurocentric understanding of the United States. 

According to the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, more than 60% of California residents are nonwhite, showing the incredible diversity of students. The California Department of Education requires U.S. history as a graduation requirement, which more often than not starts with Christopher Columbus. In fact, when we think of U.S. history, more often than not it brings us to ideas of Christopher Columbus discovering the New World and eating turkey on Thanksgiving; but before the conceptualization of “America,” this place was home to millions of Indigenous people. 

Christopher Columbus did not find America, he exposed America to Europe and made its presence and resources known. As we all know, this led to the quick European colonization and takeover of the already existing people on the East Coast. Not to mention the Mesoamericans who occupied the southern part of the area or the Indigenous people in the north. American history as we know it is settler colonialism history.

The UC Berkeley student body should be required to have an in-depth understanding of the history and heritage of the people who were on American land before colonization, and of those who immigrated here and now call America home. The vast majority of American history classes are not culturally inclusive — and UC Berkeley has the power to combat this. UC Berkeley has an American Cultures requirement that can be fulfilled with classes that characterize Americans more inclusively, but why doesn’t it mandate a curriculum that more accurately reflects its student population? 

The truth is, the concept of an “American” has changed — America is now represented by individuals from all types of backgrounds bringing their cultures from all over the world. However, we rarely talk about nonwhite immigrants or settlers. When we do, it’s often accompanied by a discussion of various historical tragedies. For example, when we talk about Asian American history, we think about the Japanese Internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act — instead of the Tape family who built themselves up into the middle class or the Pilipinx Delano Grape movement. 

When approaching ethnic history, academia and common American history classes often fixate on the negative aspects of the already limited ethnic perspective. More often than not, this results in students reabsorbing that trauma. While it is important to talk about these historical events, rarely do we celebrate our achievements without them accompanying a story filled with discomfort and violence. UC Berkeley needs to do more to uplift minorities by requiring classes that offer a more comprehensive curriculum on our ethnic history. Only then can we discuss the ways that we can process potential generational trauma. These classes would better represent and benefit the people who make up our campus community. 

As students transition from high school to college, they have the freedom to choose their own classes from hundreds of different topics. Some people know their exact rotation of classes and have no room to change their schedule, but others can play around and mix and match. For many students, college is the first place they’ll be able to learn about their history. This choice can come in between that prerequisite for upper-division classes or a major requirement, and that choice is easy. 

As a campus of incredible diversity, we need to offer a requirement that best represents us. For many, we are learning the same American history we have learned all our lives, but the conversation of other ethnic groups is limited and stagnant. Changing the American Cultures requirement to an ethnic studies requirement would present the student population (and the general population) more accurately. 

By making these classes a requirement, more funding would ideally be diverted into these departments. This has a direct effect on the quality of classes, and allows teaching staff to be paid what they deserve, which is crucial considering the recent strike activity on campus. More funding can mean a better assortment of classes and classes that are better suited for students’ schedules. 

Recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that makes California the first state to require ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement. Following in Newsom’s footsteps, UC Berkeley needs to appropriately change its requirement for it to better represent the students that attend here. Requiring ethnic studies classes will be a great first step in making the campus a more inclusive and representative space for students. Only then will UC Berkeley truly be prioritizing the voices of underrepresented and minority communities on campus.  

Jia Wen Wang is a third-year student studying political science and Asian American and Asian diaspora studies at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.