Ethnic Studies Course at Paso Robles High Changes Lives
America’s difficulty in understanding the historical roots of inequality recalls David Foster Wallace’s story of the old fish who casually asks the young fish, “How’s the water?” »
The young fish swims a little, thinks and answers “What is water?”
The most important truths are those which are invisible to us and which are the most difficult to speak about. Racial discrimination in America continues to be one of those realities.
Recently, LA Times reporter Tyrone Beason wrote about efforts to build racial inclusion in Paso Robles. The Tribune also published the article, emphasizing in an editorial the praise and condemnation inspired by Beason’s reporting. As subjects of Beason’s report, my students and I continue to be surprised by the misunderstandings swirling around the ethnic studies class at Paso Robles High School.
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States and observed as an “outsider” the individualism, localism and religiosity of our young republic. He did more than sing the praises of an idealistic nation. He also lamented America’s “two great wounds” – the “expulsion of Indian tribes” and the institution of slavery. Likewise, Beason, who travels the country writing on race issues, observed in Paso Robles what is invisible to many locals — that idyllic charm belies an unease felt by many residents of color, who feel excluded. and poorly represented in local decision-making.
Obviously, Paso Robles is no exception. So many communities in the United States have had to contend with the horrific history of violence, segregation, anti-Semitism, and the eviction of Native Americans from their lands. The effects of racially restrictive housing policies and discriminatory hiring practices are still being felt today. Discussions of Black Lives Matter protests, systemic racism, and microaggressions against people of color are not easy. We cannot ignore them and hope they go away. This will only continue the cycle of pain, protest and division.
Ethnic studies is an important tool for both examining this painful past and looking for ways to move forward. Ethnic studies challenges the dominant doctrine written by dozens of historians before us that America is a nation of, by, and for white people. Ethnic Studies highlights African American, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous histories that are equally part of American history. Ethnic Studies invites its students (and teachers) of all races and identities to explore our own individual identities in the unfolding history of this great nation, warts and all.
Last year, the Paso Robles School District struggled with how to teach a proposed ethnic studies course, with many board members worrying about the negative impact on white students and “un-American” ideas. A broad coalition of Paso Robles citizens, students, and teachers advocated for the course, while others argued that it would teach “kids to hate their country and to hate themselves.” The course was eventually approved and has become an engine of positive change in student attitudes and campus culture.
Teaching ethnic studies was an eye opener for me. When students see themselves and their futures reflected in the curriculum, powerful learning occurs. We laugh, cry, discuss, share poetry, plan cultural events, advocate for change, and grapple with our roles in the arc of American history. We are partners in learning, working together to build a better future for ourselves and our country.
While some continue to be distracted by the threats of “critical race theory” in our schools, at PRHS, the ethnic studies class has brought new energy to campus. Students from all walks of life organized cultural events at school, engaged with community leaders, and advocated for more culturally diverse readings in their classrooms. They created safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students, designed public monuments that honor Native Americans, and celebrated their own multicultural identities. Their efforts allow marginalized students on campus to find a place, to be seen, and to be honoured. It is a work of transformation, full of love and courage.
Beyond high school, across SLO County, there are also reasons for optimism. The Paso Robles Diversity Panel has organized community forums on racial justice. Celebrations surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King and Juneteenth are expanded. Cuesta College is building a vibrant ethnic studies program and recently hosted its first annual Teach-in, hosted by Professor Dr. Mario Espinoza-Kulick. Cal Poly’s Department of Ethnic Studies serves as an important resource center for the school’s efforts in research, education, inclusion, and diversity. Statewide, California has approved a one-semester ethnic studies course as a requirement for all high school graduates beginning in fall 2025.
Throughout our county, teachers and students are up to the task of examining painful episodes of America’s past while maintaining an appreciation for America’s ideals. We find that including historically marginalized groups helps build community and inspires students to look beyond textbooks.
I hope we – like De Tocqueville, Beason and the old fish – can make the invisible visible and work to understand the roles of race, gender, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation in the formation of our communities. Ultimately, we need to more actively support the beautiful and diverse cultures that exist here on the Central Coast. The greatness of our nation must be based both on its freedoms and on a lucid study of our multicultural and often racist past. The passion of our students and future leaders gives us hope for a more inclusive future and the “more perfect union” promised in our founding documents.
Geoffrey Land teaches ethnic studies, government, and world history in dual immersion at Paso Robles High School.
This story was originally published April 17, 2022 7:38 a.m.