The debate over reforming K-12 curriculum to teach students more accurate U.S. history has long simmered within public schools across the country. Just as various civil rights movements called for racial, ethnic, and gender justice in other areas of society, there’s been an increasing movement among students, parents, and educators to adopt more decolonial curriculum in public schools, which would include new texts that highlight marginalized stories and explore how U.S. history is dominated by the perspective of European settlers and uncritical views of American social and political culture. An increasing number of schools have adopted ethnic studies courses that focus on teaching the history, perspectives, and culture of marginalized communities in response, which has made ethnic studies an ongoing flashpoint in education reform.
Much of the country has been divided along partisan lines regarding the teaching of U.S. history. Since January 2021, 37 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict or limit how teachers can discuss historic and systemic racism and sexism in the classroom. Of those, at least 14 have imposed bans and restrictions through legislation or other avenues. These bans share a common thread of barring public educators from teaching U.S. history in a less than idealized light. But although right-wing reactionary movements that perceive more representative education as a threat have gained momentum, educators have seen firsthand in their classrooms how engaging with the ways racism, sexism, and other systemic inequities shape American life often leads to greater student participation and enthusiasm.
“Most of our students will tell you that they hated their history classes prior to coming to our school,” said Dawn Miller, a teacher at the Lindsay Community School in San Diego, California, and a member of the Association of Raza Educators (ARE). “If you ask any of them now, they will tell you that history/ethnic studies are one of their very favorite classes.”
Ethnic studies emerged in the latter half of the 20th century as student activists and education advocates demanded a reckoning with how social sciences and humanities are taught through a Eurocentric perspective that dismisses or erases the contributions and history of marginalized groups, including Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander communities in America and its territories. The curriculum also commonly examines other social identities such as class, gender, and sexuality, and contributes to a deeper understanding of U.S. society.
While the terms “ethnic studies” and “decolonial education” are often used interchangeably, the inclusion of ethnic studies in school curricula isn’t the sum total of a decolonial education system. Ideally, decolonial education anticipates and is responsive to the needs of all students and educators, not just those who come from socially privileged backgrounds. This extends beyond making changes to what’s taught in the classroom to a comprehensive overhaul of how current educational standards, practices, and viewpoints reflect and perpetuate social and structural inequities.
However, the inclusion of ethnic studies is still a step forward into a more decolonial education system. And if ethnic studies alone can inspire students to participate more actively in their communities and question where the social and political inequities that shape their lives actually come from, the prospect of a fully decolonial public education system poses a real threat to the current inequitable status quo.
The rise of ethnic studies and conservative backlash
During the Black Power and Chicano Movements of the 1970s, Black and Chicano students engaged in those struggles were among the first to demand curriculum in schools that combated structural racism, encouraged cultural representation, and fostered community empowerment by rejecting traditional approaches that uncritically accepted white-dominant perspectives. The growing self-awareness and radicalization of BIPOC students fostered by the Black and brown power movements of that era would eventually lead to the adoption of ethnic studies programs in many schools and universities in the late 1970s and 1980s. In more recent years, students have continued this tradition, fighting to expand the inclusion of Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Arab Studies in ethnic studies courses and other K-12 school curricula. However, just as Black and Chicano students faced significant hurdles fighting for a more representative curriculum in the 1970s, modern efforts to include more culturally inclusive curriculum in schools have been met with significant resistance and vitriol from conservative lawmakers and an increasingly polarized voting base.
The backlash to the introduction of ethnic studies nearly 50 years ago included conservative claims that such courses were a way to sneak “anti-American ideas” and “reverse racism” into the classroom. While the terminology has changed somewhat, today’s far-right attacks on how schools present racism, sexism, queerphobia, and other forms of oppression to students echo earlier complaints about “political correctness” and legislation such as Arizona’s 2010 House Bill 2281, which outlawed classes and materials that promote “the overthrow of the U.S. government,” “resentment toward a race or class or people,” or “ethnic solidarity.” The legislation was ultimately struck down in federal court in 2017 for being “motivated by racial animus.”
Today, far-right conservative lawmakers’ tactic of choice has been to legislate bans on anything they label “critical race theory.” Although critical race theory is a graduate-level legal theory not taught in K-12 classrooms, conservative pundits, politicians, and school boards have nonetheless resorted to using the term to broadly label and demonize any public school curriculum they dislike. States have proposed and passed bills prohibiting any class material that makes white cis heterosexual people feel “discomfort” when taught or trained about race, racism, and gender discrimination. Florida’s senate recently passed their “Don’t Say Gay” bill which goes as far as to ban discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools and also allows parents to sue teachers who discuss those issues with their students.
These far-right generated bills and campaigns neglect to mention the positive impact that ethnic studies and curriculum have on students. Educators like Miller have seen how culturally responsive curricula have benefited their students who are nonwhite, queer, or otherwise marginalized. The classes provide opportunities for marginalized students to see themselves reflected as active participants in American life and history, and they also widen their awareness and understanding of communities beyond their own.
Victor V., a student at Castle Park High School in Chula Vista, California, says that having a decolonial curriculum has helped develop how he sees himself as Hispanic and how he sees those from other communities.
“It’s helped me be more empathetic and understanding about the difficulties [those outside my community] have to deal with and respect [their experiences],” Victor said. “As oppressed communities, it’s important to stand together and help each other, and by having a decolonized curriculum we can finally be more aware and more conscious [of what’s going on].”
California has been at the forefront of this movement, where grassroots organizers have pushed state legislators to pass legislation requiring the inclusion of a more decolonial and culturally responsive curriculum in public schools. In 2020, California made history when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill requiring California State University students who enter as freshmen in 2021-22 to take an ethnic studies course to graduate. Late last year, California also became the first state to require all students to complete a semester-long course in ethnic studies to earn a high school diploma.
Ethnic studies alone won’t decolonize education
Despite states like California making strides towards requiring more representative education in public schools, many anti-racist educators and advocates say that the state’s handful of reforms are limited and don’t go far enough. They argue that most reforms still fall short of decolonial education and are frustrated by how often both detractors and well-intentioned supporters conflate the inclusion of ethnic studies with the larger decolonial education movement.
One of those educators is Marco Amaral, a special education teacher and board president of the South Bay Union School district in Chula Vista. Amaral’s criticisms regarding the shortcomings of California’s Ethnic Studies curriculum included the California State Board of Education’s decision to completely scrub the history of Palestine from the state’s curriculum. In Amaral’s view, that omission runs contrary to the whole point of reforming education to be more decolonial and was “a slap in the face” to educators who are tasked with the responsibility of having difficult and sometimes uncomfortable discussions in the classroom.
“This new curriculum literally leaves out true anti-colonial work, particularly the struggle of our Palestinian siblings,” Amaral said. “The ethnic studies curriculum is meant to be a decolonial one, yet it explicitly [omits] an anti-colonial struggle.”
Amaral also voiced frustration regarding the state’s decision to remove a Mayan affirmation from the ethnic studies curriculum after the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation—an inaptly-named organization that urges people to “report CRT practices”— sued education officials last year accusing the state of violating the Establishment Clause of the state constitution, which prohibits the state from supporting a religion. The lawsuit alleged that the affirmation—“In Lak’Ech,” which means “you are my other me”— was actually a form of prayer and its inclusion proved that educators were trying to put religion into a public education setting.
“What’s sad is the California Department of Education in no way shape or form even tries to fight it, they just accept it,” Amaral said. “But these phrases and affirmations are true anti-colonial phrases and we’re leaving them out of our pedagogy.”
Other educators like Miller echoed the same grievances, noting that despite its good intentions, California’s reforms are long overdue and still simply do not go far enough. ARE has spent more than a decade arguing for the inclusion of ethnic studies not just as part of social studies or an elective, but as a perspective that’s included in all classes.
“This is what decolonizing the curriculum means,” Miller said. “Currently, all subjects are taught through a Eurocentric, capitalist lens, from mathematics to languages, from science to PE, and they all need to be re-examined.”
The fight for decolonial education welcomes a new generation
Much like the battle for Black and Chicano studies in the 1970s, the modern fight for a broader decolonial curriculum is rooted in a rebellion against racist pedagogy upheld in U.S. public schools. Students and educators are increasingly unwilling to settle for archaic school material that fails to address the long history of racism and oppression against marginalized communities and actively perpetuates romanticized, white supremacist-driven revision of U.S. history. While the addition of ethnic studies requirements in K-12 education isn’t the endpoint of decolonial education, it’s still a vital step in the process and thus perceived as a threat by far-right politicians and officials.
Stacey Uy, the creator of the Radical History Club, a publication that publishes materials on U.S. social history that focuses on the experiences of BIPOC communities, women, and other marginalized identities, noted how the past and present conflicts around teaching U.S. history and culture reflect how our current systems value the comfort and satisfaction of white people above all else. Uy said that it isn’t the job of educators to whitewash history to be free from struggle, hardship, or injustice. Education requires the courage and bravery to admit how the formation and maintenance of the U.S. involve real harm and injustice so that students might learn how to make better choices about where the country might go.
“We can’t continue to keep our children’s future hostage because of a few select people wanting to stay in power,” Uy said. “It’s our job to tell the truth. The truth isn’t always all roses, and it’s not always going to make you sleep well at night.”
Many educators fear that current and proposed legislation will limit the effectiveness of ethnic studies and roll back previously hard-won successes, however limited they were. But in the journey toward a decolonial education system, their first priority remains the welfare of their students. And like their predecessors who first demanded the recognition of Chicano and Black studies half a century ago, those students are no longer inclined to let their education be dictated by the needs and fears of those whose power depends on the maintenance of white supremacist institutions.
“Students of color have an innate sense that something in this neoliberal system is rotten,” said Miller. “When they are able to access classes that put words and lenses to these feelings, they become empowered and engaged in their education.”