Catherine Yang

In my application to Yale in the fall of 2011, I wrote my “Why Yale” 50-word statement about Yale’s ethnic studies program: “I am most intrigued by the ethnicity, race and migration major, which resonates with my interest in racial injustice and civil rights. It affords one the unique opportunity for interdisciplinary, historical, contemporary and comparative study and research.” Four years later, these words still ring true. As a senior double-majoring in ER&M and political science, I am extremely grateful for interdisciplinary, historical and contemporary ethnic studies — courses that analyze and unpack the causes and consequences of prejudice and ethnic conflict in the U.S. and globally. My experience in ER&M has ensured that I will leave Yale with critical knowledge of the human experience.

As a white Jewish female from a privileged town outside of Boston, I am often met by critical, quizzical looks when I share my major with fellow Yalies — or anyone else, for that matter. I am constantly asked to explain the themes and mechanics of the ER&M major and my reasons for choosing it. In preparing for post-graduate fellowships and job opportunities this fall, I was explicitly advised that those who have graduated from a European university system, for example, might consider my major to be diffuse and not sufficiently intellectual — not a “serious” discipline.

Yet, ethnic studies is rigorous and vital. The Yale administration is beginning to come to this realization and commit more resources to the discipline. President Peter Salovey included ethnic studies as a crucial tenet in the initiatives he announced on Nov. 17 in his campuswide email. Earlier this week, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler and Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway emailed students to highlight courses offered next term that “engage thoughtfully with issues of identity.”

But ethnic studies is more than the study of “social identity” that Salovey, Gendler and Holloway suggest. As Lok Siu, a professor of ethnic studies at Berkeley, explains, ethnic studies examines power and not merely identity. According to Siu, the heart of ethnic studies lies in examining processes of marginalization and the reproduction of power and social inequality globally.

Critics argue that ethnic studies does not inform students of the human experience. But it is precisely the power structures within our society that deeply impact all lives.

The knowledge I have gained in ethnic studies classes at Yale has broadened my understanding of what it means to be human and the ways in which law and policy interact with that experience. Through reading Audre Lorde’s words, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own,” I have learned how my own life experiences connect me to those of differing backgrounds. Learning about the court case DeGraffenreid v. General Motors (1977) in “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” by Kimberlé Crenshaw, I have come to understand how legal systems often filter lived experience through a monolithic, privileged lens. Probing the purpose of torture in Anne McClintock’s “Paranoid Empire” and recognizing the lack of black agency in Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” I have engaged in thoughtful critiques of race relations and discriminatory policies in the U.S. and abroad.

Political systems do not exist in a vacuum and cannot be studied as such. Understanding power dynamics and the process of marginalization is critical to understanding politics. We must recognize the potential for political systems to entrench inequality. We cannot merely wait to ask “general questions” about the role of politics and law in human life, before moving onto “secondary” questions about race and identity. That division does not exist. One needs only to listen to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s political rhetoric to realize the immense danger that will result if we continue to ignore how politics disparately affects those of minority ethnicity, race and religion. Asserting that issues of ethnicity are “for them” will only serve to divide. These issues concern us all. It is only when we can learn our shared history and the power dynamics that have molded it, when we recognize ethnic studies as an issue of humans qua humans, that we can hope to move forward.

Gina Starfield is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact her at gina.starfield@yale.edu .

  • eli2015

    So this is a great defense of ER&M as a department, but a poor defense of an ethnic studies requirement. The author has conceded that ethnic studies is an explicitly one-sided ideological project (the study of power and marginalization). The obvious followup question is, should we force every Yalie to take an overtly ideological course where only one side is heard?

    • DZMLSIENCE

      That’s an easy one… YES!

      Idealogical conformity is always achieved by force. These little fascists want your stuff and the first order of business isn’t to simply take it but to make you agree that you don’t deserve it.

  • yaleyeah

    Ms. Starfield seems to be completely unaware that there are entire cities in the country where all the levers of power are wielded by “people of color”, and they are the worst managed cities in the country. I cite Detroit, Baltimore, Newark, Memphis as examples. Is Ms. Starfield interested in examining why these minority run cities are so dysfunctional? Is she willing to study the impact of the complete breakdown of the black family unit as the root cause of poverty in black communities? How much time is spent on that issue in an ethnic studies class? Can she explain how taxpayers can spend $ 100,000 on a child’s education, and they still cannot read by the 12th grade? The solutions to all the problems plaguing our inner cities lie in personal responsibility and individual effort, but these topics will not be discussed in ethinic studies classes at Yale or any other university. They introduce too many inconvenient truths that students don’t want to hear.

    • DZMLSIENCE

      Ruh roh! You’re not supposed to talk about that stuff.

      #blackliesmatter

    • kizmet paradigm

      We have FREE WILL? Shocking! So I DONT have to shoot the store clerk in the face because I’m poor? …..Are you sure?

  • annette

    “Of course not” is the obvious and correct answer. But the climate at Yale suggests the current administration will come up with the incorrect answer.

  • 100wattlightbulb

    You are the poster child for everything that is wrong with higher ed and this country. How about requiring everyone to take programming? That would serve a far better purpose. People have and always will have differences and clashes. it has not changed in thousands of years, nor will it. Understanding it does not change human nature. There is real good and evil in the world and there always will be- no matter how many “ethnic studies” classes one takes.

    • HansC

      Programming is boring.

      And I’m a programmer..

  • marcedward

    ” I was explicitly advised that those who have graduated from a European university system, for example, might consider my major to be diffuse and not sufficiently intellectual — not a “serious” discipline.”

    You mean “correctly advised”, it’s not a serious discipline.

  • undergrad_17

    the comments that disparage this article are so interesting to me… “people have and always will have differences and clashes.” are you for real? is that not exactly why they need to be studied, by leaders in the field and by students who should know this stuff in order to be good and knowledgeable citizens?

    if you think it would just as valuable for students to program a web page as to learn more about the social and historical fabric of the world, you’re out of your mind and you haven’t been watching the news.

    the idea that structures of power and processes of marginalization aren’t worth studying is blatantly un-academic and antidemocratic. see Church vs. Enlightenment. if you want proof, see the comment below that points to “minority-run cities” as examples of what – minorities lacking “personal responsibility and individual effort?” it’s a flat-out refusal to engage with potential solutions for big problems, because it’s easier to not question how those problems came about.

    this is not a question of opinion or viewpoint. it’s a question of whether or not you believe academic curiosity can tell us more about the world than explaining it away by ascribing lower “personal responsibility” to “minorities” in this country.

    • DZMLSIENCE

      Ask yourself why your hyper-political area of “academic” interest needs to be forced on others. Is it because there is no true demand for it but you want to hire more profs to “teach” it? Profs who will conveniently be of the correct skin color? This is all silliness dressed up to be seriousness. Children at play who suddenly find out that they have the power to control their little rarified 4-year world. My, they are having fun pushing the buttons and pulling the levers. Watch the administration dance…

    • Bob

      Un-academic? Yes. Critical Race Theory is all about the feelz, victim heirarchy, and stories by non-whitey. Objectively verifiable data is verboten. It serves no purpose but to Balkanize people into ever-shrinking identity groups who shrilly whine and cry about the world treating them unfairly. News alert: the world treats everyone unfairly but those of us not inculcated into CRT don’t feel a need to constantly whine about it. We’re adults.

      • yaleyeah

        Precisely, Bob. They are treating human experiences as distinct to their race. Hell, every girl in my high school ignored me for 4 years. I was invisible to them. Race had nothing to do with it.

    • yaleyeah

      You saw my post below. Now, explain why minority run cities and school districts are dysfunctional? Chicago has a 40% drop-out rate, and even then 90% of their students that seek higher education require remedial courses. They have the 3rd highest teacher salaries in the nation. They’ve had millions lavished on their school districts, so, explain the failure. I am not refusing to engage solutions — I am telling YOU what the solution is. I laid it out for you. Why is that so hard to understand?

      • FlameCCT

        Why is that so hard to understand?

        It doesn’t fit the Progressive Plantation world view. Progressives have been working for over 100 years to reach this point in time where they believe they can overcome the Constitution and take total control of the nation. The last time this was attempted, Progressive Southern Democrat President Wilson segregated the federal government, leading to the terms Progressive and Progressivism becoming pejoratives. It is truly sad to see people willfully becoming enslaved to the Progressive Plantation, reminiscent of the CCCP (USSR.)

  • DZMLSIENCE

    ER&M does not cure white guilt nor give you a pass with the racial grievance mafia. You can vote for Barry twice – don’t matter. You can advocate taking other people’s money and distributing it among people you deem more worthy – you’re still a white girl and you will never attain victim status.

  • branford73

    I agree it is a worthwhile area of study. Ethnic differences and their intransigence are problems all over the world: Shiite vs. Sunni, Turks v. Kurds, “The Irish Problem”, the former Yugoslavia and the conflicts around its break-up. These are all worthy of study. Are these topics covered, too, or is it only or predominately the African-American/white dichotomy that it studies?

    For a time I was a manager of a small regional branch of a legal department of a Fortune 100 company. The company had a requirement that each office have a “diversity activity” every quarter. These were not sitting down and listening to lectures but rather outings outside the office and involved going to museum exhibits featuring an aspect of African American history.

    I remembered in the wake of 9/11 there was a wave of anti-Muslim hostility (though not as intense as we see today). I proposed a diversity activity involving my city’s Muslim anti-defamation group to discuss the Muslim religion. Oh no, we would have none of that. The message I got was that it was African-American diversity the company wanted the rest of us to be exposed to.

    • DZMLSIENCE

      None of the racial grievance buzzwords mean what the dictionary says. Everything has to mean something else in order for the three card monte scheme to work. Diversity, rather than a concept of general openness, inclusiveness and universality, means one specific narrow stultifying thing: black. In an election year, also hispanic.

  • ShadrachSmith

    You Shall Obey
    If you must pass a SJW studies program to graduate, political conformity, even factional enthusiasm, become graduation requirements. How…Marxist 🙂

  • David Andrews

    Why might “those who have graduated from a European university system, for example, might consider my major to be diffuse and not sufficiently intellectual — not a “serious” discipline.”

    One thing they may look as is how CRT explains things. Things like: why white majority countries tend to treat minorities and women much better than most non-white countries do; why the US has more whites living in poverty than total blacks; why the US has a black President, and, why for a while, Republicans had a black candidate for President who was running well. CRT has problems describing how things work.

    Storytelling is so central to CRT it is now wonder that many consider ER&M non-rigorous.