For Our Futures: The Intimate Impact of Ethnic Studies at Yale
What's at stake for underclassmen in ER&M?
On Friday, March 29, 13 tenured professors withdrew their affiliation from the Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration, a department founded in 1997 in hopes of cultivating a multiethnic, diasporic and interdisciplinary curriculum. Citing a continuous and extenuating lack of support from the University’s administration, these faculty members withdrew in protest of the systematic disrespect of ethnic studies programs not just at Yale, but across the country.
This past week, hundreds of academics and Yale alumni have expressed support for the professors’ decision and have called on President Peter Salovey, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler and others to fulfill their promises to the department. Department chair Alicia Schmidt Camacho wrote in an statement Friday that she and her colleagues “could not responsibly meet growing obligations to students or our perspective research fields under the current structure.”
While faculty have pledged full support to juniors and seniors — promising that they will graduate as ER&M majors with full advising — the same assurances cannot be made to sophomores and first years dedicated to the program. The possibility of a complete dissolution of the major haunts many underclassmen and could possibly alter their academic trajectories.
Even though many ER&M classes are cross-listed with other departments, many underclassmen have specifically dedicated themselves to finishing ER&M. To dissolve, or even to simply stall the progression of the program is to put many sophomores in academic jeopardy. To deter one’s academic trajectory, at this point in their career, is to deny students the opportunity to explore other disciplines, a prominent part of Yale’s liberal arts education.
But perhaps, most importantly, by dismissing the department’s needs, the administration expresses a general lack of investment in ethnic studies and the academic desires of students and faculty of color.
The following five narratives from underclassmen in the major exemplify ER&M’s interdisciplinary nature. Each student’s experiences in the major are inherently unique to their academic interests and identities.
Kadiatou Keita ’22
I first heard about the withdrawals from a friend who is a prospective ER&M major. I took ER&M classes, but I was not aware of how long ER&M faculty and students have been fighting for support. However, after going to meetings to familiarize myself with the history of the program and looking at the administration’s response to the situation, it reminded me a lot of my school back home. I went to a magnet charter school in Harlem. My charter school was, unlike Yale’s predominantly white population, 100 percent black and Hispanic. The teachers, on the other hand, were entirely white save for the registrars, our three counselors and our gym coach (who was hired my senior year).
The graduating class before us was the first to fight for classes that talked about race in America. Its demands were simple: Hire more teachers of color and teach classes that not only interest us, but educate us on how to fight and grow in a country that seems to have forgotten that slavery and segregation happened only two or three generations ago. The response they got back mirrored Yale’s. Our counselors, not the administrators, were the first to action. They pushed to hire new teachers of color as well as be involved in their admissions process. For a while it worked. They successfully hired new teachers. But those teachers had to “leave” because of the lack of support from their bosses. According to the administration, they just left.
There was an obvious divide between students and teachers because they felt that their issues were being ignored. Teachers would try to represent students and would say they “understood their struggle,” but that is far from the truth. It was like they read a summary of our lives in books alone. We needed to represent ourselves and be heard. This is especially important at Yale, where, unlike at my high school, students of color often feel invisible on campus.
Representation and inclusion is not just saying that we are diverse at Yale — it is allowing students to have a space to learn about the institutions that continue to ignore their voices. It is about allowing us to learn about the systems of power that have oppressed people so that future decisions made by our future leaders are informed and speak for all, not just the group in power. Institutions in the U.S. have been erasing the identities of minority groups since its conception; Yale should not be complicit in the erasure.
Noah Parnes ’21
Being a part of the ethnicity, race and migration major at Yale has utterly changed my academic experience and restructured my conception of my place in our society.
I have never been in classes with such thoughtful, hopeful and driven students, all led by dynamic, inventive and knowledgeable professors. Through ER&M, I find myself drawn time and time again to the study of subjectivity within a flawed system; the importance of one’s voice amid a damaging and oppressive history; and the responsibility to consistently challenge and repair these structures.
Furthermore, as a white student, I feel incredibly fortunate to have learnt from the classes I’ve taken, change my own behavior and commit to fighting for justice outside of the classroom. Classes such as “Introduction to Third World Studies” and “Introduction of Critical Refugee Studies” have opened my eyes to countless worlds, imaginaries, systems, theories and more that continue to break down walls and strive for truth.
As a sophomore, I hope to be able to continue this study and look forward to the rest of my college career — I can only imagine how much more there is to learn.
I am immensely honored to be pursuing ER&M at Yale, stand in solidarity with all ER&M faculty as they demand support and recognition from the Yale administration and thank them for the knowledge they have imparted to me thus far.
Lauren Cueto ’21
I heard of Alicia Schmidt Camacho before I met her. I was sitting in the Branford College courtyard with the La Casa peer liaisons, relaying my excitement to pursue the ER&M major. My PL later encouraged me “to take anything listed under Alicia,” the department’s current chair and one of the 13 senior faculty members who enlisted withdrawal from the ER&M department.
I have never conceived of a Yale without ER&M. After attending the Bulldog Days’ interest panel for the program, I remember stepping out of LC onto the unlevel Old Campus cobblestone to call my dad and tell him that I had found my place.
I went on to take Alicia’s seminar in the fall and introductory class in the spring of my freshman year. Now, as my sophomore adviser, Alicia is an embodying example of how academic institutions that continue to bolster narratives of exclusion and elitism can offer so much more than a single narrative to their students. Everyone, especially those who have been systematically denied access, should be afforded the opportunity to contextualize their historical ancestries in daily rhetoric.
ER&M affords me the space to indulge in many underrepresented histories without fear of rejection or apprehension. I can explore my biracialism, analyze many untold histories, share my identity and grow with my peers. ER&M is a place for celebration in the little victories and solidarity in the many sufferings.
If the ER&M department dissipates, I know the community it has cultivated will sustain. But we need classes. We need the space to learn and the opportunity to expand. We need the recognition that has systematically been neglected.
My professors are not abandoning me; they are a living representation of the narratives they teach: to recognize injustices and to make substantial change. Their actions this past week are necessary to ensure that students like me can have a viable education. They are proving to all first-generation, low-income and people-of-color students that basic respect and fair treatment cannot be overlooked and cannot be negotiated.
To stand behind my professors — after decades of their standing behind students — in their time of necessity is a privilege. I have never been prouder to be an ER&M student.
Miho Carey ’21
I am a sophomore at Yale University. As of now, I am majoring in ethnicity, race and migration. For many Americans, their family’s story can be explored in the context of the classroom. For me, being a Japanese-American woman has limited this exploration. Growing up in a country that defines its race relations through a black-white binary limits and often removes Asian American stories from academic discussion. Finding myself frustrated with the lack of Asian American history — especially those of internment — throughout my schooling, forced me into photo albums, archives and my grandmother’s stories. This void catalyzed me to seek these narratives elsewhere, most often in the confines of my family’s living room.
In the fall semester of my sophomore year, professor Mary Lui offered a class on Asian American history, providing me with my first opportunity to discuss my community’s history in an academic setting. This class was the most rewarding I have taken at Yale, and it has motivated me to dive in further, eventually shaping my concentration — immigration and Asian American studies — within ER&M, an interdisciplinary concentration that cannot fit under any other major.
When I heard news that 13 tenured faculty were resigning from ER&M, I was hit with a wave of shock that then turned to fear, to pride, to hope. Reading one name after another — Grewal, Kao, Lowe, Lui, Okihiro, the list goes on — a compilation of my Yale idols rose to the surface. These are the professors that have allowed me and so many others to explore our families and multifaceted identities for the first time in an academic space that has been built to exclude. A space where programs like Directed Studies are praised, despite the general term “classics” only consisting of the Western canon. A space where, for generations, the wealthy have perpetually stolen spots away from those that have historically been robbed of resources, inclusion and livelihood. A space where the Yale administration exploits the marketing power of financial aid yet neglects the needs of FGLI students and students of color.
My professors did not abandon their students. They were standing up for junior faculty and the department’s survival. They were standing up for ethnicity, race and migration: a multidimensional and interdisciplinary major that combats the very privilege that Yale University was and is built on. They were standing up for us, the next generation. I feel extremely grateful to have had the privilege of being a part of ER&M. So, I have hope.
Maya Raiford Cohen ’21
I came to Yale because of the Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration. At Bulldog Days in 2017 I attended a panel on the major in LC, sitting in the back of the lecture hall alone and listening to professors Matt Jacobson, Albert Laguna and more — along with a handful of eloquent and enthused students — speak on the merits of their young department. I was told alumni went on to attend law school and medical school and to work for advocacy groups or in the government. Students could specialize in self-designed concentrations under brilliant, tenured faculty. The program was young, I was assured, but growing and prospering.
As a black woman, my identity exists within liminal spaces and precarious intersections. My parents are African American studies professors at a large West Coast public university. I grew up reading Toni Morrison and having dinner table conversations on unfair drug sentencing and Frantz Fanon’s “facts of blackness.” African American history and culture is foundational to my being — something I cherish and continue to investigate — but as a citizen of an ever-diversifying nation without a black-white binary, I need to think beyond my own community. I needed an academic space that could properly address the breadth of human experience as it relates to nationality, race, gender, ability and sexuality. ER&M can and has done that for me: “Introduction to American Indian History” with professor Ned Blackhawk taught me to think critically about indigeneity and processes of colonization. Professor Alicia Camacho provided the language of intersectionality and a history of resistance in “Introduction to Ethnicity, Race and Migration.” “The History of Right Now,” taught by professor Matt Jacobson, is a profound contextual survey of President Donald Trump’s America and those made vulnerable by his regime.
Frankly, I have not had an amazing time at Yale. My almost two years here have been saturated by homesickness and misgivings about a culture I found stressful and exclusive. But ER&M has been a saving grace. I love my professors and my classes. They have been what I call home about with a smile on my face and so much to share.
Interdisciplinary, intersectional and international curricula produce more empathetic, communally-focused and forward-thinking individuals. Eradicating the Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration would be a purposeful rejection of academia’s stake in ethnic diversity and students’ rights to explore their multifaceted identities.
These narratives work to illustrate the ways in which ER&M caters to an array of identities and communities, providing students with an exposure — often their first — to historically ignored experiences in a legitimate academic setting. ER&M works to provide an environment for students to navigate increasingly oppressive local and national political climates that have been built on the legacies of classism, privilege and bigotry.
In the wake of increasing national alt-right movements, a growing refugee crisis and looming effects of climate change, a space for ethnic studies on college campuses is not only necessary, but vital.
We call on the administration to fulfill the faculty’s demands: to appoint new faculty to ER&M; to change the status and the funding of the program; to give faculty access to the tenure and hiring processes; and to display genuine administrative respect and interest in the success and sustainability of the department.
We call on our peers — the undergraduate community at large, within and without the major — to pledge active support to our efforts. Everyone benefits from the work of the faculty and staff in ER&M. To stand aside passively is to dismiss the value of ethnic studies, the work of your peers and the equal opportunity to pursue one’s desired education.
Lauren Cueto | firstname.lastname@example.org .
Kadiatou Keita | email@example.com .
Noah Parnes | firstname.lastname@example.org .
Miho Carey | email@example.com .
Maya Raiford Cohen | firstname.lastname@example.org .