In late April, I attended the second half of a forum on the University of Wisconsin campus designed to challenge calls to consolidate the three ethnic studies programs (Chican@ and Latin@ Studies, Asian American Studies, and American Indian Studies) with the historic Afro-American Studies Department, which was created out of black student activism and a strike in the 1960s and approved by the Board of Regents in 1970. For many years, it was regarded as one of the most successful departments in the United States. The forum I attended featured the voices of faculty, staff and students, as well as alumni and community members who view the push to consolidate as an attack on the individual programs and further evidence of the devaluing of ethnic studies and people of color on campus.
I am an affiliate faculty member in Chican@ and Latin@ Studies. I was unable to participate in the forum due to my teaching schedule, but I did hear the views of a number of students and a handful of community members, people with whom I share a perspective about the need to stop this current effort toward consolidation. Like those who spoke, these programs are important to me not only intellectually, but also personally and politically. The event gave me pause to think about the significance of ethnic studies to me, and why this particular fight at UW is so crucial in light of ongoing conversations regarding race relations and racism in Dane County.
Both my experiences growing up as a rural, working class, mixed-race kid from a small Midwestern town, and my current intellectual and political perspective informed by my training in ethnic and women’s studies have made Madison, Wisconsin a difficult place for me to adjust to (see my author bio for more on my background). I have been witness or subject to more racist, sexist, homo- and/or transphobic microagressions in Madison than any other place I have lived, and those places include rural Nebraska, Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Phoenix, Arizona. Participating in the Chican@ and Latin@ Studies Program at UW, and getting to know the amazing Chican@ and Latin@ students on UW’s campus has been one of the best antidotes to many of my other experiences in Madison. At UW, only about 8% of the student body is comprised of students of color, and Latin@s are the largest of those groups.
The CLS Program is nothing to write home about. We are under-funded, under-staffed, and under-appreciated at UW. We’re perhaps a little worse off, but no different really than the other “ethnic studies” programs. The only other unit focused on the study of US people of color that is a department—the Afro-American Studies Department has dwindled from 12 faculty, to its current state of 6 faculty. Like many universities around the country, UW says it appreciates and wants a diverse body of faculty, students and staff, but supporting those units that would enable such a goal is never a priority. It shouldn’t be, and it really wasn’t a surprise then, when the three programs and the Afro-American Studies Department were strongly encouraged by university administration to consolidate during the last academic year, an urging that will only get more urgent in the one to start this fall.
There are intellectual reasons to consolidate into a single unit, and were the university willing to put forth the resources required in order to make such a consolidation successful, I think many faculty would be on board. I take a decidedly relational approach to my research and teaching. Also, for the increasing number of people like me who are mixed-race, understanding the multiplicity of our identities and the ways we may not feel completely at home in one singular identity or another requires an intellectual approach that goes beyond that which is typically addressed in identity-based programs. But ethnic studies programs and departments do not only serve an intellectual mission, they also serve a political mission, and they exist to support students of color who are otherwise marginalized on predominantly white campuses. In a place like Madison and on a campus like UW’s, these latter parts of the mission are vital.
This point leads me to something a young woman at the forum said, which is that these programs emerged as a result of student mandates for them. She asked, “where is the student mandate now?” Of course, there is no such mandate. The only mandate is a neo-liberal capitalist demand for “efficiency” and “cost saving,” two values that have nothing to do with enhancing any part of the three-pronged mission of the ethnic studies programs as autonomous units. (And isn’t it interesting that another demand of that same neoliberal capitalist system is for at least basic competence in “diversity,” something ethnic studies programs would seem to provide; one of the many contradictions of capitalist logic). What I saw on the faces and in the voices of so many students and alumni at the forum was something I recognize in myself—a need for these spaces to exist in order to have any space at all to be at ease. Further, such spaces are vital to help students to develop a language to understand and name their experiences and the structures that exist, and to take that out into the world. We need more not less of this in Dane County.