San Diego Students Talk About Racism, Prejudice, and Privilege in Ethnic Studies Class

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On a recent rainy day in City Heights, Sharon Apple began her ethnic studies lesson with a question for the students: What comes to your mind when you think of slavery?

Many of the 25 Hoover High School freshmen in the class typed the words “black,” “strings,” and “strings” on their Chromebook laptops. Others typed in “racism”, “bought and sold” and “not fair”.

“It’s interesting that you all think of slavery like that,” she said after reading the words aloud. “But did you know that slavery didn’t start here in America with the Africans? Most of the students answered “No”.

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“It started with our indigenous peoples… here on this earth. They were the first slaves here, ”Apple continued. “We are going to look at the forgotten slavery of our ancestors, because what earth are we on? … Land of Kumeyaay.

In Ethnic Studies classes at the San Diego United School District, high school students learn things rarely discussed in classrooms, such as Native American slavery, the origin of the N word, and elements of prejudice and privilege. implied.

This is the purpose of ethnic studies, say the teachers, for students to see history from the perspective of traditionally neglected groups, especially African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. It is about examining past and present injustices that are typically not addressed in typical school curricula, teachers said.

“There are some uncomfortable truths in history that will make us feel bad at times, and that’s what we call empathy,” said Wendy Ranck-Buhr, Head of Educational Support for San Diego Unified. “If you don’t know the story, you have to repeat it.”

Until now, ethnic studies has been offered by a few local districts, but it will soon become compulsory for all public high school students in California.

Last year, heads of state struck a deal to make ethnic studies a condition of graduation from the class of 2030, which will enter high school in 2026.

At the same time, a national conservative push is underway to eliminate or regulate discussions of race and similar topics in schools. Parent groups and politicians claim this is a Critical Race Theory, which is a college-level discipline that deals with legal theory and examines how racial discrimination is perpetuated by law.

Critics allege that ethnic studies and other anti-racism efforts in schools divide people, generalize about race, indoctrinate students in favor of liberal ideologies, and make white students feel guilty.

Advocates and educators respond that ethnic studies is not about shaming students; it’s about uplifting them by fostering empathy and celebrating who they are.

A student’s roadmap is displayed in the classroom at Sharon Apple’s Hoover High School.

(Nancee E. Lewis / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Apple, who has been teaching for more than two decades and was named District Teacher of the Year last spring, said she teaches ethnic studies so her students can feel validated.

“I want my students to see value in themselves. I want them to know they are worth it, ”Apple said. “And when I teach them who they are… they know they’re not alone; they know it’s not just them who are going through the struggle.

This is important for students of color, who make up three-quarters of San Diego Unified students, but who often haven’t learned much about the history of their predecessors, advocates say.

Ethnic studies for all

While outrage against ethnic studies has increased at school board meetings and on social media this year, the program is far from new at San Diego Unified. Teachers have taught and developed ethnic studies in the district for the past 14 years.


The district had its first version of an ethnic studies course in 2007 at Lincoln High School. The school had reopened after a major renovation and included an introductory social justice course that teachers developed for the school’s Social Justice Academy. The course would become a precursor to ethnic studies.

In 2015, the San Diego Unified School Board decided to expand ethnic studies to the entire district and assembled a committee of experts and educators to guide this expansion.

In 2019, the school board vote make ethnic studies a graduation requirement, two years ahead of California officials who passed a law in October to make it a statewide requirement. The San Diego Unified graduation requirement began with the Class of 2024, which are now in second year.

San Diego Unified now offers Ethnic Studies-influenced English, World History, and US History courses, in addition to its Introductory Ethnic Studies course.

The district plans to take it a step further with an initiative approved by the school board last year called Ethnic Studies for All, which will infuse themes and teaching strategies of ethnic studies into curricula at all levels, has said Ricardo Medina, a San Diego Unified Ethnic Studies resource. teacher.

“I want them to know they are worthy”

At Hoover High, Apple showed his class a 12-minute video on European slavery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, which spanned from the 15th to the 19th centuries. She then asked the students what they thought, felt and wondered about the video.

A student asked why people would want to have power over others. Another student wondered why indigenous slavery was not mentioned in textbooks. A third student asked “how it all ended”.

Apple asked his class more questions for them to research: Why did it take so long to end Native slavery in the United States? And why is indigenous slavery not widely known or discussed?

“That’s the whole point of what ethnic studies are supposed to do, isn’t it?” Apple told the class. “When we talked about this idea of ​​racism, remember, we talked about the fact that they excluded some stories of people who were not part of the mainstream culture, and that’s a story that was excluded… And so we bring it back, that’s right, we tell you the whole story, not just parts of it. … It honors the struggles of our indigenous peoples.

Her students also took a test written by researchers to detect implicit bias and discovered microaggressions, which are subtle and often unintentional examples of stereotypes, such as assuming that an Asian-American person was born in another country. .

Apple asked students to read Jamaica Kincaid’s short story “Girl” and write a similar article from their own take on times they were stereotyped.

In a class activity on privileges, Apple students walked to positions in the classroom where they were asked to take a bead for each of a list of statements that applied to them, such as : “I never wondered where my next meal would come from. from and when ”,“ I’m not afraid of being paid less than my colleagues for my gender ”and“ I’m not afraid of people finding out my sexual orientation.

Afterwards, the students examined the number of pearls they each had. Students then discussed what a privilege is and how a person might use their privilege to help others.

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