Ethnic Studies: What It Is and How to Use a Degree in the Field

Navigating a multicultural society is easier if you recognize the powerful influence of race and culture on human behavior, say many ethnic studies scholars.

Ethnic studies is an interdisciplinary field that examines the culture, history and experiences of different racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., particularly people of color and other historically marginalized groups. Many college ethnic studies programs also analyze power structures and the intersection of culture with gender, sexuality and class.

Within the broader category of ethnic studies are more specific disciplines, including African American or Black; Asian; Hispanic, Latino, Latina or Latinx; and Native American studies. Academics in ethnic studies often home in on a subset of a large pan-ethnic category since those umbrella terms encompass a variety of communities.

“This is the richness of the study… We can compartmentalize it into these smaller, more narrow, focus (areas),” says Rodney Coates, professor of critical race and ethnic studies at Miami University in Ohio.

[Read: What Gender Studies Is and How to Use the Degree.]

What Does Ethnic Studies Teach?

Ethnic studies combines insights from historians, economists, political scientists and other scholars, and it focuses on how ethnicity shapes life experience.

The roots of the field stretch back to at least the turn of the 20th century. Social scientists in various academic disciplines, including anthropology andsociology, began conducting ethnographic research focusing on specific demographic categories.

The first stand-alone ethnic studies program in the U.S. was established in 1969 at San Francisco State University, then known as San Francisco State College, in response to a lengthy student protest and within the context of the civil rights movement. Today, hundreds of these departments exist at U.S. colleges and universities.

[Read: What Can You Do With a Psychology Degree?]

M. Francyne Huckaby, interim department chair of comparative race and ethnic studies at Texas Christian University, explains that the field of ethnic studies offers insight into the human mind and spirit.

“Knowing what the lives currently are and the history has been of people of many ethnicities is an important aspect of understanding what it means to be a person,” she says.

Ethnic studies often offers a fresh perspective on U.S. history and politics by highlighting the worldviews of marginalized peoples, says Charlene Stern, a vice chancellor for rural, community and Native education at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks.

Stern, who has a doctorate in indigenous studies, says her coursework and scholarship in this field allowed her to appreciate the many ways in which groups that were discriminated against actively fought against their oppression.

For Stern, a Gwich’in Athabascan and an enrolled tribal member of the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government in Alaska, learning about civil rights movements felt empowering and inspiring. “Even in very challenging situations that people of color have experienced in the United States … we were always resisting, we were always pushing back on the system, we were always players,” she says. “I think a lot of times … mainstream history portrays people of color as victims of a crisis or policies that really put us in a very helpless role.”

There are many specialties within ethnic studies, though there is some debate within the field about what kind of scholarship falls into the discipline and what does not. One growing area of research that many ethnic studies scholars view as a branch of their discipline is Arab American studies.

Ethnic studies scholars often focus on groups that have faced systematic discrimination and prolonged persecution. However, an ethnic studies researcher could hypothetically investigate the circumstances of people within any ethnic category.

Coates emphasizes that the subject of ethnic studies isn’t about labeling people as victims or victimizers solely on the basis of their skin color — though that’s a common misconception about the discipline.

“There was a time in this country when the Irish were not considered to be white nor the Italians nor the Jews,” says Coates. “In fact, the Klu Klux Klan used to have signs saying ‘No Catholics or Blacks or Jews.’ … You were all a targeted group. And there’s some interesting work that explains how the Irish and the Jews and the Italians and many other Europeans became ‘white.'”

Critical race theory — an area of academic study which posits that racism is built into U.S. institutions such as the criminal justice system and that prejudice affects access to opportunities in the economic, educational, legal, political and social spheres — has been in the media recently. Coates explains that ethnic studies and critical race studies are different, though related. Ethnic studies has its origins in the study of different ethnic groups, whereas critical race studies started in legal scholarship.

How to Use an Ethnic Studies Degree

Students interested in investigating the causes behind major, longstanding problems in the U.S. might want to consider pursuing an ethnic studies degree, says David K. Yoo, a professor of Asian American studies and history at the University of California–Los Angeles and an editor of the anthology “Knowledge for Justice: An Ethnic Studies Reader.”

[Read: How to Choose a Law School if You Want to Be a Civil Rights Lawyer.]

“Ethnic studies provides us with tools to examine and analyze our economic, social, political, and cultural contexts to ask questions and to seek answers to the most pressing issues of our times, such as health and wealth disparities, mass incarceration, and environmental justice that reflect the enduring role of structural inequality and racism,” Yoo wrote in email. “Ethnic studies also provides a wellspring of hope grounded in communities struggling for a nation and world marked by justice and peace.”

Another rationale for majoring in this field, ethnic studies professors say, is that it cultivates cross-cultural awareness, communication abilities and empathy — traits attractive to employers.

“Active listening is a hugely important skill that someone who goes through an ethnic studies program will really develop,” Stern says.

People working in all sorts of fields — business, law, medicine, policy, etc. — are likely to encounter individuals whose background differs from their own, which means that training in ethnic studies is beneficial for nearly everyone, says Coates.

Many organizations hire diversity, equity and inclusion experts, and ethnic studies graduates are well qualified for these types of roles, he says.

Alumni of ethnic studies programs often choose to become teachers, either at the K-12 or university level.

“The more that you learn about some of these issues, and the more that you see a void in the general public’s understanding, there’s kind of a natural tendency to want to be part of the education system to make sure that some of this is taught,” Stern says.

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