Ethnic studies challenges mainstream

Victor Paul

As the relatively young disciplines that compose ethnic studies near the millennium, officials debated whether to make programs that defy traditional academic definitions more conventional.
More than 140 people gathered this weekend at the Hubert H. Humphrey Center for the conference “Into the 21st Century: Ethnic Studies in the State and Nation.” The Afro-American and African studies, Chicano studies, American studies and American Indian studies departments sponsored the series of workshops, speakers and performances to stimulate discussion on what some conferees said was a perception of ethnic studies as an off-shoot of 1960s social radicalism.
“Today, in the area of diversity, the field of ethnic studies is meant to be seen but not heard,” said keynote speaker Evelyn Hu-DeHart, director of the Center for Studies in Ethnicity and Race in America at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Its scholars are sometimes treated like unemancipated children or colonial subjects without full citizenship rights.”
However, Rhonda Williams, associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Maryland, provided a basis for a future agenda for ethnic studies programs.
“I think it is very important for all ethnic studies programs to build on their strengths,” she said, adding that ethnic studies are historically more multidisciplinary and therefore, global in perspective than some other academic disciplines.
The purpose of the conference was two-fold: to educate and inform, and to plan for statewide ethnic studies programming, said Rose Brewer, chairwoman of the Afro-American and African studies program.
“It’s an opportunity to have a conversation,” said Brewer, who organized the event.
Conference attendees debated making ethnic studies more academically conventional. Some ethnic studies officials see a conflict between academic recognition and the role of ethnic studies scholars as activists.
The conference was the culmination of three years of collaboration among the four ethnic studies programs at the University. Frank Miller, acting chairman of the American Indian studies program, characterized the conference as an effort to increase cooperation between the various ethnic studies programs on campus.
“The conference shows that the programs are linked together,” he said.
The next steps have been determined as a result of this dialogue, Brewer said. Through the consortium, ethnic studies scholars plan to meet periodically as well as host regular conferences like this one.
Furthermore, Brewer listed two immediate projects in progress: joint curriculum offerings between the ethnic studies programs, and a master’s degree program in Afro-American and African studies.