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Leaving History Behind

Ethnic Studies Won't Solve the Problem of Bad Memories

By Marriah Star

Last Saturday, there was a conference on ethnic studies at Harvard. It was attended by professors of Latin American, Asian American, African American and Native American Studies from universities in California and other states.

Now, while this is all well and good, if there were perhaps a conference on Aryan studies or Caucasian studies, people would be questioning the validity of the conference based on its supposed emphasis on one race and exclusion of others. Likewise, I question the validity of the ethnic studies conference--and the ethnic studies program in general--because it places emphasis on one or several groups while excluding others.

There were two inherent problems I had with the conference. One was that it focused undue attention on the subject of ethnicity. After all the politically correct rhetoric, aren't we supposed to ignore race and ethnicity and say it doesn't matter? The ethnic studies conference and the ethnic debate in general make it seem as if race does matter.

Some may say that race does matter, although it shouldn't, and therefore we have to discuss it in order to diminish its impact. But this leads to a case of the chicken or the egg. Sure, we may need to study other ethnic groups to further assimilation, but in doing so we automatically stigmatize those groups we're studying. We study race because race matters, than we deny that race matters, then we study race more because we want to make sure ethnic groups aren't excluded by oversight. It becomes a never-ending cycle.

The second problem I had with the conference, and with the general debate, is the role of certain groups in history. The case for ethnic studies is essentially to study the history of one ethnic group in this country and around the world, and then look at the kind of impact and prominence it has in the world today. I presume the former to receive the most emphasis, since we cannot know the condition of a group today unless we understand its history.

The problem boils down to what you think of history and what a group's proper role in history should be. I would like all groups to claim their rightful place in history, but not at the expense of shunning mainstream history. Must a group's history, such as that of the African Americans or Native Americans, always be special? That would mean that their historical role isn't mainstream, which would mean that we wouldn't otherwise have learned of it unless there was some special reason.

The real purpose of ethnic studies, it seems, is to focus attention on a group of people who have not been properly included in history. Yet, it stigmatizes that group, taking them out of the mainstream and into areas in which it is assumed you should know their history, but you don't have to know it.

Now don't get me wrong! I think learning history is wonderful--as long as you know all of it. After all, George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But ethnic groups often tend to have a myopic view of history, remembering their own history and nothing else.

What I am most afraid of is not that they will remember their own history, which I hope they do, but that their sense of history will become their entire identity as they focus on their own history and ignore the rest, or relegate the rest to a minor status. Those who continue to revel in the lessons of history will come to see it as their identity and will not be able to escape its grasp.

By their own history, I mean the bad parts. While there have been some very good periods in the histories of every ethnic group, the bad parts always stand out. As a result, the history of ethnic groups in the United States is almost entirely bad. Whether it is the slavery and segregation of African-Americans, the virtual genocide of Native Americans or the racial prejudice against Asian Americans in California in the 19th century, people are almost always tempted to look at what went wrong instead of what went right. And by looking at what went wrong, ethnic groups often become very emotional about their own history, en route to letting their history become their identity. History is one thing, but historical identity, which leaves individuals steeped in the past, gives them an emotionally charged sense of identity and clouds their ability to reason.

Since history can lead to a sense of negative historical identity, and since historical identity leads to powerful negative emotions which cloud reason, it is sometimes best to leave history where it belongs: in the past. There is a stark difference between searching the past for solutions to contemporary problems, and using the past as an agenda to create a contemporary problem.

We often hear from Jewish Americans about the Holocaust and about how we must never let it happen again lest people forget. But, alas, look at Bosnia, where there is so much ethnic cleansing happening it is a virtual repeat of World War II. The problem with invoking the Jewish Holocaust for historical memory--in connection with Santayana's quote--is that it can never happen again without being noticed. People will never forget it, and therefore, it never will happen again, at least not on the scale of Nazi Germany.

Those places which still engage in "ethnic cleansing" are the areas of the world where there is still much tribal tension which transcends reason. The United States is a reasonable country. The Holocaust will never happen again, unless we are so blinded by isolationism to let it happen. And slavery and segregation of different races will never happen again. We have learned from history, so there is no need to dwell on it.

This is why I say the black community is stuck in the past. Many members of the black community, along with all the other ethnic groups I have mentioned, have a sense of historical identity that is simply too strong and too negative. I wish to forget about racism, prejudice and discrimination, all of which I presume to be ills of the past. Because of negative historical identity, we think we have standing grievances which need to be addressed, grievances for things which happened years ago but cannot be resolved. Basically, because of our negative sense of historical identity, we tend to cry over spilt milk, without any effort to clean up the mess. I think the milk has dried by now.

When engaging in ethnic studies, a student is automatically engaging in a study of race relations, dredging up old ills to create new ones. Race is not historically based, though we may try to make some connection. Race is really a mental state; encompassing skin color and culture, it requires us to have a certain frame of mind in which we take skin color into account.

The only way to destroy any malignant racism that we see hurting the African-American race is to change our frames of mind. You cannot change other people's minds when it comes to things that they strongly believe in, such as abortion or race relations, be as it may that their opinions are formed or a rational or irrational basis.

Many people are stuck because they dwell on the bad parts of history. Knowing your history is wonderful and productive, as long as you know all of it, and not just some parts of it. The ethnic groups should overlook the history of the United States, because their history is almost entirely bad and negative. Instead they should remember their ancestral history from their native lands. The one thing the Europeans colonists robbed from the black community and other ethnic groups was their history, and hence their identity and sense of pride. Black people and other minorities need to reclaim the history which is rightfully theirs. We need to leave the bad parts of history in the past, where they properly belong, instead of bringing them into the present. Ethnic minorities have no more claim to it than white people do.

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