The ethnic studies requirement at the University of Wisconsin has a long and heavily debated history. Some students see the requirement as a critical aspect of a student’s education and vital to his or her life beyond college in an increasingly diverse society. Others feel that the requirement takes time away from other classes they need for their degree program. It may take an ethnic studies course, however, to teach those opposed to the requirement why the university implemented it in the first place and why UW students need it today.
The road to the ethnic studies requirement at UW began in the late 1980s, when Phi Gamma Delta, also called “Fiji,” held a “Fiji Island” party and displayed a cartoon of an island native. The New York Times described the display as “a black man with a bone through his nose” and added “partygoers dressed in blackface.” The Black Student Union stated this was racist, and formed the Minority Commission later that year with the Pacific and Asian Women’s Alliance, the Chicano Graduate Student Organization and Union Puertorriqueña. In July 1987, the Steering Committee on Minority Affairs formed and had recommended a six-credit ethnic studies requirement by December.
The Steering Committee on Minority Affairs created the ethnic studies requirement to “recognize the contributions of ethnic minorities of American society and promote cross-cultural understanding and respect among the entire student body.”
The committee summarized their actions and the rationale behind them in a final report called the Holley Report. The committee believed that UW curriculum was largely a reflection of the “Euro-American experience,” and did not show a complete picture of American history. This resulted in a severe disservice to students belonging to ethnic minorities, as the curriculum implied that European-American history is the only US history that matters and is worth learning about. This narrow curriculum also hurt white students, who would eventually graduate into a diverse world and would need to know how to interact with “the cultures of people different from themselves.”
The university recognized the lack of an ethnic studies requirement hurt students of all races and ethnicities, and continues to make an effort to combating racism on campus.
Acts of racism are still evident on campus today. For example, in 2016 the university received criticism nationwide for its response to an individual wearing an Obama mask and a noose at a home football game. The UW campus climate report found that “students of minority populations reported a less-positive campus climate than the overall response, especially when compared to majority students.” Whether it’s a serious display of racism referencing lynching or a swastika on a dorm whiteboard, racism is present on the UW campus and action to change the campus environment is just as necessary as it was in 1987.
The continued presence of racism on campus could be seen as failure of the ethnic studies requirement to combat racism and discrimination, but the requirement can also be viewed in a more optimistic light: One of many steps to promote the importance of diversity in American society, both historically and in the workplace into which students will soon graduate.
Back in the 1980s, the University of Wisconsin thought students should understand how ethnic minority groups contributed to American history and how to behave in an increasingly diverse society following overtly racist actions and events at the time. An ethnic studies requirement remains just as crucial today in a country brought down by problems with passive racism and the misguided belief that racism “ended” with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There are students who feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day for an ethnic studies course on top of all the other credits they need, but the ethnic studies requirement is meant to help each student even after graduation and inspire a more inclusive society in which every American’s history is taught and valued
Juliet Dupont ([email protected]) is a freshman intending to major in political science and journalism.