What is “Ethnic Studies”?

Ethnic Studies emerged out of the civil rights era and has been rooted in innovative research, critical pedagogy, and interdisciplinarity since its inception. Ethnic studies examines some of the most fundamental and pressing questions of our time using epistemologies and frameworks about race, ethnicity, and indigeneity, as well as their intersections with gender, sexuality, class, immigration, and disability. The field includes Native American and Indigenous Studies, Latinx Studies, Asian American Studies, Arab and Muslim American Studies, Mixed Race Studies, and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies.

Why do we need Ethnic Studies when we already have African and African American, Asian, Latin American, etc. Studies?

Ethnic Studies is not an area or cultural studies field and does not merely diversify the subject matter of traditional disciplines. Instead, the field provides unique theoretical apparatuses to analyze axes and relations of power.

Is there really student interest in Ethnic Studies?

Yes! Over 47 years, there have been 11 student-initiated proposals to create an Ethnic Studies department at Harvard. Ethnic Studies departments or programs exist in multiple peer institutions, such as Yale, Stanford, and UC Berkeley.  During the FAS Dean search, nearly 50 Harvard alumni and student organizations signed on to find a dean interested in Ethnic Studies. A 2016 petition with 1000+ signatures of Harvard students and affiliates supporting Ethnic Studies triggered the creation of an Ethnic Studies track within the History & Literature concentration. From then on, Ethnic Studies courses have shown significant student interest.

What can I do with an Ethnic Studies degree once I graduate?

The content and skills obtained through an Ethnic Studies degree intersect with many fields. The most obvious answer is academia—an Ethnic Studies degree would allow you to pursue research in any number of fields that intersect with the experiences of people of color. Another immediate connection is organizing. Ethnic Studies was born out of students’ desire to learn about and bring about change in their own communities.

Knowledge about the way different power structures affect lived experiences also provides a great basis for working with urban planning, health development, social work, and other community-oriented services. Ethnic Studies provides the historical and contemporary context to work in these sectors in a way that mitigates or fights back against possibly oppressive practices, and provides cultural competency so that you don’t repeat the mistakes of what is often a very detached bureaucracy.

Ethnic Studies also teaches you to read and write about issues related to systems of oppression and race, which could be a great foundation for covering these issues as a journalist or fighting for immigrant or minority rights in court.

Of course, this only scratches the surface of the doors opened by an Ethnic Studies degree—in a country that will, in the coming decades, become majority-minority, the issues tackled in Ethnic Studies will create countless opportunities!

What can I, as a passionate student or alum, do to further Ethnic Studies at Harvard?

Join TAPAS! TAPAS, or the Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies, is a student organization that raises awareness about Asian- and Pacific Islander- American Studies and pushes Harvard’s administration for more robust ways to pursue Ethnic Studies at Harvard. Similarly, there are many other student groups you could talk to about the importance of Ethnic Studies at Harvard—there is strength in numbers.

Enroll in courses, and tell your friends about all the great experiences you have in Ethnic Studies-related courses. Demand for Ethnic Studies is essential. You could even talk to a concentration advisor, secondary in EMR, and/or write a senior thesis that relates to Ethnic Studies.

And, much more easily done: Like TAPAS Facebook posts, attend TAPAS events, and tell all your friends about Ethnic Studies. Every gesture counts.

What are the main obstacles for the University administration to creating an Ethnic Studies department?

Harvard administration usually opposes Ethnic Studies on the grounds of structural and implementational details. The Harvard administration is wary of making significant changes in the current structure of Harvard departments. The administration has also expressed concerns of siloing Ethnic Studies—forming a department may inhibit the lateral flow of knowledge and reduce its cross-disciplinarity. Finally, the administration has questioned if a department is the optimal structure, although they have proposed no alternatives.