After years of controversy, the Texas State Board of Education unanimously agreed to adopt a high school Mexican-American studies course, but then nine members voted to change its name from “Mexican-American Studies” to “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.” While this might appear rather innocuous, the decision speaks to a much deeper issue that has some upset. For example, board member Marisa Perez-Diaz from Converse, Texas called it “discrimination” in an online statement according to an article in the Houston Chronicle.
The debate leading up to these decisions and the second vote taken are vestiges of an ugly history that we have yet to fully reconcile – both here in Texas and across the nation. As much as people would like to forget the unpleasant segments of our past, they will always exist and should never be overlooked. What underlying attitudes and assumptions propelled Manifest Destiny? Why did President Polk urge Congress to declare war on Mexico in 1846? How were the Mexicans in Texas treated in the decades that followed? If you have a conscience, then you will find the answers to these questions unsettling, in part, because they aren’t congruent with our country’s democratic principles. Now, even the most iniquitous parts of U.S. history deserve to be examined out of respect for those who experienced them. After all, racism and ethnocentrism permeated our society and transcend time only to (re-)surface in different forms.
What troubles me is board member David Bradley’s comments to the Houston Chronicle (please see the article linked above) because they’re evidence of the problem that needs to be addressed. Consider the phrase he used to describe the efforts of people who opposed the name change: “they want to continue antagonizing the board.” None of the articles that I’ve read indicate that protesters have antagonized anyone. In addition, he said the following about the course: “it’s become so weaponized.” Unfortunately, this language fails to demonstrate any understanding of ethnic identity while dismissing valid Mexican-American concerns. Not only are these phrases insulting, but when read in context they are arrogant, antiquated, and anti-intellectual.
The expression of such attitudes – either in the form of a vote or remarks to the media – present us with an important challenge that begs our attention. We must use opportunities like this to engage others in a thoughtful conversation about ethnicity – a conversation that acknowledges people of color and builds human relationships in the process. Here we have a responsibility to listen to other voices and develop an understanding of those who are different from ourselves. All positive social change begins with the action of individuals. Let it begin with you.
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