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‘Our curriculum has always been centered on white voices’: The student push for African & Ethnic Studies

Leaders from the Black Student Union (BSU) and Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) sat in the front row of Pauling 216 Wednesday, waiting for the meeting about African and Ethnic Studies classes to begin. 

The meeting had been hastily called by the Dean of Faculty Bryan Penprase and Vice President of Academic Affairs Ed Feasel, who both student groups claim have stonewalled their work to bring African and Ethnic Studies classes to Soka. Both the SOCC and BSU have been working to bring these classes to campus since February 2019, at first separately and then in collaboration.

Feasel announced by email Tuesday, November 5 that the meeting would take place the following day. In his email, Feasel wrote that the meeting was to address the “many inquiries about Ethnic Studies courses at SUA” that occurred after Dean of Students Hyon Moon sent an email to all students addressing a non-black student’s use of the n-word.

Over 100 students attended the meeting. But after Penprase listed what he claimed were his movements toward bringing more African and Ethnic Studies related speakers and classes to campus, most of the speaking was done by members of the SOCC and the BSU. The leaders of these groups were angered by administration’s sudden interest in discussing African and Ethnic Studies after months of feeling ignored. 

Kristen Storms, co-founder of BSU and a leader in the push for African Studies said, addressing Penprase, “I think if this was an initiative [of the dean], then inquiry on your part should’ve happened. If that was inherently something SUA was already thinking about before student voices were raised,” Penprase would’ve been receptive once students began organizing, she said. 

In response to criticism from students for not being more responsive to the requests for African and Ethnic studies as well as excluding students from the process of implementing those courses, Penprase emphasized the “faculty governance structure.” 

“Ultimately you have to have faculty involved with championing these courses and bringing these things to us, because we have to rely on faculty to take charge of and ownership of our curriculum,” Penprase said. “That’s how our university is governed. So if there are faculty who have been working with you, they need to come forward with specific requests and we will support those. I have not heard those requests.” 

Both students and faculty dispute the claim that faculty have not come to Penprase with the need for African and Ethnic Studies. 

Christelle Inema, 2021, made a comment to Penprase and Feasel that the purpose of the meeting was not to engage with the student groups who had been organizing for months, but to gloss over the effort students had made toward improving their education. She said the administration’s response toward black students and students of color marginalized their voices. 

“We’re here because we don’t have a place in this university, especially in academia,” Inema said. “You talk about the need for us to be validated by the faculty when we have mobilized, got together, started this effort. You are constantly saying, ‘You need faculty with you, you need someone to validate your existence.’ Do we, every day, have to have people validate us for us to be humans?”

Inema and other students criticized administration for waiting until non-black students requested information about African and Ethnic Studies before those requests were taken seriously. 

Kiana Barrington, 2022, and a member of the BSU, said, “Black and brown students on this campus have been putting in the work to communicate the need for [African and Ethnic Studies]. It’s not been addressed,” Barrington said. “But now when we have other students who are Japanese, who are white [and aware of this need], now all of a sudden there’s a need to talk to the whole student body, not even just us [BSU and SOCC] who have been consistently making these conversations apparent on this campus. Now there’s that big conversation, now everyone needs to know about it, and that’s completely unfair.”

Feasel responded to Barrington’s comment: “All I can do is apologize. Now we want to try to meet the needs of what the students requesting.” 

The frustration present at the meeting had much to do with the fact that Soka students have spent months organizing for African and Ethnic studies without a satisfactory response from administration. 

The effort began when Victoria Huynh, 2021, and Storms, 2021, were inspired by classes that touched on the topics of African and Ethnic Studies – Storms, after a visiting Ghanaian professor taught a two-week African Studies course in February 2019, and Huynh after taking Asian American Activism, a class taught by an Asian American Studies professor. They were inspired by how the courses reflected their own experiences. 

At the most recent meeting with administration, Huynh explained the significance of Ethnic Studies for students of color. 

“The whole idea of ethnic studies is that students of color and black students are in charge of their education because for as long as we’ve known, our curriculum has always been centered on white voices,” she said. “The implications of having ethnic studies is more than just having a course. … The implications of ethnic studies is that students are able to assert their self-determination in deciding what they are taught, how they are taught, whether or not their voices are even heard in the same classrooms they’re trying so hard to reclaim their own being in.”

These are the reasons why the students also didn’t accept a course offered as African Studies this semester, which was taught by a white professor with many white authors assigned as readings. 

Since their organized efforts began last semester, the student groups have spent time researching, attending conferences, and educating themselves about African and Ethnic Studies, how they can be implemented and advocating for their implementation in Soka’s curriculum. The group also organized a conference in May 2019 to educate the school community on African and Ethnic Studies, which featured a presentation by Soka’s then-post doctoral fellow Laureen Hom about the history of Ethnic Studies and a speech by Storms about the need for African studies and better representation in academia for black students. 

The SOCC and BSU invited Penprase to this conference, but he did not attend due to schedule conflicts. The students involved in these groups also say he did not follow up with them after the conference. 

Following the end of the school year, Storms and Inema began a grant application to bring an African Studies professor to campus. But that grant was never submitted, because it required some funding from the university, which Storms claims Feasel denied. 

After the Wednesday meeting, both groups sent a “manifesto” outlining their concerns and demands to the student body as well as administration. 

“We should not be ashamed or hesitate to decolonize SUA, to make this institution live up to its foundational values,” a portion of the manifesto written by the BSU said. 

Read the full manifesto and list of demands here.

—With reporting by Abbie Malabuyoc

CORRECTION (11/21/19): A previous version of this article reported that the African Studies course being offered this semester included “predominantly white authors” as assignments. Upon review of the syllabus, there is a small majority of black authors assigned, and the article text has been updated accordingly.

One comment

  1. I wholeheartedly agreed with the push for more AAPI and African American voices in the academia at Soka. As someone who concentrated in humanities at Soka, it became more disheartening every year where the courseload was saturated with male, white voices in the curriculum, ie. 18th Century European Literature, or Shakespeare. Even Introduction to Art History centered around white, European male artists. But I didn’t have another option as these were the only courses available in the already small catalog of the Humanities concentration.

    The only time I heard a glimpse of myself represented was in the Asian American studies class. While it was a great class providing an overview of AAPI history, it is unfair that there so many classes dedicated to one male author or one century of white history, while the voices, discourse, and history of minorities get lumped together.

    The Black Student Union and Students of Color Coalition championing the push for African & Ethnic Studies are very inspiring for their tireless efforts, and I support their campaign wholely.

    Liked by 1 person

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