March 15, 2017

Why Ethnic Studies Matters to Me

by Stephanie Vo-Nguyen
Portland Public School student

Social studies has always been my favorite subject. As a student in elementary school, I was always inquisitive and eager to learn more about the history of my country. As years passed, I solidified my sense of ethnic identity as an American born Vietnamese, and because conversations about these subjects arose, I educated myself on concepts like racism and privilege. With this new knowledge, my fondness for history was no longer the same as before. I understood that in its purest form, the art of teaching history is a dialogue. I only heard monologues.

An undeniably vast portion of American history is attributed to people of color. But these stories of discoveries and researches, resilience and liberation all seemed like missing pieces to the puzzle that is America. This lack of acknowledgement applies to marginalized groups like women and the LGBTQ+ community as well. America’s clandestine history of systemic oppression, institutionalized racism, and white privilege, among other things, have been concealed for too long. These concepts must be taught to students, because so much of it is reflected in our lifetime. For students to properly understand the shape of our society and country as it is today, we must properly be taught, without bias and erasure, the history that partook in the shaping.

Allowing students to learn about multiple perspectives of history, especially those of their own backgrounds, serves as a catalyst for the refining of students’ identities. Already aware of the impact that Vietnam had on United States history, I was excited and expected to learn more about the war that my grandpas and uncles fought in, only to be disappointed by the few pages in my textbook that had any information about it, with little of it new to me. It was only in my ethnic studies class was I able to see the Vietnam war in a different light. My parents emigrated from post war Vietnam; learning about boat people in ethnic studies felt like learning something about my own self that I never knew. Why was this required class, with the guise of “US history” only having me listen to, read, and see white history? Why did I have to take an elective to learn about the history of my people, despite the large role that it played on America?

My previous schools made efforts to promote unity and diversity, and I had always been proud of my heritage. Year after year of not seeing faces that looked like me or hearing stories that sounded like my family’s, how could I possibly tell myself that my culture- my identity- was beautiful, valid, and worthy?

I find it to be an incredible injustice to the rich history of America for students to learn a single, condensed collection of facts. A (multiperspective) United States history or ethnic studies class has the potential to provide a powerful and critical lens for teachers and students alike. This “lens” allows us to zoom in and focus, as well as occasionally widen our view to see the whole picture. During a time when so many high school students are socially conscious and in touch with their heritage, an inclusive, thorough understanding of race, oppression, identity, and history is not a luxury, but a right.

One of APANO's 2017 policy priorities is HB 2845 Ethnic Studies. This bill would direct Oregon's Department of Education to add and adopt “Ethnic Studies” standards to the current social studies standards for Oregon public K - 12 schools by 2020, as well as document the department's progress of the standards implementation. For more information on our policy advocacy work or to get involved, contact Policy Director Zahir Janmohamed at