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On the Critical Importance of Ethnic Studies

This post is written by NCTE member, Christina V. Cedillo, PhD, and Dr. Cedillo’s student, Kimberly S. Covert, University of Houston–Clear Lake. 

With thanks to Iris Ruiz and Alexandra Hidalgo

Christina V. Cedillo

Those of us from minority backgrounds often fail to see ourselves in our school texts, let alone have opportunities to engage with the kinds of knowledge that meaningful representation makes possible. By that we mean representation that transcends mere depiction to encourage meaningful engagement with and reflection on diverse experiences and ways of knowing. As educators we must provide students with texts that reflect their respective backgrounds and engage the perspectives they bring to the classroom.

Assimilation creates problems that negatively affect minority students’ learning. Rather than inspiring democratic pluralism or positive identification, assimilation incites prejudice and conflict (Chun & Choi, 2003). Due to attendant pressures, minority students experience the “academic performance burden” of needing to challenge stereotypes entertained by teachers and peers (Owens & Lynch, 2012). When schools force white mainstream culture on minority students, resentment “can result in poor school performance due to anxiety or as an act of conscious or unconscious resistance” (Ogbu & Simons, 1998, p. 182). “Resistance cultures” allow students to reject assimilation but can also lead to academic setbacks for those not wishing to be seen as abandoning their cultures (Kauchak & Eggen, 2014).

Kimberly S. Covert

Lack of diversity in textbooks and classroom approaches reinforces the harm caused by assimilation, but this is also bolstered by superficial representation in multicultural texts that privilege dominant culture norms (Yoon, Simpson, & Haag, 2011). Surface-level nods to multiculturalism are not enough, especially when “[t]raditional multicultural education . . . teach[es] a degree of understanding of the experiences of others [without] sufficiently challenging personal belief systems or promoting others” (Wayman, 2002, p. 5). Thus, we argue for a critical Ethnic Studies approach that works to “create diverse and inclusive classroom environments that promote learning and activism” for all students (NCTE Position Statement, 2015).

In fostering students’ appreciation for the unique worldviews and practices integral to their home cultures, teachers can show respect for students’ “home places” and recognize their own positionality as members of cross-cultural communities (Royster, 1996). They can also advance rhetorical awareness that makes transcultural repositioning possible. Transcultural repositioning involves being able to “move back and forth with ease and comfort between and among different languages and dialects, different social classes, different cultural and artistic forms” in order to “open the door to different ways of seeing and thinking about the increasingly fluid and hybridized world that is emerging all around us” (Guerra, 2004, p. 8). Inviting Ethnic Studies into the classroom helps educators foster respectful learning environments while promoting vital communication skills.

Ethnic Studies is needed because discrimination is still cited as a main cause of minority students’ lack of school engagement. As Victor Villanueva cautions, “A simple celebration of cultural multiplicity while maintaining the literacy practices that have maintained the subjugation of too many of America’s people of color is insufficient” (2002, p. 46–47). Teachers must go beyond recognition of diversity to become aware of their own acculturation into systems of bias. In this way we can more productively address inequities in our educational system and our nation more broadly.


Chun, C. A., & Choi, J. M. (2003). The violence of assimilation and psychological well-being. In E. M. Kramer (Ed.), The emerging monoculture: Assimilation and the “model minority” (75–84). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Guerra, J. C. (2004). Emerging representations, situated literacies, and the practice of transcultural repositioning. In M. H. Kells, V. Ballester, & V. Villanueva (eds.), Latino/a discourses: On language, identity, and literacy education (7–23). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton.

Kauchak, D., & Eggen, P. (2014). Introduction to teaching: Becoming a professional. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). NCTE position statement in support of ethnic studies initiatives in the K–12 curricula. Retrieved from

Ogbu, J. U., & Simons, H. D. (1998). Voluntary and involuntary minorities: A cultural-ecological theory of school performance with some implications for education. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 29(2), 155–188.

Owens, J., & Lynch, S. M. (2012). Black and Hispanic immigrants’ resilience against negative-ability racial stereotypes at selective colleges and universities in the United States. Sociology of Education, 85(4), 303–325.

Royster, J. J. (1996). When the first voice you hear is not your own. College Composition and Communication, 47(1), 29–40.

Villanueva, V. (2002). When the multicultural leaves the race: Some common terms reconsidered. In R. Yagelski & S. A. Leonard (Eds.), The relevance of English: Teaching that matters in students’ lives (36–51). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Wayman, J. C. (2002, April 1–5). Student perceptions of teacher ethnic bias: Implications for teacher preparation and staff development. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.

Yoon, B., Simpson, A., & Haag, C. (2010). Assimilation ideology: Critically examining underlying messages in multicultural literature. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 54(2), 109–118.

Christina V. Cedillo is Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Houston–Clear Lake, where she teaches courses in basic and advanced writing.

Kimberly S. Covert is currently an undergraduate student working for her Bachelor of Science degree in Early Childhood Education at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She has a passion for learning and helping others and hopes to inspire her future students to always be the best that they can be.