Prioritizing Ethnic Studies

How library workers can support the field

March 1, 2022

Academic Insights, by Raymond Pun, Melissa Cardenas-Dow, and Kenya S. Flash

Ethnic studies is a multifaceted field that connects to other academic disciplines such as history, religious studies, literature, sociology, political science, education, and health sciences. Not to be confused with area studies—the “systematic investigation of the particularities of various regions through deep knowledge of their histories, languages, and cultures,” such as Asian studies, Latin American studies, and African studies—ethnic studies examines the lived experiences of ethnic groups within the US and analyzes the roots of racial and ethnic inequalities and their contemporary impact. This understanding is especially important with the increasing significance of ethnic studies at the national level.

In August 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed California Assembly Bill 1460, requiring all students in the 23-campus California State University system to take a three-unit ethnic studies class—in Native American studies, African American and Black studies, Asian Pacific American studies, or Chicanx and Latinx studies.

During the 2021–2022 academic year, thousands of students enrolled in these courses in order to graduate. California’s community colleges require students to take an ethnic studies course as well, and the state has approved a K–12 ethnic studies curriculum.

In Illinois, Gov. J. B. Pritzker signed the TEAACH (Teaching Equitable Asian-American History) Act in July 2021 and mandated that public schools incorporate “a unit of instruction studying the events of Asian American history, including the history of Asian Americans in Illinois and the Midwest.” Other states passed or proposed similar bills in 2020.

While not every state has adopted an ethnic studies curriculum, it is time for libraries to create space for ethnic studies. Examples include committing to proactive, culturally competent outreach and engagement in these areas, expanding ethnic studies collections, supporting events and programs hosted by ethnic studies departments, and engaging with communities outside university and school walls.

Ethnic studies has long done the work of critical inquiry into racial injustice.

According to Christine E. Sleeter and Miguel Zavala’s Transformative Ethnic Studies in Schools: Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Research (Teachers College Press, 2020), ethnic studies “seeks to rehumanize experiences, challenge problematic Eurocentric narratives, and build community solidarity across difference.”

In 2020, the combined impact of police brutality against African Americans, the rise of anti-Asian violence and xenophobia, and other acts of white supremacy since the emergence of COVID-19 have forced us, as a profession and as a nation, to reckon with America’s history of systemic racism and violence toward communities of color. Ethnic studies has long done the work of critical inquiry into racial injustice from the past to the present, yet the engagement of libraries in this work is not comprehensive.

In light of many university libraries’ stated commitments to antiracism, library workers should explore ways that we can support departments that have long engaged in the work of challenging Eurocentric institutions. To do so, we should take a page from the mission and vision of ethnic studies as a discipline, examine long-held biases, and consider how we marginalize certain groups in our midst. What narratives do we propagate and support that contribute to ongoing subjugation at work? What counternarratives can we use instead? How can we engage to build a more just world?

The possibilities for collaboration are limitless. Making space in libraries for ethnic studies signals to students and faculty that these topics matter, their scholarship and education matter, and they belong in our academic community. Let’s not wait for more education bills to adopt an ethnic studies–focused approach that is humanizing. We can start making spaces now.

Raymond Pun, Melissa Cardenas-Dow, and Kenya S. Flash are coeditors of Ethnic Studies in Academic and Research Libraries (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2021).


Text graphic showing possible changes to Library of Congress Subject Headings, such as "undocumented immigrant" for "illegal alien."

Decolonizing the Catalog

RUSA webinar explores avenues for antiracist description

Academic Insights by Naomi Bishop

Fighting Medical Racism

Academic librarians have a role in educating students and faculty