Mara Cavallaro is El Tecolote’s Report for America Corps Member who reports on mental health and healthcare inequality in the Latinx community.
In the fall of 2018, Capuchino High School—one of seven in the San Mateo Union High School District—piloted an Ethnic Studies course. The entire freshman class was enrolled, and they were all taught by Jackie Rogers, who for multiple class periods a day, every day, welcomed 30 youngsters to their first academic discussions about identity, race, and gender. “I’m not your first Ethnic Studies teacher [though],” she would say. “Families, relatives, [and] ancestors” have all been teachers already. “Every single one of [you] has been doing Ethnic Studies before stepping into [this] space.”
At the end of the year, in a survey of the nearly 200 students in that first cohort, 85 percent said they would recommend the course to other students. 80 percent said the class helped them feel “more empowered in their education,” and nearly 70 percent felt more empowered in their communities. “I remember the kids being really excited,” Rogers says. “It was just wonderful. To provide this space for students … who may not have seen themselves in curriculum—[for them] to learn more about their histories … and feel affirmed for the beauty that they bring into the space.”
That spring, the school board approved the semester-long course as a graduation requirement for the entire district—following a rigorous course approval process. A few months after that, in the summer, the state of California made public its own draft curriculum. It seemed like mandatory Ethnic Studies was finally on the horizon—until misrepresentations of the course came rolling in. There were claims that the state model curriculum was anti-Semitic, that it was unbalanced, that it was too political. “Much of the backlash came from American Jewish Zionist groups who opposed the inclusion of Palestinian topics—including a mention of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement—within the Arab American studies portion of the Asian American module,” Jewish Currents reported in 2020.
Complaints forced the curriculum back into a revision process, where Arab American studies was removed from the Asian American module, and re-introduced in a new chapter called “Seeking Models of Inter-Ethnic Bridge Building.” Mentions of BDS, activists like Linda Sarsour, and Muslim-American congresswomen like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were erased completely. Almost all of the writers of the original curriculum—Ethnic Studies scholars—asked for their names to be removed from the new, final version.
When AB 101—the state bill requiring Ethnic Studies—was on track to be approved in October of 2020, Governor Newsom vetoed it because of the backlash. The bill wasn’t passed until a year later, with its revised model curriculum, in October of 2021. By then, Ethnic Studies had been running smoothly in the San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) for years. Thousands of first-years had taken the course.
But this year, amid a wider context of book bans, white supremacist historical erasure, and passage of ‘anti-Critical Race Theory’ legislation around the country, local backlash began to leak in. First, it was a Fox News article targeting the district’s director of Ethnic Studies, Dr. Samia Shoman—who also happens to be the only Palestinian, Muslim-American administrator in the SMUHSD. Fox News decried Shoman’s support for classroom analysis of “systemic racism and oppression” as an “extreme version of Black Lives Matter Curriculum,” and attempted to paint her as anti-Semitic for criticizing the Israeli government’s human rights abuses.
The rhetoric was all familiar. It featured the same mischaracterizations used to undermine the state’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) in 2020, and the same frameworks being pushed in Florida. “It’s the same thing. It was only a matter of time before [backlash] came to San Mateo, California,” Ligia Andrade Zúñiga, board vice president of the SMUHSD, told El Tecolote.
Then came the personal attacks.
“My work email was just full of hate mail,” Shoman says. “It was awful. Vile, dirty, gross, invoking me, my family, my kids, wishing death. All of those things.” It got so bad that the district had to place filters on her email, and delete her voicemail messages.
By the end of January, hundreds of copy-paste form letters had been sent to administration, demanding not only the removal of Shoman but an “update [to the] Ethnic Studies curriculum.” (Andrade Zúñiga, who combed through the emails, estimates that just five to ten percent were from parents who had kids in the district. Many were sent from established groups that opposed Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Theory. Others came from members of a local temple, where the template was distributed). According to the letter, Ethnic Studies placed too much emphasis on “oppression, colonization, resistance, and hegemony,” and should focus instead on the “contributions/accomplishments of ethnic groups,” outside of their “resistance.”
Strangely enough, the group leading this attack on Ethnic Studies in the SMUHSD is a non-profit called the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies (ACES), a Foster City-based group founded by Elina Kaplan, who does not have kids in the district. The organization, which urges concerned parents to facilitate meetings between ACES and their local districts, has adopted the very name of the anti-racist curricula it seeks to undermine. To do so is a strategic move in a state like California, where legislation has mandated Ethnic Studies as a graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2030, and where a state model curriculum includes the content they seek to remove. While erasure in Florida is explicit, here, it is more veiled.
ACES’ website lists, among other names, “alarming” historical figures referenced in Ethnic Studies curricula—like Angela Davis, bell hooks, Grace Lee Boggs, and Bobby Seale. Their alternate proposed list of “positive, non-violent, seminal role models” includes people like Condoleeza Rice, former National Security Advisor and proponent of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003—a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Like the form email sent to district board members, ACES has a problem with discussions about “power and oppression.” They oppose Critical Race Theory (a law school framework conflated by the right with anything that challenges racism embedded in present day institutions, including Ethnic Studies) but write that “supporting or opposing CRT has nothing to do with…whether one opposes racism.” They call for more “balance”—but what does balance really mean in discussions about structural injustice? It’s clear from their own lists which voices they seek to silence.
By definition, Ethnic Studies is a field that addresses content that has been missing from traditional curricula—an interdisciplinary study of history, institutions, power, race, and society that centers people of color. It is an anti-racist pedagogy—and being anti-racist requires discussion about structural injustice and resistance to it. “They don’t want us to use words like oppression, or racism, or indoctrination, or colonization,” Andrade Zúñiga says. “Sorry, but that’s what it is.”
In March, the district held a public school board “study session,” to address potential concerns with curriculum and educate people on what exactly Ethnic Studies was, since there seemed to be so much confusion. Teachers presented on the course’s core tenets and goals, including the “pursuit of justice and equity,” “greater inclusivity,” “developing a better understanding of others,” and “promoting self-empowerment.” They emphasized that contrary to backlash, Ethnic Studies curricula stood in defense of Jewish communities, and against anti-Semitism. Students spoke about their work in the class, from oral history projects interviewing grandparents to collaboration with Ramaytush Ohlone leaders to create a land acknowledgement. Survey data affirmed that a majority of students appreciated the course.
And yet, when it came time for public comment, some speakers called back again to mischaracterizations of Ethnic Studies to attack the class. One parent—who did not have kids in the district—complained that Ethnic Studies taught students “to be entitled.” Another speaker, Nadia Flamenco, in a comment seeping with bigotry, denounced the class as “pushing the transgender agenda.” Anti-semitism came up repeatedly, and one school board trustee, Jennifer Jacobson, questioned the course’s approval process (all guidelines had been carefully followed).
“I feel like [backlash] has always been there, but it’s been more emboldened with Donald Trump and [Governor Ron] DeSantis and the overturning of Roe vs. Wade—[by] a lot of these more extremist silencings of people,” Andrade Zúñiga told El Tecolote. Rogers, too, sees the backlash as in lockstep with educational erasures across the country. “Attacks on Ethnic Studies, Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ+ education, the AP African American History curriculum,” she lists. “It’s been really hard … for a lot of teachers.”
At the board study session, parents and educators who supported the course spoke too—and emphasized how kids felt empowered by Ethnic Studies. Joy Henry, whose daughter is a freshman at Mills High School, described how the class made her fifteen-year-old “feel heard and seen,” and taught her “history that include[d] her story.”
Alexandra Dove, who teaches Government and Economics at Mills, emphasized a point she has made over and over again—at every board meeting where claims of the curriculum’s anti-Semitism were voiced. “As a Jewish woman … it’s deeply upsetting to see my identity [and] my family’s lived experiences being used in a way to demonize the work that I believe so deeply in,” she said. “Not once have we ever denied the Jewish experience in light of other experiences … This is obviously a narrative that is being perpetuated throughout our community—and yet, there has never been a communication of incidents … We know that [in the United States] anti-Semitism is on the rise … I know that this is coming from places of trauma for those of you that are expressing that and I want to honor and validate that trauma that you are experiencing, because it is very hard to be a Jewish person in America right now. But this is not the class that is making it worse. This is the class that is making it better.”
Next week, on April 13, another public study session has been scheduled to address complaints—from largely the same parents and groups—about the district’s U.S. History curriculum, which includes LGBTQ+ history, disability history, and communities that have traditionally been underrepresented in curricula. Over the summer, there’ll be another one on Ethnic Studies, where again, the class will be held under a microscope.
“I hate the fact that I have to defend something that is so beautiful, that is so affirming, that is so necessary,” Rogers says. “There is joy [and] community in our classrooms that may not be the case in other ones. I think that’s the heart of Ethnic Studies. Action, community, critical thinking, discussion, joy, and love.”