BHS Arab-American recognition is crucial

Berkeley High School is exceptional among American high schools for its history as the first to have an African American Studies Department, voluntarily desegregate, require ethnic studies credits for graduation, and for its numerous ethnic studies classes which serve to elaborate upon and correct the limited, traditional narrative of American history and literature. Through classes that center Latinx, Chicanx, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and African American perspectives, students at BHS gain a deeper understanding of the communities that surround them. However, the stories of Arab-Americans remain relatively absent from the classroom. Berkeley Unified School District must include a more tailored curriculum of ethnic studies that represents its Arab-American community.

In 2019, when the California Department of Education (CDE) assembled the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Council (ESMAC), a body tasked with developing the state’s model for ethnic studies education, the curriculum they proposed included teaching about notable Arab-American leaders such as Edward Said, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. However, the Instructional Qualities Commision (IQC) that advises the Department of Education in California removed Arab-American studies from the curriculum draft, according to The Regulatory Review. This resulted in the “original committee members and curriculum writers (requesting) that their names be removed from the revised draft. The revisions, they alleged, did not reflect the pedagogy or mission of ethnic studies,” according to The Regulatory Review. Because of this failure to commit to the progressive principles that made California such a notable bastion for Ethnic Studies, Southwest Asian and North African students are left underrepresented. 

However, BUSD still has the opportunity to correct the shortcomings of the state and implement more Arab-American education in its own Ethnic Studies program, as it would deliver its student body the education they’re owed. The importance of Ethnic Studies has already been made apparent through the years of advocacy at Berkeley and elsewhere: students benefit from the inclusion of historically marginalized perspectives. According to a 2011 report prepared by Christine Sleeter for the National Education Association, Ethnic Studies helps develop a strong sense of identity and cultural awareness among students. Historically marginalized youths are empowered by learning about their communities’ contributions to society, culture, and their resistance to systemic, racialized oppression in America. The classroom’s lack of representation for the most iconic Arab-American leaders leaves Arab students one step further removed from access to their history and continually marginalized by the very institution that is responsible for ensuring their success.

Arab-American Heritage Month has passed this year by with little commemoration from BHS and BUSD, besides a set of resources shared by the Commissioner of Multicultural Affairs and another shared on the district’s website. It is clear that there needs to be more done to serve the community of Arab learners in Berkeley. There is a tangible need for representation. Like any other community, Arab-Americans deserve to have their contributions taught about and their perspectives considered in an academic setting.