Scrolling through Missouri State University’s course catalog, students have likely seen African American Studies in the class offerings. It’s at the top of the alphabetical list, after all.
But if you’re not African American, the class wouldn’t be interesting to you, right?
Sophomore psychology major Amber Dixon says otherwise. She said the class is for everyone.
“I think it’s beneficial for everyone to learn about African American history,” Dixon said. “All through primary and secondary school, you don’t learn about it as much.”
Dixon enrolled in Introduction to African American Studies in fall 2018.
She said the class covers much of black history in America, from slavery to current events.
“I think it would be good for anyone to take it because you don’t really get to focus on African Americans in other history classes,” Dixon said.
Jacynda Ammons serves on the Diversity Council for the College of Humanities and Public Affairs, the goal of which, according to Ammons, is to promote retention among students from historically underrepresented groups. Ammons has been teaching AAS 100 at MSU since fall 2017, and she says it’s no accident the class focuses so much on history.
“If you do not have the historic background to racial discrimination and how African Americans historically resisted systems of discrimination, then you cannot understand modern problems revolving around race and what forms of resistance have historically worked,” Ammons said.
For Dixon’s class in particular, most of the students enrolled were black. She said there were only a few white students and students of other races. Because of this, Dixon thinks it really means something for someone of a different race to enroll in the class.
“It just shows that they are eager to learn about our history,” Dixon said.
When a majority of the students in a class are the same race, she said, it can lead to an overall consensus reigning over class discussions.
“If someone had a different opinion, they might have been hesitant to talk about it or everybody would be quick to deny their opinion,” Dixon said.
It’s not always a bad thing for a class to have a majority race, though, Dixon said, because of a mutual understanding you have with your classmates. She said she’s glad her class had majority black people because she got to be surrounded by people who are just like her.
“You can connect a bit more,” Dixon said. “I’d hate to be in an African American Studies class and be the only black person.”
At the same time, she said it’s good to have students of different races in AAS classes because it can foster a diverse environment with lots of different opinions.
Senior psychology major Marye’ah Young took the class in fall 2018 as well. A lot of her experiences mirror Dixon’s; both students think everyone should take the class.
Ammons echoed both students’ thoughts. She said her sections of AAS 100 include students from many disciplines.
“There is no one way to describe students who take AAS 100,” Ammons said. “It is made up of a variety of students from a variety of backgrounds and majors.”
However, Young’s class did not have the same demographics as Dixon’s. Young estimated her class to have about 30% black students, 65% white students and 5% students of other races.
Young said she could feel the class discussion leaning a certain way, despite the class’s demographics.
When the class covered certain topics, Young explained, the discussion was centered mostly on the black students. Sometimes it felt like it wasn’t a full class discussion, she said; it was mostly the black students talking.
She thinks her class would benefit if more people spoke their minds.
“It’s more so (about) getting people out of their comfort zone, to feel comfortable to have such dialogue with everybody,” Young said. “It’s a safe space. We’re all supposed to feel like we can voice our opinions about various topics and not feel judged.”
Young thinks it’s important to analyze the racial breakdown of a class like AAS 100 because as a whole, students need to be more educated about different cultures and racial backgrounds.
On the other hand, Ammons thinks looking at the racial breakdown of a class is not always a good thing.
“I do not go into the class counting students based on race,” Ammons said. “Quite frankly, knowing the ways in which African Americans and individuals from other underrepresented groups have been categorized or labeled with the ultimate purpose of creating some type of system to discriminate against them, it makes me uncomfortable to think anyone is going into a classroom trying to count their students by race or ethnicity.
“It would also be presumptuous of me to assume how any student wants to identify racially, nor should they be required to do so in any class,” Ammons said.
In understanding all facets of an issue like university racial demographics, Ammons said it is sometimes appropriate to scrutinize racial breakdown of a given class. She pointed out any racial analysis will be affected by the fact that Missouri State is a predominantly white university.
“If any class lacks diversity… we should care about why,” Ammons said. “If it is because a student feels they are going to be discriminated against in some way, then that would need to be addressed. That should be the case for any class.”
Ultimately, Young wants to see more classes with blended history lessons, where students can learn more than just the historical interactions between black and white people. There are plenty of other groups who have contributed to American history than just those two races, she said, just like there are way more demographics making up America. She pointed to Chinese and Mexican American history in particular.
“That knowledge is important,” Young said, “because throughout (other) history classes, we’re always learning about the same people, learning the same things. Sometimes I feel like history is whitewashed, meaning it is always about white history.”
She wants to see a more expansive education in elementary, middle and high schools. For Young, the same thing needs to happen in universities’ gen-ed systems.
Ammons holds the same sentiment, and she said African American history and other underrepresented group histories have been undervalued at all levels of education.
“The contributions of African Americans in all aspects of history, culture, religion, politics and anything else you can think about have not been represented in curriculum at any level, or what is presented is uneven,” Ammons said. “African American history is only talked about in February and then it is not inclusive.
“I could go on and on about the things people are under-educated about, and that fact alone shows why African American history is a significant part of United States and world history. We see not only a lack of information, but a complete misrepresentation of African American history and culture every day. This will not stop until African American history is valued more and a required part of educational curriculum starting in Pre-K. The history of all groups of people should be represented as much as possible in all applicable classes,” Ammons said.
Young thinks there should be more sections for AAS 100 because a limited number of seats can reduce the number of students who can take the class. On top of that, Young wants to see more classes similar to AAS 100 offered at MSU, such as a class on American Latino history class because it is important for her to learn more about different racial and ethnic groups.
Currently, MSU does not offer a Latin American Studies Class. Students can find similar classes on the Missouri State course catalog at https://www.missouristate.edu/registrar/catalog/.
At the end of the day, Young wants to see a more diverse group of students taking African American Studies classes in the future.
“As a whole, everybody needs to learn about the culture,” Young said.
Ammons’ sentiments reflect those of Young.
“The idea is for everyone to learn more, and I encourage discussion of any topic,” Ammons said. “If we do not talk and learn more, all of the same assumptions, stereotypes, ignorance and equality will continue.”