Math is Ethnic Studies

Featured image is of a mancala game table. Mancala is an ancient math game originating in Ethiopia.

Recently, the work of the Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies Advisory Board has come under fire by conservative talk show hosts and Seattle’s own preeminent racist blogger, Melissa Westbrook. Critics accuse us of “dumbing down math.” Sitting school board director, Rick Burke’s wife, Lihn-Co Nguyen, has even hopped on the ethnic studies bashing.



Let’s take a minute to understand why these attacks are baseless and racist, shall we?

STEM so White

The teachers being considered for the 2019 STEM teacher awards in Washington State are 100% white. That’s not by accident. Several studies indicate that math and science tend to be white dominated spaces and research has linked this fact to the ways in which STEM fields devalue Black and Brown identities. While there are disparate outcomes by race for all standardized tests, math scores for students of color consistently remain far lower than other tested subjects.

Study after study tell us that how young people of color view themselves as mathematicians is key to their success in math courses. This applies to all subjects. That’s why you’ll often hear history teachers say things like, “Let’s think like historians!” Students of music who consider themselves musicians probably do better than those who don’t. Even in science, students have fun when they put on the white lab coat and do experiments. In that case, they can literally see themselves as scientists. Why would it be different for math?

Math is “Objective”

Part of the reason people don’t think identity is important in math is because it’s seen as the most objective subject in school. Math is math. There’s one right answer. Math is the “universal language.” I’m not arguing with any of those statements, but math is most certainly NOT objective, especially when it’s operationalized. And guess what? Teaching math is operationalizing math. When teachers choose not to include how identities matter in math, they are teaching a biased, politicized form of math. When we give the impression (or overtly state) that math originates from European sources (even the word “mathematics” comes from a Greek word), we are stealing the rich mathematical histories of students of color from them and we are lying to white students.

When we teach math using pedagogy and instructional strategies that focus on individual learning and achievement, we are ignoring the ways in which most students of color learn – collaboratively and collectively. We use word problems that are completely disconnected from the lived experiences of students of color. We don’t teach them how math can inform and transform their lives and their communities. Black and Brown people are completely erased from math and math is irrelevant to their lives in our current math practices.

And while math may be a universal language, there are different ways to learn about, conceptualize, and solve equations that are based on culture. There’s an entire sub-field of study called ethnomathematics. Not only does ethnomathematics center math learning in cultural traditions and knowledge, it teaches us that math looks and operates differently in different cultures. Consider the Aztec base 20 system of math. Instead of doing calculations and writing out numbers in units of 10, or decimals, Aztecs (Nahuatl) used 20 as a base unit. If we teach students there are many ways to get to the “right answer,” not only will they learn their cultural roots as mathematicians, they will also understand number sense better because they will be able to define it from multiple perspectives, or approaches.

a visualization of the Aztec base 20 system

Oppression in Math

“Western” math – the base 10 system (which actually comes from ancient India)- is not the only math. The fact that so few people understand there are other ways of “doing” math means that math has been used to erase the histories of communities, people, and empires of color. That is oppression. The fact that kids of Latinx descent don’t know their ancestors invented zero is oppression. Causing people to believe that only people of European descent had anything important to say or teach about math is racism.

Science, and by extension math, have most certainly been used in more overt, nefarious forms of racism. Consider the Tuskegee Experiment, the story of Henrietta Lacks, and the debunked “science” of eugenics. Math was used to disenfranchise Black voters as late as the 1960s. Math is used in the War on Drugs in which the weight and type of drug is used in sentencing guidelines that disproportionately imprison Black and Brown offenders for longer sentences.

When Black and Brown students learn math through an ethnic studies pedagogy, it is an act of liberation. Undoing the colonization of math as a “Western” concept is resistance. Becoming a mathematician as a person of color is taking action against a system that heavily privileges white people, especially white men. Ethnic studies belongs in math just as much, if not more so, as it does in history.

Published by

Tracy Castro-Gill

WAESN Co-Founder & Executive Director| 2019 PSESD Regional Teacher of the Year| Learning for Justice Advisory Board Member| PhD Candidate

2 thoughts on “Math is Ethnic Studies”

  1. Word problems tend to be completely disconnected from the lived experiences of ALL students because they are intended to capture time and motion.

    Yes, mathematics is a Greek word. Algebra is an Arabic word. Many prominent historical contributors to mathematics had Greek or Roman names. Anyone with a basic knowledge of ancient history will provide the additional context that those individuals were often from North Africa (e.g. Carthage, Alexandria) or Phoenicia or Persia, and were of varied ethnicities. Greece and Rome dominated those parts of the ancient world politically and socially, with names being European without signifying anything about actual identity.

    I wrote about that a little more here, Are ancient African mathematicians acknowledged in the history of mathematics?. It would be helpful if math teachers and textbooks mentioned this sort of historical background. They did in the past, e.g. Apostol’s Algebra that was widely used in the 1950s – 1970s.


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