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Reading A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki as a young American who was taught to believe the United States is “the land of opportunity,” contained information that was unsettling and surprising.  The same difficulties facing peoples in courses I have taken in African American Studies, Women’s Studies, International Studies, History, Psychology and Political Science were described by Takaki as problems faced in multicultural America.  Thus; I concluded, that the same ethnocentric tendencies described by my former global studies Professor, Dr. Joseph Elder in his 2002 paper, “Language, Identity, and Cultural Superiority,” occur repeatedly over time, as the case in Takaki’s A Different Mirror.

In order to gain an understanding of United States’ past and present from a multicultural perspective, it is essential to identify the conflicts between and among peoples to assess how the mentality develops that sets one group against another.  Joseph Elder discusses the concepts which divide people into groups based upon language, culture, and identity.  He asserts that, “From birth, a child attaches itself to the group its family members belong to, adapts their customs, and eventually begins to view other individuals, groups, and their customs as incorrect. Typically, the boundaries of the child’s “we/us” and “they/them” usage are provided by the child’s immediate language teachers: parents, relatives, playmates, neighbors, etc. The child learns who “we are” from those around it.  And, typically, emotional overtones are added to the “we-they” distinction: What “we” do is correct, natural, and superior– our ways of speaking, eating, washing, dressing, worshiping, etc. Typically, what “they” do is incorrect, unnatural, inferior– their ways of speaking, eating, washing, dressing, worshiping, etc. The virtually universal, fundamental conceptual distinction between “we” and “they” provides a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for ethnocentrism” (Elder, 2002, p. 1).  Dr. Elder provides the description of a complex phenomenon that becomes more difficult to analyze in literature or reality.  Takaki’s text is filled with examples of the ways ethnocentric thought processes have caused conflict for peoples in the history of the United States.  Takaki supports this notion when he cites the work of Edward Said to argue that Asians became the “the Other” upon their arrival in the United States (Takaki, 2008, p. 175).

Each chapter and story of Takaki’s text makes certain to portray perspectives of both the conqueror and the conquered in order to convey the broader implications of difference, fear, and power struggles among cultures as he communicates these histories.  In the example of the Puritan attempt to take Indian lands, Takaki explains that Puritans legitimized their aggressive behavior towards Indians by viewing them as “savages” and “born devil” (Takaki, 2008, p. 42.).  If Indians could be viewed as entities Puritans found sinful, as opposed to fellow humans, Puritans would not be morally required to respect their rights as human beings.  But, Takaki (2008) also cites evidence from the captivity story of British woman, Mary Rowlandson, that was proof that the negative ideas portrayed by Puritans about Indians were not always true (p.44).   Rather, a Narragansett woman had been kind and hospitable to Mary during her captivity (Takaki, 2008, p. 44).  Mary’s observations of the Narrgansetts as decent humans could not be accepted by the British, because in order for one group of people to remain in power, the other must be considered “the outsider.”  While the combating groups in each chapter’s examples are different, the same ethnocentric ideas apply.

Each time a weaker or less advantaged group of people, whether they were immigrants or African Americans, attempted to attain rights from voting, citizenship, increased wages, or property ownership, the upper class white men with power to control legislation limited minority options.  One of the most devastating laws for immigrants was a “1770 law” that “restricted citizenship to “whites” (Takaki, 2008, p. 190). This meant that immigrants could not be protected by federal law (Takaki, 2008, p. 191).  In addition, the longer those in power prevented immigrants from becoming citizens, the longer they would be limited from having voting rights, which would lead to any significant chance for implementing change.  Being aware of this discouraging cycle of the powerful controlling most aspects of society, Takaki leads most Americans to question; and, perhaps reassess their notions of the American dream, the national motto, and the contents of The Bill of Rights.

I can still see, smell, and even feel my eighth grade American history classroom on the day we were required to recite the second paragraph of The Declaration of Independence. That was the first day that chills ran through my body as I spoke the words:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident-that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. “ (Kindig, Thomas, 1995, para. 2) It wasn’t until later that I realized these dreams and possibilities are available to few; and, in fact, the men I had been taught to admire for creating this great nation had intended this exclusivity. But, Takaki is careful to paint any historical figure as martyr or victim.

Ronald Takaki succeeds in writing a history that provides a variety of perspectives.  While a reader might find it difficult to empathize with one side of a debate, Takaki  is careful to insert letters, songs, and emotional components that remind each person to consider aspects of lives that are often forgotten or difficult to conceptualize.  Although it’s impossible to go back in time and live the lives of Americans past, Takaki does his best to allow readers to walk in the shoes of his historical figures.  In this way it becomes a little bit easier to see how difficult it is to accept difference and change.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars