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History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki Essay


The Book’s Focus

Ronald Takaki’s book ‘A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America’ is predominantly concerned with the perspectives of minority groups about multicultural America. The book handles the topics of Jews, Chicanos, Mexicans, Japanese, Native Americans, Chinese, African-Americans, and people of the Irish originality. The history of all these people comprising the American diversity is addressed from pre-to-post slavery historic period. The author also ties the multicultural history of people comprising American diversity with a thorough analysis of the place they are at the time of writing his book. The book is organized such that every chapter addresses the history of a particular ethnic group coupled with covering the attitudes of the public towards a certain minority group over a given chronological period. Other issues relating to specific minority groups in every chapter include public policy, attitudes developed by the minority groups towards their conditions, and laws that are enacted against or for the minority group under scrutiny.

Research Questions

A recurring theme in the book is the attitude of ‘us against those others’ developed by structures of rule. Therefore, among the many research questions introspected by Ronald Takaki, two questions are profound. These are:

  1. What does it mean to be an American?
  2. What historic path has one gone through to fit in the current definition of an American? Responding to this question, Ronald Takaki is prompted to recount the visit, political, and economic history of the non-Anglo people of the United States.

Methodology

The main methodology adopted by Takaki to approach his broad subject is making use of various telegrams, folk songs, poetry, photographs, and even letters within the texts of his book as the main primary sources. He does this to evidence the cultural diverseness of the American people. One of the songs that are meaningful to me include “Down the railroad, um-huh Well, raise the iron, um-huh Raise the iron, um-huh”1. Black railroad workers sang this song during the slavery period. It reflects the ideologies of diversity differences among the Americans often leading to perceptions that blacks were inferiors who could only serve as slaves, a perception that has changed since the invention.

Master Narrative of American History

In the development of his main concepts in the book ‘A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural’, Takaki sets the stage by recounting the conversation he held with a Taxi driver chauffeuring him to the hotel “to attend a conference on multiculturalism”2. The main concept driven home by Takaki’s book is that the master narrative of America is dominated by racism. Therefore, he sees some Americans as having narrowed “but widely shared a sense of the past – a history that has viewed Americans as Europeans in ancestry”3. In the conversation, the racial divide between Takaki (Japanese in origin) and the taxi driver (Native American) becomes conspicuous. From this fundamental perception of racial differences, Takaki acquires a starting point to peruse the economic, political, and social differences of other Americans referred to as the minority groups in the book.

The reason why he sees the master narrative’s definition of who an American is as “narrow” is that it introduces perceptions of the race when attempting to understand the building blocks of the American population. Under such circumstances, the historic American is defined as ‘white’. However, Takaki disagrees with this definition claiming, “America has been racially diverse since its very beginning on the Virginia shore, and this reality is increasingly becoming visible and ubiquitous”4. Therefore, he overrules the perception that other groups constituting the minorities are aliens to America by arguing out that, in some major cities of America such as Atlanta, California, and others, the minorities are becoming the majority. According to him, such changes in demographics raise questions on the actual identity and culture of the American people, which is an attempt to juggle with the subject of the actual meaning of being an American. Precisely, he argues, “The deeper significance of America’s becoming a majority nonwhite society is what it means to the national psyche, to individuals’ sense of themselves, and their nation – their idea of what it is to be American’’5. The implication here is that a single racial parameter cannot define the American culture or ethical groups’ culture. America is a multicultural nation.

Takaki believes that history is crucial in helping the Americans unite in a bid to see themselves as having a common past. The argument is implied when the author reckons, “telling of stories liberates”6. However, he appreciates that some people may see that some of the stories about the dark past of some minority groups are not worth telling. Unfortunately, this presents a drawback to the efforts for people to come to terms with their identity, which helps to construct the modern multicultural identity of America as a whole while integrated within the identities of other people. Therefore, through history, often told through narratives, Takaki asserts that it is possible for “people who have lived America’s history, including my taxi driver, to understand that Americans originated from many shores and that all of us are entitled to dignity”7.

This case is the implication of Natalia Molina’s book ‘Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939’. Much similar to the quests of Takaki’s book, Molina peruses various experiences of Mexicans, Chinese, and Japanese in an attempt to show how they were racialized. As an extension of Takaki’s arguments that telling the history of minority groups in America helps in the institutionalization of reformed America in which all identities of people terming themselves as Americans can be treated with dignity and without racial bias, Molina tells the history of the minority groups living in America from a different angle. Precisely, Molina explains how health findings fail to portray the actual data to pursue various racial objectives as opposed to health initiatives through “generating practices that embed racial logic in their institutional culture”8. Hence, the 19th-century health policies have the impacts of segregating the minority groups living in America.

For instance, Molina clearly explains that, through racial discourses, Chinese living within LA were portrayed as dirty and disease carriers who served to threaten the health of LA’s indigenous residents. This stereotype association forms the basis for undermining the economic propensity of the Chinese entrepreneur’s9. Considering Molina’s racial historical accounts of the Chinese in the 19th century, Takaki’s argument that some Chinese may not have anything good to tell about their past makes sense. Nevertheless, it is also through these dark past tales, “the people of America’s diverse groups can see themselves and each other in our common past”10. Therefore, in Takaki’s history of the past, all Americans can celebrate living in a subcontinent that has a crisscross of cultures. The past of the diverse groups of people living in America helps to evidence that America has been dominated by racism in the past, a mistake that will never have to be repeated. Additionally, it also helps to affirm that the central philosophy of the American is to struggle for equality and hence instill a big hope among all Americans irrespective of their identities. They have a permanent home in America.

William Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’

Takaki discusses various efforts to institutionalize a nation that appreciates the diversity of all people making it. For instance, in “Foundations”, Takaki argues that William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ “can be approached as a fascinating tale that served as a masquerade for the creation of a new society in America” in the 17th century11. ‘The Tempest’ is arguably a recount of the experiences that English men encountered while dealing with the onset of new inhabitants-often generalized as Caliban. In this line of argument, Takaki posits, “the circumstances surrounding the play determined the meaning of the utterances they (English men) heard”12. He interprets Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’ not only from the paradigms of imperialism but also from paradigms of English influences on aiding to construct the American identity on racial backgrounds.

The central questions that arise from the characterization of Caliban are the choices that were being made by the audience of Shakespeare and himself while deciding on how to characterize them. Ideally, in the play, Caliban was people thought of living outside the sphere of civilization. Based on this assertion, Takaki argues, “One of the places the English people were colonizing at the time was Ireland, and Caliban seemed to resemble the Irish”13. Indeed, according to him, Irish, Indians, and Africans were like (or could have been) Caliban in the eyes of English men. He argues this way because English people viewed all these groups of people as having similar characteristics: they were salvages. In particular, the Irish were largely compared to Caliban in that the stereotyped white race argued that their organizations were largely tribal coupled with the possession of nomadic herding techniques. Christianity was also collectively stereotyped as being exterior and grounded on the roots of paganism. Besides, Takaki argues, “To the colonists, the Irish lacked knowledge of God or good manners”14.

This means that they were lesser human beings who lacked dignity. This perhaps justifies the English men’s violence against the Irish people, which was also replicated in the altitudes of the English people towards Indians and Africans. The main aim for acerbating violence towards the ‘Caliban’ was to instill a strong sense of fear, which white colonizers argued was necessary to teach them obedience and compliance to the allocated duties. Arguably, this was the highest level of negligence of human rights. Surprisingly, the narrow-minded master narrative of America attributes the identity of the Americans to this brutal perceived superior white race in the colonization era! The argument raised above on segregation of people based on race by Takaki also attracts the attention of Mae Ngai in her book ‘Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America’. Arguably, perplexed by the revelation of undue treatments of the ‘Caliban, Mae Ngai endeavors to introspect the origin of these perceived ‘inferior’ human races in America. She attributes the origin of immigrants to the US to activities that were driven by political influences guided by the individualist need for boosting the southeastern region’s political economy. Analogous to her argument, Takaki confirms that Indians, Japanese, Chinese, and Africans essentially served as slaves.

Takaki’s Contradictions

Amid the racial bias acerbated by Americans against the minority groups in historic America, there was no way that the then people fitting the definition of ‘an American’ could have prevented the aliens from colonizing their land because they were much needed to provide cheap labor that was necessary for boosting productivity. In fact, in ‘Contradictions’, Takaki argues, “The market revolution created an even more diverse American population”15 because many people from diverse cultural and racial backgrounds were brought into the American industries in the agri-business sector. However, their experience with the institutionalized racist society was not welcoming. On one hand, Indians were traded as slaves. They were shipped from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and from Atlantic to pacific. Thousands of these people have moved far away from their native home, which was principally America. Indeed, opposed to the perception of history that Christopher Columbus discovered America, Indians had long before settled on the American soil as their home.

Thus, it was shameful to subject them to racism while in their land. On the other hand, American Japanese have a dark past to remember since they served as the white man’s slaves similar to Indians. They were often engaged in menial jobs that were paid poorly. The Japanese song, “…A railroad worker that’s me! I am great…a railroad worker. Complaining: It is too hot! It is too cold! It rains too often! It snows too much! They all ran off I alone remained. I am a railroad worker!”16, provides evidence for this claim. Arguably, while their white master men engaged the Japanese people in rail building, the American government in the agribusiness sector17 exploited Mexicans and other Asian immigrants (such as Indians) optimally. The institutionalization of racism then backed up this issue. Contextualization of these arguments by both authors about the past of minority groups in the US incites vivid pictures of mistreatments and denial of human dignity.

Takaki’s Transitions

In ‘Transitions’, Takaki focuses on the history of the immigrants of the United States at the end of the 1890s and the end of the U.S. frontier. Besides, he gives an account of the emergence of an overseas American empire and the influx of new immigrants from Japan, Russia, and Mexico. Many reasons prompted these people to inhabit America. Among the reasons for immigration included running away from famine and war. In Germany, there was political unrest. This caused a large number of people to seek refuge in the United States. Coupled with the Irish people, these groups of immigrants faced various challenges among them being discrimination and racism18. This often led to the justification of their exploitation in forced and poorly paid labor. However, in the modern days, the position of all these immigrants has changed with their identities contributing towards the creation of a multicultural America.

The Revised Edition ‘A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural’

Indeed, in the revised version of ‘A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural’, which was published in 2008, Takaki includes new writing on the influx of Vietnamese and Afghan refugees. The overall impact of these refugees is to create diverse societies, which present the face of the world in America better.

Challenges to Takaki’s Master Narrative of American History

Stemming from the discussion of Takaki, America has taken a lot of time to come to terms with the fact that it has to embrace the spirit of multiculturalism. The situation has called for many fights aimed at making sure that people are accorded equal rights irrespective of their race and cultural affiliations. While Takaki views the experiences of the minority groups as widely being shaped by racism and discrimination, considering Chavez’s work on ‘Negotiating Conquest Genders and Power in California, l770s to 1880s’, which is based on demographic factors such as gender, the situation is not even better. In his book, Chavez-Garcia argues that Spanish women endeavored to challenge the institutions of cultural, economic, and social from the Mexican to American rule. When Spanish soldiers arrived in California, they focused on “assaulting, violating rights, and raping native women besides killing the native men in the process”19.

Because of this, an immense confrontation has emerged between the locals of California and the Spanish people. Tantamount to the arguments raised by Chavez-Garcia and considering the argument that the American people are of valid cultural identities, the crime committed against the Americans amounted to a violation of their rights as the sovereign residents of the United States. The overall impact is to make the American people view themselves as inferior to the Spanish people. Somewhat also consistent with the depiction of the California people as having minimal say in the plight of Spanish soldiers’ arrival in their territories, Mae Ngai does not understand why it is was possible for some Americans to be treated with racism and yet America comprises people with different identities. Indeed, Mae Ngai argues, “there was a huge recruitment of Mexican and Filipino laborers into the U.S. to work in the Agri-business sector at the start of the 1920s”20. This argument concluded that the past of the American people especially the immigrant minorities was dark since it amounted to exploitation.

A Choice between two Course Lectures

Given an opportunity to choose between the course’s lectures featuring professors’ and or GSI’s research interests to include in the final part of ‘A Different Mirror’, I would choose the professor’s lecture because the lecture includes an up-to-date position of the American immigrants in terms of their fight for freedom and the extent to which they have achieved it. Through the professor’s lecture, it is apparent that the residents of the United States are immigrants, which is an important conclusive point in that all Americans can realize the fact that none of the current residents of the United States can claim as being the original heirs of America. The belief has the consequences of making all Americans treat each other with utmost equality since every citizen would treat every other citizen as an alien. Therefore, the relationships of all American people would be based on the perceptions of respect for one another’s identity, which has the impact of instilling a stronger sense of multiculturalism.

References

Takaki, R. (2012). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. eBookIt.com.

Footnotes

  1. Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (New York: Back Bay Books, 2008), 27.
  2. Ibid, 2.
  3. Ibid, 47.
  4. Ibid, 71.
  5. Ibid, 81.
  6. Ibid, 23.
  7. Ibid, 14.
  8. Natalia Molina, Fit To Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939 (California: University of California Press, 2006), 179.
  9. Ibid, 181.
  10. Takaki, 25.
  11. Ibid, 28.
  12. Ibid, 29.
  13. Ibid, 32.
  14. Ibid, 39.
  15. Ibid, 78.
  16. Ibid, 10.
  17. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 189.
  18. Pierrette Hondagneu, Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence (California: University of California Press, 2006), 104.
  19. Miroslava Chavez-Garcia, Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, the 1770s to 1880s (Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 2006), 23.
  20. Ngai, 73.
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IvyPanda. 2021. "History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki." February 12, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-of-multicultural-america-by-ronald-takaki/.

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