A Different Mirror: A Review
by Al Tizon
I admit it's a little strange to review a 20-year-old book—A Different Mirror (Back Bay Books, 1993), but let me offer two good reasons for doing so. First, its 20-year mark seems an appropriate time to honor the author, Cal-Berkeley professor of ethnic studies Ronald Takaki, who died in 2009, by revisiting what I believe to be his most important work. Second, this book is a classic that continues to generate discussion and controversy in the classroom and beyond. In the last 20 years, it has been both lauded as the real story of America and lambasted as being yet another left-wing attempt at revisionist history.
A Different Mirror makes a strong case that America has been multicultural from the beginning, starting with the encounter between the European explorers and those we now call Native Americans. This perspective flies in the face of the notion that America was once pristinely white and has gradually become more culturally diverse. Such a challenge seems benign enough at first; but if we consider it long enough, accepting Takaki's thesis has profound implications for how we view multiculturalism today. It is not a new thing. Non-Anglo citizens have always been here. They need not feel like visitors, as if the only reason they're here is because the white establishment has allowed them. We have every right to be here. Immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America are not contaminating an all-white landscape; indeed, an array of color has always beautified these United States.
A rhetorical question in the introduction hooked me at the start, when Takaki asks, "What happens … when someone with the authority of a teacher describes our society, and you are not in it?" It helped me understand why I've always felt like a perpetual visitor in a country despite being a citizen. Unfortunately, I have seldom heard about what Asians or any other non-Anglos did to build this country.
According to the accepted history books, people of color had little or no significance in the making of America. To counter this, Takaki makes us look into a different mirror, showing us that Native, African, Asian, and Latino Americans were indeed there from the outset. They may have occupied the underside of history, but he makes the point that that is no reason to ignore or devalue the part that they played in making America what it is. Takaki argues that, because of the underside status of many non-white Americans, their stories need to be told all the more.
Agreed. But about halfway through, I found myself squirming as I tried to place myself in the seat of a white person reading this book. Takaki takes America's white heroes such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others to task for putting "white privilege" into motion, a legacy that continues to this day. I understand that this needs to be challenged, and history is a good and appropriate place to start. But I wait for the day when someone will write an historical rendering of multi-cultural America that truly includes everyone, depicting both the contributions and ills of all people groups—black, white, and brown. Until that book is written, A Different Mirror deserves the attention of those who want to hear another side of the story and to balance out histories that have overlooked non-Anglo contributions.
As a minister and a professor, I very much appreciated Takaki's take on America. It made me more aware, first of all, of the many different cultures that are represented in the pews as well as in the classroom. It also made me truly celebrate the diversity of cultures; to celebrate it and not fear it, for in doing so, I celebrate America. More importantly, I celebrate God who, in God's infinite imagination, has created the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity that is humanity.
(This review was originally published in inMinistry, the magazine of Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University, Fall 2009 issue. It is used and adapted here with permission.)