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Book Review: A Different Mirror

In light of so many great books coming out, it’s a little strange to review a 20-something year-old book. But it's never wrong to say something about a classic. A Different Mirror (Back Bay Books, 1993), by the late Cal-Berkeley ethnic studies professor Ronald Takaki, is one of those. Mirror is indeed a classic that continues to generate discussion and controversy in the classroom and beyond. Since its publication, it has been both lauded by progressives as the real story of America and lambasted by conservatives as being yet another left-wing attempt at revisionist history.

Mirror makes a strong case that America has been multicultural from the beginning, starting with the encounter between European colonizers and those we now insultingly lump together and label as "Native Americans." This perspective flies in the face of the misguided 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-whites have always been here, in fact, long before Europeans claimed it is their own. Non-whites 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/a Americans have indeed been here from the outset. They may have represented the underside of this nation's history; but, Takaki insists, that is no reason to ignore or devalue the part that they played in making America what it is. In fact, Takaki argues that their stories need to be told all the more if we want to hear the fuller story.

I very much appreciate Takaki’s take on America. It made me more aware, first of all, of the many different cultures that are represented here. 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.

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