Coat of Many Colors

Eoyang contends that “the essence of being American is neither racial nor cultural nor political. . . . The United States—note the plural singular—is a collective unity. A pluralistic one.” Thwarting that unity are a multitude of forces. One is America’s tendency toward “false dyads”—our insistence that there are only two sides to an issue. Consequently, we cannot admit an American history that includes both the traditional accounts and the experiences and contributions of ethnic groups. In “The Three L’s: Liberalism, Liberty, and the Liberal Arts,” Eoyang appeals to John Stuart Mill to argue that liberal education must prepare individuals to be free. Yet freedom requires knowledge not only of Western European culture, but of all cultures. He admonishes, “We cannot allow knowledge to instill a false sense of superiority; we must avoid the arrogance of those who inflate the value of what they know by deflating the value of what they don’t know.”

Eoyang is strongest in his observations on the apparent differences among Americans that divide them from one another. “The Complexities of Complexion” examines the uncritical use of phrases such as “people of color” and categories such as “blacks,” “browns,” “reds,” and “yellows.” Eoyang observes that “In all this ethnic consciousness, it is, ironically, the individual who gets lost in the kaleidoscope.” What follows is an insightful analysis of the “myth of color” as it is played out in world cultures. In yet another essay, the author points to irony that results from the emphasis that many Americans’ place upon appearance and accent so that those individuals who do not look or sound like the stereotypical American are marginalized by the mainstream culture while those whose skin color and accents conceal their foreign citizenship (Canadians, for example) can move invisibly in the culture.

COAT OF MANY COLORS is an enjoyable book. Eoyang moves easily from semiotics and modern physics to illustrate his ideas to popular culture, alluding frequently to contemporary music, films, and television. His discussion of diversity is carefully and calmly reasonable. His Chinese ancestry gives this American an interesting perspective upon this country of many colors; his book is a welcome contribution to the current revaluation of multiculturalism.