A Different Mirror

by Ronald Takaki

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Last Updated on June 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki is a discussion of America's cultural heritage and the many things that aren't taught in traditional history classes. He posits that history that isn't Eurocentric is often left out of traditional narratives, which erases the experiences that many people of different cultures have had throughout American history.

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The second part of the book's title gives a good summary of the work: it's called A Different Mirror: A Summary of Multicultural America, and that's truly what it is. In every chapter, Takaki explores the history of a certain cultural or ethnic group in the US. Using laws, public policy, common attitudes, folk songs, telegrams, and photographs, Takaki combines various historical perspectives into a holistic view of how each cultural group has contributed to US history. He explores the histories of Native American peoples, African slaves and their descendants, and other distinct groups, such as Jewish, Chinese, and Irish immigrants.

At the beginning of the book, Takaki describes his encounter with a taxi driver who asked him how long he'd been in America, saying that Takaki spoke English very well. Takaki responded that his family had been in America for more than a hundred years—which made them both aware of the racial divide between them.

Takaki uses that as a jumping-off point to discuss the many different cultures that make up the US. He points out that "one-third of American people do not trace their origins to Europe." Still, Takaki says, people don't have a sense of their national identity, because most history books and classes are centered primarily on white history.

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In the first part of the book, "Foundations," Takaki uses Shakespeare's The Tempest as a way to relate the English takeover of North America. He discusses how the British related to other cultures and how they gained possession of the land and became the ruling class. He shows how rhetoric deployed against the Indians developed—rhetoric that was used against other groups that later came to the US.


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Latest answer posted January 31, 2012, 4:43 am (UTC)

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In the second part of the book, "Contradictions," Takaki discusses slavery, Native American migration, and relations with Mexico. He also discusses the history and immigration of Irish and Chinese Americans. He compares the treatment of Native Americans to the treatment of the Irish. Both were portrayed as savage for religious differences, lack of traditional education, and problems making their land produce enough food.


The third part of the book, "Transitions," focuses on the immigration of Japanese people, Russians, and Mexican laborers. Takaki talks about the black experience in northern urban atmospheres and how Native Americans were moved onto reservations.


The final section of the book is called "Transformations" and discusses race and how different cultures were suppressed and silenced during World War II and in the post-war era. He discusses the different wars the US engaged in, civil rights, and why a better understanding of history from all sides matters.

A Different Mirror is a history of the United States from the point of view of cultures whose history in the US is largely ignored. The book was written in the late twentieth century, so the ending is perhaps not as up to date as it could be, but Takaki does end with a summary of the "present" status of each minority group that he explores.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1845

Near the end of this multicultural history of the United States, historian Ronald Takaki articulates the thesis and the goal of his book. Citing Gloria Anzaldua’s concept of a borderland, “a place where ’two or more cultures edge each other,”’ he concurs with her that an “inner struggle” to understand the American cultural heritage must take place before Americans can change their troubled society. This understanding “must ultimately be ground in ’unlearning’ much of what we have been told about America’s past and substituting a more inclusive and accurate history of all the peoples of America.” Takaki’s contribution to this goal is a retelling of American history from the point of view of the various ethnic and racial groups who settled here, attempting to see all the “different shores” from which they came as “equal points of departure” in the building of American culture.

What could have become a loose, baggy monster of a project is given form by several structuring elements. The first is an extended metaphor that compares the New World to the wilderness in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play that opened in 1611 and was based on a contemporary incident involving an English ship that was heading for Virginia but ran aground in the Bermudas. Takaki speculates that the play represented English expansion into the Americas. Caliban, the quasi-human native of the island to which Prospero is exiled and over which he claims sovereignty, becomes a figure for the natives of the New World and later for the Africans brought as slaves. Takaki uses this image to illustrate what he refers to as the “racialization of savagery,” the tendency on the part of white Americans to associate barbarism with dark skin, an attitude that would determine the treatment of black slaves as well as Native American tribes. The image of Caliban is used throughout Takaki’s study to describe the struggles especially of those immigrant groups, including the Chinese as well as African Americans and Native Americans, that could not assimilate into mainstream American society because of racial differences. They were often denigrated in the same terms (savage, lazy, dirty, inferior, treacherous) in order to justify harsh policies toward them, whether of slavery, removal from their land, or restrictions of their immigration and civil rights. This pattern, first established when the English met the Indians, thus repeated itself throughout the next two centuries.

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America is also structured, though loosely, in a rough historical sequence consisting of four main sections: “Boundlessness,” from discovery through slavery; “Borders,” covering the Market Revolution and western expansion; “Distances,” treating European and Asian immigration; and “Crossings,” a contemplation of America’s dilemmas in the twenty-first century, with the changes in the racial composition of U.S. population and the accompanying questions about who is “American.”

Who is American? In the book’s first section, to trace the English colonists’ attempts to grapple with this question Takaki examines the policies they developed to deal with blacks and indigenous peoples during a time when the country seemed boundless. Questions of race and racism were particularly acute at this time, as the English tried to define themselves in contrast to the indigenous peoples they found in the New World. Yet much of the rhetoric used against the Indians, Takaki shows, was not based on color, at least not initially; it was similar to that being used against the Irish in the period when the English were colonizing Ireland, and for similar reasons of land acquisition. The pattern Takaki establishes in this first section has social, political, and economic ramifications for the rest of the book, for the pattern repeated itself in different forms with each new immigrant group that arrived in the new country.

Takaki cites letters and contemporary English accounts that found parallels between the Indians and the Irish. Both groups were seen as uncivilized because they were unchristian and unlettered and failed to bring their land under cultivation and make it more productive. Capitalist patterns of ownership and productivity were integrated into the English definitions of civility and morality, as Takaki has shown in an earlier work, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (1979). The English idea that the Irish and the Indians were immoral savages was difficult to separate from their idea that they, the English, had both a right and a moral obligation to take the land from them because they could better exploit it economically. Much of Takaki’s focus in the rest of the book is to show how this theme is repeated, with variations, in the settling of the rest of the continent.

In another important early chapter, Takaki takes up the development of black-white racism. Africans brought to North America shared roughly the status of the white indentured servants from the British Isles, some of whom were sold or stolen into servitude. Takaki traces the slow but steady codification of laws based on skin color, including laws against racial intermarriage and laws making only blacks and their offspring slaves for life, in an effort to keep indentured whites and blacks from making common cause with each other to improve their lot. For them to do so would undermine the South’s developing plantation economy, which depended on cheap labor. In addition, Takaki asserts,

this division based on race helped to delineate the border between savagery and civilization. In the wilderness, the English colonists felt a great urgency to destroy what historian [Winthrop] Jordan described as ’the living image of primitive aggressions which they said was the Negro but was really their own.” Far away from the security and surveillance of society in England, the colonists feared the possibility of losing self-control over their passions.… Thus, they projected their hidden and rejected instinctual parts of human nature onto blacks.… Internal boundaries of control were required, or else whites would be swept away by the boundlessness of the wilderness.

The seeds of race consciousness and economic domination that were sown in the early history of the republic make many of the experiences Takaki documents of Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, and Irish immigrants unsurprising, though painful and often tragic. Takaki uses sources ranging from government documents to popular songs to describe not only the events but also the attitudes and feelings accompanying immigrant experience in the United States. Often the rhetoric of barbarity was leveled at the newest group to arrive, but just as often, the reason beneath this apparent hatred of difference was economic fear and fierce competition for jobs. To a large extent, Takaki’s book is a history of American labor. He chronicles the divide- and-conquer strategies of white leaders, such as the importation of Chinese laborers to work on plantations and on the railroads, and of Mexican migrant laborers to pick crops. They were brought to compete with white laborers and to foil union organizing, but often their arrival was followed by racially based fears that America was being “overrun” by the group in question, and subsequently restrictions were placed on their entry into the country or their movements. The underlying ideology that made this possible was, Takaki asserts, that America is a homogeneous society, that Americans are white, and that everyone else is not really American, is somehow here on sufferance.

Takaki’s purpose, then, is to call attention to this ideology and to counter it with stories not only of the experiences but also of the contributions of the various ethnic and racial groups who built America in ways that are just as real and important as those of the dominant white culture. For example, he credits the Japanese with teaching California farmers how to raise fruit commercially. The end result is to demonstrate that the United States never was racially homogeneous. His hope is that the more Americans know about one another’s experiences, the more tolerant they will become as a society.

Takaki’s range in this book is very wide, his research extensive and detailed. He has a readable narrative style that makes complex issues clear to the nonhistorian. The use of popular source materials such as songs and letters often adds special poignancy to the stories he tells. As Paul Boyer noted in his review in The Washington Post, however, the treatment of various ethnic groups is uneven, and Takaki tends to focus on the struggles between whites and nonwhites with insufficient attention either to distinctions among whites or to those whites who resisted discrimination and injustice. He seems to use the Irish and the Jews as representative of the European immigrant experience, for no others are discussed. To some extent, constraints of time and space would serve as understandable explanations for these omissions, but they should be noted, for otherwise he seems to reduce the complexity of the history of whites in America even as he clarifies the histories of peoples of color; this in turn could interfere with his ultimate purpose.

Students of American ethnic history should also be aware of the difference in depth of treatment of minorities in A Different Mirror. African Americans, Asians, and Mexicans are represented in greater detail and more often in their own voices than are the Native Americans. One limitation of the discussion of Indians is that Takaki often represents them through the eyes of white people—from Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to Francis Amasa Walker and John Collier—who were trying to eliminate or control them. While that ironic treatment of white leaders has its own powerful effect in showing their racism and the unreasonableness of their positions, once the reader rejects their portrayal of Indians, a gap remains. How do Native Americans see themselves? Takaki answers this question insufficiently. He leaves their story with the failure of the stock reduction program of the 1930’s and misses an opportunity to discuss the revival of Indian culture and political activism in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s, including the activities of the American Indian Movement. In fact, in the cases of all the racial minorities he discusses, recognition of the significant literary flowering they have experienced during the latter decades of the twentieth century would not only offset the bleakness of the economic and social conditions Takaki so eloquently traces in his last section, “Through a Glass Darkly,” but also, perhaps, provide a starting point for the intergroup communication he seeks.

Nevertheless, Takaki has written a fascinating, informative multicultural history of the United States which provides an important corrective to most Americans’ understanding of their culture’s roots. Furthermore, he writes with energy and a sense of commitment that enhances the telling of these stories, which become all our stories.

Sources for Further Study

American Heritage. XLIV, September, 1993, p.10.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 10, 1993, p.11.

Commentary. XCVI, September, 1993, p.64.

The Economist. CCCXXVII, June 26, 1993, p.97.

National Review. XLV, October 4, 1993, p.57.

New Leader. LXXVI, May 17, 1993, p.32.

The New York Review of Books. XL, October 7, 1993, p.21.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, August 22, 1993, p.17.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 19, 1993, p.41.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, June 20, 1993, p.3.

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