A Different Mirror

by Ronald Takaki

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Summary

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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.

Foundations

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.

Contradictions

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.

Transitions

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.

Transformations

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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