One year ago this week, we lost one of the pioneers of multicultural studies in this country, Ronald Takaki. Known as an academic, historian, ethnographer, and author, Takaki’s work included texts such as A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: the Agitation to Reopen the African Slave, Iron Cages: race and culture in 19th century America, and India in the West: South Asians in America.
In 1972, Takaki began teach at Berkeley, where he is largely credited for the development of an undergraduate ethnic studies major and an ethnic studies Ph.D. program. For the next 30 years he continued to be an important contributor in the growth of the Berkeley program and was involved in developing the school's multicultural requirement for graduation. Takaki retired from Berkeley in 2004 and after a 20 year battle with multiple sclerosis, ended his own life on May 26, 2009.
I was first introduced to Takaki through his book A Different Mirror as a freshman at Shoreline Community College in my Multicultural Studies class. Up to that point, my experience in understanding the “the people’s history” was pretty limited, apart from watching the “Eyes on the Prize” series in a high school history class. Reading it was the first time I felt like my people were being acknowledged as a part of history, and it gave me a sense of importance and pride in my own ethnic identity. Takaki’s book opened me up to understanding ALL of our contributions to this country, apart from the stories told in history textbooks that left out so many of “us.” I had the privilege to meet Dr. Takaki later that year when he came as a guest speaker to the college, and he signed my copy of A Different Mirror. Several years later I graduated from UW as an American Ethnic Studies major and reading this book inspires my continued passion for the study of power and culture relations in the US. Reflecting on Takaki and his tireless efforts to implement ethnic studies programs within university establishments, I can’t help but think about the Arizona bill targeting ethnic studies courses in the Tucson public school system. Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, argues that ethnic studies classes teach children that they are oppressed and that they should resent a particular race. At the end of A Different Mirror, Takaki, referencing the title of the book, addresses the impact of ethnic studies and perhaps provides some insight as to his response if he were still with us today:
“To become visible is to see ourselves and each other through a different mirror of history. As Audre Lorde pointed out, ‘ It is a waste of time hating a mirror or its reflection instead of stopping the hand that makes glass distortions.’ By viewing ourselves in a mirror which reflects reality, we can see our past as undistorted and no longer have to peer into our future through a glass darkly.”(P 426)