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ISSUE 115 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 3/22/2002

Takaki reflects on U.S. culture

By Anonymous
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 22, 2002

Dr. Ronald Takaki, professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America," lectured, informed, and entertained St. Olaf students and faculty on Mar. 14.

About 20 faculty and students attended the 3:00 p.m. workshop in the Heritage Room. His 8:00 p.m. lecture in the Science Center drew over 150 people.

Esther Lee '03 was instrumental in bringing the nationally renowned author to St. Olaf. She had read an excerpt of his work in her first-year seminar, and brought up Takaki's name last year when she was co-chair of the campus Asian Awareness group. This year, involved in the Diversity Celebrations Committee (DCC), she tried to think of events that might bring him here.

"We wanted him here to talk about diversity," Lee said, and to discuss what could be done with the curriculum to incorporate more multiculturalism and diversity. The DCC worked with selected academic departments, offices and organizations on campus, as well as the St. Olaf Bookstore, to bring Takaki to campus.

Takaki began to speak after two brief introductions, one of which came from Assistant Professor of English Joan Hepburn.

"I wanted to give you a taste of my passion for his work," Hepburn said. "One of the things that made me delighted that he would be here … was his vision of history." She described her tattered copy of "A Different Mirror," one of her four copies, which she has used in her American racial and multicultural literature class.

"I can't tell you how it's touched my soul to use a book which compares all walks which have helped to shape our nation," she said.

"When I saw her mangled copy," said Takaki, "I thought, wow, she must really love this book!'"

Takaki immediately won the crowd over with his comments about the weather, and gracious thanks to those who introduced him.

Takaki described how a teacher in high school, Dr. Shunji Nishi, the first Asian Ph.D. he had ever met, inspired him to do better in school. Because of Nishi, Takaki attended the small College of Wooster in Ohio. There he was asked questions such as, "How long have you been in this country?" and "Where did you learn English?"

"They didn't see me as American," he said, "even though my grandfather had come here from Japan in 1886." Looking back, he said, "it wasn't the fault of the students, for what have they learned? There is a master narrative we're all familiar with - the story that this country was settled by Europeans and all Americans are white Europeans."

Takaki realizes the need for a multicultural education. "Especially after Sept. 11, we see the urgency to educate about different cultures. The question people are asking is 'How do we do it?' It's a practical question."

Takaki described the multicultural requirement he helped implement at UC Berkeley, the American Cultures requirement. It focuses on studying diversity comparatively, looking at the five groups traditionally left out of Anglo-American history: African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and East/Southern European Immigrants.

In order to give the audience a concrete example of the practice, Takaki gave a "15-minute lecture within a lecture," focusing on two groups in the 19th century. He taught the crowd about the Irish and Chinese migrations in the middle part of the century from the point of view of the women.

He asked the "class" questions, making people guess who and how many ventured over.

He drew a map on the overhead, telling the audience "this will require you to use your imagination, and be generous." His location of Northfield on the rather abstract yet recognizable outline of the U.S. elicited laughs from the audience. He used his map to illustrate how things were connected. "Follow the cotton," he said.

The cotton was harvested by African Americans in the South, and sent up to mills in New England where Irish women worked. It was grown on land that was formerly home to Native Americans groups, including the Cherokees and Choctaws, who were moved to Oklahoma, resulting in border disputes with the Mexicans.

This led to the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, and the annexation of California. Thus the necessity of a cross-continental railroad arose, which brought half a million Chinese workers to the country, 95 percent of them men.

The Chinese worked from the west, and Irish workers built from the east; this was how he proved that while the histories were different, they were not disparate.

His reading of Irish work songs and Chinese telegrams made his "15-minute lecture" run to about 40 minutes. With that, he concluded, "this is an invitation to ask questions, to create a curriculum to understand each other; and not just for understanding, but for peace, justice, and security."

Lee requested that he take a few questions. One person asked Takaki's opinion on affirmative action (AA) and if he believes it is working. He answered with a story about a discussion with his students about Proposition 209, which has eliminated AA in Calif. One particular student of his remarked that, "honestly, without AA, my sisters and brothers have a better chance of being accepted … but we are Americans, as well as Asians, and we have to think of the larger society," implying that AA is still a necessary procedure.

Afterwards he stayed briefly to meet students and sign copies of his books, which the Bookstore was selling in the lobby of the Science Center.

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