Forging a More Successful Multicultural America
By Preston Ni
Former U.C. Berkeley professor Ron Takaki passed away last month. With his quietus, America lost one of its most important warriors in the endeavor to forge a stronger, more successful multi-cultural society. As I contemplate Takaki’s legacy, one of the most seminal events for Asian Americans comes to mind.
It happened on June 19, 1982. Vincent Chin, a Chinese American whose father serviced the U.S. in World War II, was celebrating his bachelor party at a club in Highland Park, Michigan when he was mistaken for Japanese by Detroit autoworker Ronald Ebens and later that night savagely beaten to death by Ebens wielding a baseball bat. Before Chin slipped into a brain-dead coma his final words were “it’s not fair”. In the subsequent trial, Ebens pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was given a sentence of three years probation and a $3,000 fine. More trials followed, but Ebens never served a jail sentence.
This event was a wake-up call for Asian Americans and touched off a series of issues that had long been simmering: the failure of mainstream America to see Asians Americans as Americans; the inability of many Americans to distinguish one Asian from another (“all Asians look alike”); and ultimately the worth of a life in America as a second-class citizen. Those were the days when being successful as an ethnic minority in the U.S. involved primary two choices: either abandoning one’s cultural identity and assimilating into the Euro-American culture, or forsaking mainstream acceptance by sticking with your own group and forming a strong cultural identity. Some Asians Americans tried to maintain a measure of both, but it’s never an easy balancing act.
“I am still trying to figure out whether I am Chinese American or an American with Asian eyes”
Michelle Chin, age 16
Into this reckoning emerged Ron Takaki, a grandson of Japanese immigrants. Takaki joined the faculty at U.C. Berkeley in the 1970s and taught courses leading to degrees in Comparative Ethnic Studies. His book “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” remains the standard by which multicultural texts are measured. Through his teaching, writing, and speaking, Takaki showed America a new perspective: that we can take pride in our cultural heritage and be successful Americans at the same time. Equally important, Takaki reminded us that part of what it means to be a successful American is to attempt to understand the experiences of other ethnic groups, and develop cross-cultural empathy and competence. Takaki’s work has become standard curriculum in high schools and colleges across the country, offering U.S. history lessons that reflect the diversity of students in classrooms, and leaving an indelible mark on generations of American youth.
Today we live in a society where multi-cultural America is generally considered a positive and diversity is sometimes taken for granted. We have a bi-racial president and in the coming decades every single person in our country will be member of a minority group. For Asian Americans, many challenges remain. The glass ceiling is real. Asian American women and men are still commonly perceived through the narrow lens of cultural stereotypes, and in many places we’re still considered foreigners in our own country. At the same time, undeniable progress has been made. If we believe Asian American children today are growing up in a country that’s more inclusive of people who look like them than just one generation ago, we can be grateful for the contribution made by the life work of Ron Takaki.
For further reading
On Ron Takaki: www.thelavinagency.com/speaker-ronald-takaki.html
On Vincent Chin: www.asianweek.com/061397/feature.html
Preston Ni is a professor of communication studies, Fortune 500 trainer, executive coach, and organizational change consultant. His column appears the first Monday of every month. Write to Preston at firstname.lastname@example.org, and access free resources at www.nipreston.com. © 2009 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved.