Letter: Takaki’s ethnic studies text offers counterbalance to Anglo standard

Dear Editor,

I read with interest the guest commentary by Jerry Jensen and his co-authors regarding the text for Visalia Unified School District’s ethnic studies program, “A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America” by Ronald Takaki. [The Sun-Gazette, Feb. 17]

I respect Mr. Jensen and his co-signers, most of whom I have known for many years, as community leaders. But I disagree with their opinion of “A Different Mirror.”

They seem to object to the textbook on two fundamental grounds: That it would convince young readers to be victims, and that it lacks balance.

Like me, the authors grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, and we are all white males. I presume their education was similar to mine: I learned what Takaki called the Master Narrative, “that our country was settled by Europeans and that Americans are white.” Mr. Jensen must concede the truth of that assessment.

The American history that I, and he, were taught contained no references to Sally Hemmings, the Trail of Tears, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, or the Japanese concentration camps. These were not noble episodes of our history, but they were our history.

In the history I learned, those chapters were missing. Consequently, like the writers of the column, I had some blind spots in my outlook. I believe it is important to correct those blind spots.

“A Different Mirror” attempts to fix the blind spots in our nation’s story. Takaki writes that his book seeks to “recover the missing chapters of American history.”

As Takaki writes, “An incomplete history is like a mirror that does not reflect everything, a mirror that treats some people as if they were invisible.” The goal of an ethnic studies course, as in all education, ought to be to reveal, not conceal.

“A Different Mirror” is not a comprehensive account of American history and doesn’t pretend to be. There are plenty of other places to find the record of the Civil War or how the West was won.

After all, white people have had their say for more than 400 years. If any history lacks balance, it’s the Master Narrative.

Takaki’s book is a counterweight, an attempt to restore balance to the American story and in the process examines uncomfortable truths:

  • White Americans enslaved Africans from 1619 to 1865, and then established a system of oppression that denied them rights for another 100 years.
  • White Americans took the land of Native Americans by force and imprisoned them on reservations.
  • From 1882, America refused to allow Chinese to enter this country and then pursued an official policy that denied them citizenship or the right to own property or to marry.
  • In World War II, the United States violated its own Constitution and unlawfully imprisoned thousands of Japanese Americans, most of them citizens.

Those are facts. How do we “balance” those facts? By recalling how many Americans died in wars, as Mr. Jensen suggests?

Mr. Jensen and his co-writers complain that minority readers of the book would “go through life perceiving themselves as oppressed, exploited victims” after learning how their ancestors were mistreated.

By that argument, we might as well not teach young people about The Greatest Generation because they will feel like victims after reading of the suffering of their great-grandparents in the Great Depression and World War II.

History is often an account of victors and victims. But victims remain victims only if they never learn their story.

“A Different Mirror” indeed describes the many instances in which nearly every minority was oppressed. However, it includes just as many examples of people who overcame hardship and obstacles, so that their story became inspirational accounts of their contributions to America, despite the way they were treated: the Navajo code talkers, the Tuskegee Airmen, the 442nd Regimental Team composed of Japanese Americans who distinguished themselves in World War II, the Mexican Americans who formed unions, the minorities of every kind who struggled to gain their civil rights … There are many examples.

We do a disservice to young people when we shield them from uncomfortable truths.

In explaining his purpose in writing his book, Takaki quoted the autobiography of a Jewish immigrant woman in which she hoped that “future generations would know where they came from to know better who they are.”

The purpose of the textbook and of Visalia Unified’s ethnic studies program is not to offer a competing narrative. It is to offer a completing narrative.

I agree with Mr. Jensen and his co-authors that the adoption of this text and the program has not received sufficient scrutiny in the community. I commend Mr. Jensen for initiating the dialogue. Let’s continue the discussion so that our schools can provide a course of instruction that serves all our students.

“Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations on where you can go.” – James Baldwin.

Paul Hurley
[email protected]

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