A Different Mirror

A Different Mirror

by

Ronald Takaki

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on A Different Mirror can help.

Citizenship, Identity, and the American Dream Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Unity vs. Division Theme Icon
Whiteness and the Other Theme Icon
Labor, Profit, and the Building of the Nation Theme Icon
Segregation vs. Assimilation Theme Icon
Citizenship, Identity, and the American Dream Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Different Mirror, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Citizenship, Identity, and the American Dream Theme Icon

One of the questions explored in A Different Mirror is: What does it mean to be an American citizen? Who is included (and excluded) from American identity and how does this relate to the American Dream? The book questions the idea that all ethnic groups in the nation dream of taking on American identity, and one of the ways it does this by being critical of the narrative of the American dream. Takaki shows that not all members of ethnic groups wanted to embrace American identity or even move to America in the first place; indeed, many were forced to do so by desperate circumstances in their home countries (or, in the case of black and Indigenous people, found themselves forced to reside in the American nation without their consent). Yet Takaki is simultaneously critical of the way in which American citizenship has historically been (and continues to be) withheld from certain populations in the US, and emphasizes that everyone in the country deserves equal rights as American citizens.

By presenting a long view of US history beginning with the very first settlers in the country, Takaki illustrates that both American identity and American citizenship are, in a very important way, fictions. This does not mean that they don’t have any real-world impact or meaning (they do), but rather that they have no natural, pre-existing meaning: they are inventions whose meaning is contingent and has radically changed over time.

Takaki shows that both American identity and citizenship have been withheld from certain groups in illogical ways. For example, he opens the book with an anecdote about a taxi driver asking Takaki where he’s from and commenting that his English is good. Takaki notes that many people do not see him as American even though he was born in the US and his family has been in the country for four generations. This anecdote echoes the comments of a Japanese immigrant Takaki quotes later in the book: “We try hard to be American but Americans always say you always Japanese. Irish become American and all time talk about Ireland; Italians become Americans even if do all time like in Italy; but Japanese can never be anything but Jap.” In this quotation, the man illustrates the illogic and hypocrisy of American identity. He indicates that Americanness is seen as a fundamentally white identity, one constitutive of multiple different European ethnicities but one that excludes nonwhite immigrants.

Takaki argues that American citizenship works along similarly illogical grounds. For example, the internment of Japanese-American people during the Second World War was a clear violation of these people’s rights as American citizens, and proved that although they technically had citizenship, this could be rendered meaningless at the will of the government. For anyone who is not white, American citizenship is contingent and precarious, which of course directly contradicts the ideals of the US as a nation supposedly founded on equal rights for all.

Nowhere is this hypocrisy better illustrated than in the case of black and Indigenous populations, who are neither settlers nor immigrants and thus logically have the most claim to American citizenship, yet who are the groups treated the worst and most likely to be denied their rights as American citizens.

Again, part of the way Takaki deconstructs the ideas of American identity and citizenship is through his critical analysis of the narrative of the American Dream. According to the most simplistic version of this narrative, America is a “country of immigrants” who moved in hope of making a better life for themselves and belonging to a democratic nation where all citizens were equal and free. As the stories of the different ethnic groups featured in A Different Mirror show, this narrative is quite far from the reality.

As mentioned above, it is important to point out that two main ethnic groups (black and Indigenous people) never chose to come to America in the first place, and cannot be placed in the categories of immigrants or settlers. Moreover, even for those who did come, moving to the US was often less a matter of choice and more one of desperation. Starvation, genocide, and war were common reasons for people to leave their homelands and come to the US. While some of these people dreamed of being American citizens and taking on an American identity, others would have rather stayed in their home country and were skeptical about the American nation. The fact that most ethnic groups faced subordinate treatment in the US suggests that this skepticism was warranted.

Of course, Takaki does not imply that the American Dream was a myth. Indeed, he quotes many immigrants who idealize the US, including an Irish immigrant who wrote back to her father: “Any man or woman without a family are fools that would not venture and come to this plentyful Country where no man or woman ever hungered or ever will and where you will not be seen naked.” Similarly, he quotes Jews who see the US as the promised land in which they can finally escape persecution and live freely. Indeed, for many of these immigrants taking on an American identity was in fact the only feasible way to maintain their Jewish identity, due to the severity of anti-Semitic persecution back in Europe.

Ultimately, Takaki argues that it should not matter whether people moved to the US by choice or by force, or whether they enthusiastically embrace American identity or reject it. The principles of the US nation state mean that everyone living in the country should be granted the rights of citizens.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…
Get the entire A Different Mirror LitChart as a printable PDF.
A Different Mirror PDF

Citizenship, Identity, and the American Dream Quotes in A Different Mirror

Below you will find the important quotes in A Different Mirror related to the theme of Citizenship, Identity, and the American Dream.
Chapter 1: A Different Mirror Quotes

“Race,” observed Toni Morrison, has functioned as a “metaphor” necessary to the “construction of Americanness”: in the creation of our national identity, “American” has been defined as “white.” Not to be “white” is to be designated as the “Other”—different, inferior, and unassimilable.

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 2: The “Tempest” in the Wilderness Quotes

This demonization of Indians served complicated ends. The enemy was not only external but also internal. To the Puritans, the Indians were like Caliban, a "born devil": they had failed to control their appetites, to create boundaries separating mind from body. They represented what English men and women in America thought they were not, and, more important—what they must not become. As exiles living in the wilderness far from “civilization,” the Puritans used their negative images of Indians to delineate the moral requirements they had set up for themselves.

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker), Caliban
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 3: The Hidden Origins of Slavery Quotes

The planters had come to a crossroads. They could open economic opportunities to white workers and extend political privileges to them, but this would erode their own economic advantage and potentially undermine their political hegemony. Or they could try to reorganize society on the basis of class and race. By importing and buying more slaves, they could reduce their dependency on an armed white labor force and exploit workers from Africa, who could be denied the right to bear arms because of their race.

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker)
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 6: Fleeing “the Tyrant’s Heel” Quotes

Many Irish saw parallels between themselves as a degraded people and blacks in bondage. In Ireland, they had identified themselves as the "slaves" of the British, and many supported the abolition of slavery in the United States. ln 1842, thousands of them signed a petition that declared: "Irishmen and Irishwomen! treat the colored people as your equals, as brethren." But Irish sympathy for black slaves seemed to disappear with the Atlantic crossing. In America, many of them became antiblack.

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker)
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:

President Abbott Lawrence Lowell viewed the Irish favorably and highlighted Harvard's role in assimilating them into American society. “What we need,” he had explained earlier, “is not to dominate the Irish but to absorb them. We want them to become rich,” he added, “send their sons to our colleges, and share our prosperity and our sentiments.” In his opinion, however, such inclusionism should be reserved for certain groups. The "theory of universal political equality” he argued, should not be applied to "tribal Indians," "Chinese," or "negroes under all conditions, [but] only to our own race, and to those people whom we can assimilate rapidly." Lowell added that the Irish were unlike Jewish immigrants: they were Christian as well as culturally similar to Americans of English origin. The Irish could, therefore, become "so merged in the American people that they would not be ‘distinguished as a class.’”

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker), Abbott Lawrence Lowell (speaker)
Related Symbols: Harvard University
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 7: “Foreigners in Their Native Land” Quotes

Justifying this racial hierarchy, mine owner Sylvester Mowry invoked the images as well as language used earlier by slavemasters to describe the affection and loyalty of their slaves. "My own experience has taught me that the lower class of Mexicans…,” Mowry declared, “are docile, faithful, good servants, capable of strong attachments when firmly and kindly treated. They have been ‘peons’ for generations. They will always remain so, as it is their natural condition.”

But, like the enslaved blacks of the Old South, Mexican workers demonstrated that they were capable of defying these stereotypes of docility and submissiveness. Demanding self-respect and better wages, they repeatedly went on strike.

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker)
Related Symbols: Strikes
Page Number: 173-174
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 8: Searching for Gold Mountain Quotes

What enabled businessmen like Crocker to degrade the Chinese into a subservient laboring caste was the dominant ideology that defined America as a racially homogeneous society and Americans as white. The status of racial inferiority assigned to the Chinese had been prefigured in the black and Indian past.

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker)
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Chapter 10: Pacific Crossings Quotes

In their demand for a higher wage, the strikers explained: "We have decided to permanently settle here, to incorporate ourselves with the body politique [sic] of Hawaii—to unite our destiny with that of Hawaii, sharing the prosperity and adversity of Hawaii with other citizens of Hawaii." Significantly, the Japanese were framing their demands in “American” terms. They argued that the deplorable conditions on the plantations perpetuated an "undemocratic and un-American" society of "plutocrats and coolies." Fair wages would encourage laborers to work more industriously and productively. The goal of the strike was to create "a thriving and contented middle class—the realization of the high ideal of Americanism."

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker)
Related Symbols: Strikes
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

“We try hard to be American but Americans always say you always Japanese. Irish become American and all time talk about Ireland; Italians become Americans even if do all time like in Italy; but Japanese can never be anything but Jap.”

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Chapter 11: The Exodus from Russia Quotes

Expressions of resentment and ethnic epithets began to circulate: "Jews are an unassimilable race, as dangerous to a college as indigestible food to man." […]

President Abbott Lawrence Lowell announced that the college had a "Jewish problem" and led efforts to curb their enrollment. "It is the duty of Harvard," he wrote privately in a letter to a member of the Board of Overseers on March 29, 1922, "to receive just as many boys who have come, or whose parents have come, to this country without our background as we can effectively educate; including in education the imparting, not only of book knowledge, but of ideas and traditions of our people. Experience seems to place that proportion at about 15%."

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker), Abbott Lawrence Lowell (speaker)
Related Symbols: Harvard University
Page Number: 286
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Chapter 12: El Norte Quotes

For many Mexicans, the border was only an imaginary line between Mexico and the United States—one that could be crossed and recrossed at will. Living in El Norte, they created a Mexican-American world called the barrio.

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker)
Page Number: 307
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4, Chapter 14: World War II Quotes

In a letter to the NAACP, a soldier wrote: "I am a Negro soldier 22 years old. I won't fight or die in vain. If I fight, suffer or die it will be for the freedom of every black man to live equally with other races." Scheduled to be drafted into the army, a black youth declared: “Just carve on my tombstone, ‘Here lies a black man killed fighting a yellow man for the protection of a white man.’”

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker)
Page Number: 351
Explanation and Analysis:

“There's one other great incident of humanity that I'm very familiar with, the three hundred years of slavery in my own country, where people for generations were not allowed to be free, subject to the dictates of another race. Held in bondage, forced to work, and forced to do what another person wanted you to do. And if you didn't obey, there were no laws against killing you and destroying your family. So I said, ‘As you talk, I see there's a close parallel between the history of my people in America and what's happened to the Jews in Europe.’”

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki
Page Number: 378
Explanation and Analysis:

“I think one man is as good as another so long as he's honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. Uncle Will [Young, the Confederate veteran] says the Lord made a white man of dust, a nigger from mud, then threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that Negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.”

Related Characters: President Harry Truman (speaker), Ronald Takaki
Page Number: 381
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4, Chapter 15: Out of the War Quotes

At a deeper level, the split between Jews and blacks reflected a larger ideological divide, as conflicting visions of equality emerged. The Civil Rights Movement had begun as a struggle for equality for blacks through integration, which was often defined as a condition of equality. To "overcome" meant to integrate the schools, buses, lunch counters, and other public facilities; this goal was expanded to include equality of opportunity for voting and employment. But in 1966, like earlier black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael and other young militant blacks issued a clarion call for Black Power […] Equality, for many black militants, now meant self-determination for blacks as a colonized people in America. The cry of black nationalism was for separatism rather than integration, and there was no place for whites, including Jews, in the movement for black liberation.

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker), Marcus Garvey
Page Number: 395
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4, Chapter 16: Again, the “Tempest-Tost” Quotes

Facing a rising nativist backlash against illegal immigrants, many Irish newcomers joined Mexican Americans in demanding comprehensive immigration reform that would enable all of them to become legalized. In February 2006, fifteen hundred Irish participated in an immigration reform rally in San Francisco. One of them, Elaine, worked as a nanny. "We're all in the same boat," she told a reporter. "The Irish are lucky because we speak English and we're white. We do get treated better. But we [undocumented immigrants] are all hard workers. We all want a better life." Elaine explained that she would like to become a legal permanent resident so that she could build a stable life in her adopted country without fear of being picked up by immigration authorities. She also would like to take her six-year-old son to Ireland so he can maintain his ties to his grandparents and his Irish heritage.

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki (speaker)
Page Number: 408
Explanation and Analysis:

“Afghans have integrated instead of assimilated […] Fremont would be a good example. Afghans have managed to keep their culture and identity. It hasn't been lost in the idea of assimilation. That's when you totally and completely become the culture that you have immigrated to and completely lose your people's original identity. Afghans have kept their uniqueness, the beauty of their culture, and at the same time have thoroughly functioned in today's society. I think that's what integration means.”

Related Characters: Ronald Takaki
Page Number: 426
Explanation and Analysis: