In A Different Mirror, Takaki argues that racist and religious stereotyping was a tool used by white people to distinguish themselves from those they deemed “Other.” Indeed, he shows that white identity was itself constructed as a foil, or opposite, to these stereotypes. Ironically, this often involved projecting many of the negative qualities that white Americans possessed onto those of different ethnic groups.
Throughout the book, Takaki returns to the figure of Caliban, the character from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, to explore how white people defined different ethnic groups as the Other. The Tempest was written in 1610-11, right at the beginning of the American colonial period. The character of Caliban is indigenous to the island that the European characters in the play colonize, having initially been stranded on it. Caliban is characterized as “savage” and monstrous, and it is widely acknowledged that he represents ideas about the racial Other circulating in English culture at the time. The point is not that Caliban represented one particular ethnic group—indeed, Takaki begins each section of the book by arguing that Caliban could have been black, Irish, Chinese, and so on. Rather, Caliban is a foil to white Western European identity, and in this sense he is a fear/fantasy rather than a realistic depiction of an actual group of people.
Takaki argues that when white English settlers moved to the “New World,” they were concerned about how this enormous change in environment might affect their identity, norms, and behavior. Without the cultural and religious institutions of England, they were self-conscious about the possibility of becoming “savages.” As a result, they projected their fears about their own fate onto the Indigenous people they encountered. To these settlers, Native people “represented what English men and women in America thought they were not, and, more important—what they must not become.” Of course, the irony of white settlers characterizing Indigenous people (and, later, black people) as “savages” was that it was white people themselves who were engaged in brutal, “savage” behavior. As Takaki shows, in the first centuries of the nation’s existence, white settlers committed genocide, slavery, and mass rape. They damaged the natural landscape and drove the continent’s bison population to near extinction. Takaki also points out that the first settlers on the continent practiced cannibalism after they ran out of food, even eating their own family members. Clearly, if anyone was “savage,” it was white settlers themselves; yet by projecting this attribute onto the racial Other, they attempted to absolve themselves and depict themselves as a pure, morally upstanding group.
Ironically, another function of the creation of the idea of the racial Other was to justify the genocide, slavery, and labor exploitation white settlers were committing. For example, white people claimed that Indigenous people were childlike and didn’t know how to properly farm the land (an untrue claim), and that this warranted the deliberate seizing of Native land and destruction of Native ways of life (both of which proved to be fatal to huge numbers of Native people). Similarly, black people were stereotyped as childlike, unintelligent, and loyal in order to argue that it was natural and right for them to be enslaved. Significantly, similar logic was also employed when it came to exploiting non-enslaved workers of other ethnic groups. Takaki quotes a mine owner called Sylvester Mowry who “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.’”
As the examples above show, Native people were not the only group against which white people contrasted themselves: every other ethnic group mentioned in the book were negatively typecast by white settlers as well. This did not necessarily occur in the same way or to the same degree. White people were most keen to distance themselves from black people, whereas other groups, such as Mexicans and East Asian immigrants, were seen as being somewhat closer to whiteness. These groups were still positioned as racial Others, but to a less extreme degree than black people.
Meanwhile, other groups, such as the Irish and (later) Jews, were eventually brought into the category of whiteness. As mentioned in the previous section, this expansion of the category of whiteness largely took place to prevent interethnic solidarity developing among the working classes. As the ethnic population of the US increased, white people feared becoming a minority, because this risked losing power. Expanding who counted as white was a consolidation of power that enabled white supremacy to be upheld. This shows that whiteness and the racial Other are flexible ideas; they adapt in different circumstances and historical eras.
Of course, this expansion of whiteness on one side went hand-in-hand with a more restrictive version of whiteness on the other. Takaki points out that during slavery and in its aftermath, the epidemic of sexual violence to which black women were subjected by white men meant that a great many people were born with mixed white and black ancestry (despite “miscegenation” being illegal). Many of these individuals looked white, but white people were determined not to let them integrate into society. As a result, the “One-drop rule” was established, which maintained that even “one drop” of black blood classified someone as black, no matter how white they appeared. In this example and beyond, Takaki shows that both white identity and the racial Other are fictions, invented to create and uphold a white supremacist nation. It is important to understand how these ideas work in order to realize their harmful potential and combat their effects. He also suggests that in a future where white people will no longer be the majority and “we will all be minorities” in America, the fictions of white identity and the racial Other will—hopefully—no longer have much effect in the real world.
Whiteness and the Other ThemeTracker
Whiteness and the Other Quotes in A Different Mirror
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’”
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.
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.
“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.”
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%."
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.’”
“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.”
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.