TONY COX, host:
This is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. From music to fashion to the movies and television programs we watch, the signs of a multicultural America are everywhere, and the nation is growing more diverse everyday. More than a million immigrants flood into the country each year bringing with them traditions, languages, cultures, and religions from around the world. As they become neighbors, friends, and coworkers, how do these different cultures interact? Today, we kick off our month-long series on multiculturalism. Is America really a melting pot of cultures or do our differences keep us apart?
Ronald Takaki is professor emeritus of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. An updated edition of his landmark book "A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America" hits shelves this week. Also joining the conversation, Jen Chau. She is the founder and executive director of Swirl, a national multi-ethnic organization. Welcome, both of you.
Ms. JEN CHAU (Founder, Executive Director, Swirl): Thanks.
Professor RONALD TAKAKI (Ethnic Studies, University of California, Berkeley): Hello.
COX: Ronald, let me begin with you. In your book "A Different Mirror," you write "America does not belong to one race or group. Americans have been constantly redefining their national identity from the moment of first of contact on the Virginia shore." Explain what's important, why it's important to understand America's diverse multicultural history.
Prof. TAKAKI: Well, when you think about America, we are a nation peopled by the world, and the victory of Barack Obama reaffirms this fact about who we are as Americans. We didn't just come from Europe. We also came from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the North American continent itself. But the problem is this. There is what I call the master narrative of American history, the familiar but mistaken story that this country was settled by European immigrants and that Americans are white or European in ancestry, and that names like Obama and Takaki are funny names. But Barack Obama and also this organization called Swirl is saying, hey, wait a minute! We came from many different places, and we're all Americans. So this is a moment for us to redefine the national identity.
COX: Do you think Americans don't already know this?
Prof TAKAKI: Nope. Americans don't know this because think about it, they take U.S. History courses, but in these U.S. History courses what have they learned about Asian-Americans or Puerto Ricans or Chicanos or the native peoples of this country or even African-Americans? Nothing, or next to nothing. And so, Americans are not thinking about who is an American. It's in the air. It's an unacknowledged assumption that American means white or European in ancestry.
COX: Do you follow - do you subscribe to that theory, Jen?
Ms. CHAU: I completely agree with Professor Takaki. I think that there's still a lot of conversation that needs to happen so that we are on the same page. And one of the things that Swirl actually tries to do is just that. I think one of the problematic dynamics in this country is that so many of us are willing to talk about race and identity with our own, and we don't have a chance to dispel some of these myths, and you know, write some of the, you know, wrongs and challenge assumptions when we're only speaking in our separate pocket. So, we really try to bring people together to have honest and direct conversations about race, and you know, as Professor Takaki is saying, to throw out some of our old and tired ways of discussing it.
COX: Well, let's have one of those frank discussions right now surrounding Barack Obama.
Prof. TAKAKI: OK.
COX: Because he is a biracial, bicultural man, and yet he has been identified as being the first black president of the United States. How do you explain that, Ronald?
Prof. TAKAKI: Yes. Well, Barack Obama is a victim of the one-drop rule. In this country, if you have a drop of black blood, you are identified as black. But most people don't know the historical origins of the one-drop rule. In my book, I point out that in the 17th century, Virginia planter elites passed, enacted two anti-miscegenation laws. The first law declared that a child of a slave mother and a white father would be a slave. The second law declared that a child of a white mother and a black father would also be a slave, so you have the stigmatization of the color black. To be black meant to be a slave. To be a slave meant to be black. And that law - those two laws have ricocheted down America's history until this very day until the 21st century. And we find this in the way Barack Obama has been defined as black.
COX: Now, doesn't Barack Obama - Jen, doesn't Barack Obama have a choice in terms of how he wants to be perceived publicly? He could just as easily, could he not, considered himself white as he considers himself to be black if he's half and half?
Ms. CHAU: I don't know if people would accept that, Tony, I mean...
COX: Well, I'm asking - I'm asking about Barack Obama, what he could - does he have a choice in that regard or is he culturalized(ph), if there is such a word, to be black because of what the professor just described?
Ms. CHAU: I absolutely believe he has a choice, and that's something that I have fought for as a mixed-race activist for all of these years, and that's something that Swirl very much stands by is that mixed-raced people should be able to identify as they so choose. The follow-up question to that though is does - but you know, will people buy that and what are we OK with? I think one of the tensions - and I'd love to hear Professor Takaki's thoughts on this - is when we know where we want to get to, and we have a vision of how things should be, and we know that we should be able to be in a place where Barack Obama can identify as mixed race and where everybody absolutely accepts that - accepts that without any question or challenge.
We want to get to that place, but we are living in a very real situation where that is not acceptable, and in many ways stemming from this one-drop rule for Barack Obama to say, I'm mixed race, is him denying his blackness. I think that's how a lot of people will see it. And so, I think this country still really struggles to accept a mixed-race identity as a real identity and mixed-race people who are in the spotlight, their identity is continually picked apart. Their identity is always up for a debate. So it's really - this tension I think between, OK, where are we right now and what will people accept and where are we trying to get to and how can we actually challenge some of the current assumptions?
COX: That's very interesting. This whole talk about multiculturalism, we hear it all the time. We see it in books. We see it in papers. It's thought in the universities. But is it really real, professor? Is there really such a thing as multiculturalism?
Prof. TAKAKI: Well, I'd like to answer Jen's question first though. Where do we want to get to? Well, think about Frederick Douglass, who was a son of a slave mother and a white father, his very own master. And Douglass refused to be - identify himself as black. He said, I belong to a blended race.
Ms. CHAU: Mm hmm.
Prof. TAKAKI: That was his identity, a blended race. And think about Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods doesn't say I'm a black king of golf. He calls himself a Caubasian, Caucasian, black and Asian. He acknowledges his Thai mother.
COX: And he gets teased - and he gets teased for saying that.
Ms. CHAU: Yeah.
Prof. TAKAKI: Yeah, but he's insisting that he's not African-American. You see, I respect, and I honor Tiger Woods for making that kind of brave stand.
COX: Well, my question to you then, going back, is whether or not given the realities of a Barack Obama or a Tiger Woods or as Jen was describing, is the whole conversation about multiculturalism, is it even - is it real? Is it substantive given the fact that we have these long-standing ideas about how we see ourselves and how we see others?
Prof. TAKAKI: Yeah. Well, it's happening and it's - the handwriting is on the wall. In California already, whites have become a minority, and the U.S. census has projected that whites will become a minority by the year 2042. So just the changing colors of the American people will redefine who is an American and will spark this debate over multiculturalism.
COX: Let me just say...
Prof. TAKAKI: I see a bright future for us.
COX: Hold on. I'm going to come back to you, Jen, in just a second.
Ms. CHAU: OK.
COX: If you're just joining us, this is NPR's News and Notes. I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Farai. If - we are joined with Ronald Takaki, a professor emeritus of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He's also the author of "A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America." We're also joined by Jen Chau, the founder and executive director of Swirl, a national multi-ethnic organization. And we're talking about multiculturalism - is it real or is it not? Jen, you wanted to add something?
Ms. CHAU: Yeah. I was going to say I think we have a really far way to go, and I think part of it is that we need to redefine what multiculturalism means to us. I think that a lot of people will hear that and think about that very superficial way of celebrating ethnicities or cultures that really is sort of a cover for "let's just tolerate each other because we're all living together." And I think multiculturalism, because of that has a lot of really negative connotations to people who actually do care about diversity.
So, I think part of it is needing to redefine that, and I'm hoping that Barack Obama is going to keep the conversation on the table. The one thing that I'm really troubled by in the wake of his becoming president-elect is that people are saying that we're now in this post-race world, that because we have this black or mix-raced president, that now we are free from racism. And that is a frightening thought. It is not anywhere close to where we are. I wish it was, but, you know, if you have any doubts, check out some of our urban public schools across the country and see that we have major, major gaps to fill. We are not anywhere close to being in this post-racial world.
COX: Ronald, one of the things that Jen mentioned was the topic of diversity, and I'd like to get your response to this, because sometimes, many times, when the topic of diversity comes up, people - their eyes start rolling, things of that sort. How do you get folks engaged in this subject?
Professor TAKAKI: Well, I become a teacher. I teach them the history, the true history of the peoples of the United States of America and how we the people, you know, that was - the nation of we the people that was founded by the signers of the Declaration of Independence was supposed to be a white man's country. But minorities took the ideas and the principles of the Declaration of Independence and made them theirs, and they said we the people have to include us. But multiculturalism is this path toward grounding us in this reality of our diversity. Multiculturalism is not a fad, it's not going to go away, and multiculturalism is not political correctness. Multiculturalism is a serious effort to redefine who is an American.
COX: Well, Jen, some people think, though, that it's not their responsibility to educate others about race or ethnicity. Whose responsibility is it?
Ms. CHAU: It's all of ours. It really is. And one of the things that I have really been thinking a lot about is how, for the most part in this country, issues around race, issues around identity are left up to the people of color, or it's a situation where white folks are made to feel nervous about these conversations, made to feel like they don't know anything, they have nothing to contribute, and people of color are assumed to be the experts. And I think that there are a lot of false assumptions that come with that dichotomy.
And one of the things that we're going to have to do is to put those aside and say, you know what? This is not going to get better unless we're all at the table together and where people are able to bring their experiences and where everyone is respected and valued. We don't have that now. And I think that's part of the reason why, like I said before, we're talking about race and identity in our own separate communities.
COX: What if I'm not interested in other people's communities or other people's cultures or other people's food or music, and I just want to be around people who look like me and think like me and talk like me? What about that?
Ms. CHAU: I mean, that's your prerogative. And I'm not - I personally am not going to do anything to force you out of that corner. I don't think that that's a realistic way to live, moving forward, just as we're talking about how this nation is becoming more and more diverse, but I understand why people might want to do that. There's a security in community, and there's a security in people like you, but I think what you miss then is realizing, guess what? There are other people like you in different communities, and you miss the richness of this country if you stay only with people who reflect exactly your experience.
COX: Ronald, let me ask you as we bring our conversation to a close, what has integration done to the concept of multiculturalism in terms of how young people, a younger generation, has come up with a completely different paradigm than older folks have, with regard to race and multiculturalism and diversity?
Professor TAKAKI: Well, I think, integration now means an integration of our different cultures, where we can be, as individuals and as communities, more than our ethnic identities and our ethnic cultures, our specific ethnic identities and ethnic cultures. We can become multicultural. And this is the rich opportunity that America offers today in the 21st century. There's a lot of sharing that we can do with one another, but we have to remember that we are a diverse people and we all belong to one nation, we share a common citizenship. And that is the reason why we also have to interact with one another.
COX: It would seem that, because we're in a global economy and a global culture, that the old rules with regard to multiculturalism are being expanded and are evolving. Would you agree with that, Jen?
Ms. CHAU: I think that we're in the right direction, as Professor Takaki said before, but I still think we have a way to go. We're still holding on to things like the one drop rule, as he explained. We're still holding on to our old patterns. And one of the reasons why I'm so excited about Barack Obama is because I'm hoping that his mere presence and him bringing up issues around race will keep it on the table. I think that our country sort of perks up when something major happens around race and then have all of these conversations and stop and wait for the next huge event. And so we haven't really been building this momentum and I'm talking about, you know, a national conversation. I don't think we're building this momentum that we need in order to get to a better place and a little bit farther from this old way of talking about race and multiculturalism.
COX: It's a fascinating conversation and I appreciate the time that both of you have given us to come on News & Notes and talk about it. We'd like to invite you to come back and expand the conversation and perhaps include some other ethnic groups to be a part of the conversation. You both are Asian-American. I'm African-American. We need to have some Latinos, and we need to have some Anglo-Americans on here as well. Thank you both very much for coming on.
Ms. CHAU: Thank you so much.
Professor TAKAKI: Thank you.
COX: Ronald Takaki is professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of California Berkeley. A revised edition of his book, "A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America", hits shelves next week. He was at the studios on campus. Also, Jen Chau, the founder and executive director of Swirl, a national multi-ethnic organization. She was at our studios in New York.