Historian lectures on minorities in America

“Ten Toes Takaki” was a surfer, not a scholar.

“I may look like a professor to you, or a philosopher, with my silver mane,” Professor Ronald Takaki said, slicking back his silver hair, “but as a kid, I wasn’t actually very academically inclined.”

Takaki recounted the story of his redirection towards academics for the Upper School on March 26 at the inaugural Asian Pacific Heritage Assembly.

Takaki talked about the one teacher who completely changed his life: Dr. Shunji Nishi, Ph.D. He had never seen an Asian man with Ph.D. at the back of his name. When he went home and asked his mother what it meant, she had no idea. The first seed had been planted, he said.

“I think I got it into my head that maybe one day I could have a Ph.D. at the back of my name,” Takaki said.

When Nishi asked Takaki if he’d be interested in looking at Wooster College in Ohio, Takaki remembers his reaction: “‘No, no no,’ I thought immediately, it was very intimidating,’” Takaki said. “I quickly put it out of my head.”

But his teacher wrote to Wooster College to recommend Takaki. The next year, he was experiencing the “culture shock” of life as a freshman at Wooster. No one knew anything about Asian Americans.

“People would always ask me, ‘When did you come to America?’” Takaki recalled. “My ancestors probably came before yours,” he often felt like replying.

At first Takaki was annoyed, but then he experienced the realization that changed his life’s aim: “It wasn’t their fault!” he declared.

Takaki decided to give the true culprit a name: the “master narrative of American history.”
This distorted version of history that students learn in school inspired Takaki to continue his research of African, Asian, Mexican and Native American studies at UC Berkeley. Later, he taught UCLA’s first ever black history course.

“I could feel all their eyes on my head on the first day,” he said. “They were saying ‘Funny, he doesn’t look black.’”

He started the Black Student Union and became immersed in the ethnic programs at UCLA.
After being fired from UCLA for being a “troublemaker,” because his formation of cultural unions alarmed his boss, Takaki returned to UC Berkeley to teach multicultural history.