Jeff Chang is a cultural critic whose lively writings explore the intersections of politics, art, and music. His first book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: a History of the Hip Hop Generation (2005), received the American Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award. Chang masterfully tells the socio-political history of hip hop from the inside out: a generation whose words, rhythms and style captured youth imagination and yearning for a just world. The backlash against hip hop—and anyone identified with this cultural movement—as well as the attempts to co-opt and commercialize hip hop show the edge of on-going culture wars that still divide this nation, meanwhile spilling across borders, as globalization crosscuts the world.
Currently generating buzz is Chang’s Who We Be: the Colorization of America, released in October 2014. As a historian with a master’s degree in multicultural studies, I was eager to read Chang’s analysis of the rise of multiculturalism, its diminishment and the supposed “post-racial” present. Chang bluntly calls for a “new way of seeing America.” Specifically, he probes the spaces between how we see and perceive race and how race manifests in national culture. He critiques the claim that the historic election of Barack Obama, the first Black multiracial president, can be read as “post-racial.”
Chang challenges us to an honest national conversation about race. The last attempt to set such an agenda was President William Clinton’s 1997 Initiative on Race. The initiative called for a “constructive dialogue” and included an educational outreach component, leadership development and problem solving in areas such as “education, economic opportunity, housing, healthcare, crime and administration of justice.”
However, Chang focuses on how artists and activists approach redefining how we see race, since what we perceive is warped by the “twin conditions of cultural segregation—the absence of representation and the presence of misrepresentation.” Before we can enter such dialogue, we must talk about how we see race and this may expose how much we don’t see race at all.
Chang states that “our visual culture has been colorized,” such that race literally colors media, marketing, and societal structures while masking the deepening inequality, compounded by gender, class, and race. People of color may be visible everywhere yet they fundamentally lack power to significantly transform deepening inequality—or token people of color have been sufficiently co-opted to rationalize the status quo of resegregation and racial disparities.
Chang’s writing is fresh and redolent of the youth movements that proved formative for his own sensibilities and values. In an interview for SFGate by Bojan Srbinovski, Chang describes a turning point as a freshman at UC Berkeley when he realized that the campus police were more concerned with campus property than students and their shantytown protest of UC investments in South African apartheid.
Through his activism in student government, he confronted institutional policies of racism and inequity. The voices of people that he’s worked with and interviewed literally help tell the stories, whether of hip hop or culture wars.
This technique of “talk story” may reflect Chang’s own Chinese and native Hawaiian roots, as well as his academic work with late historian and Ethnic Studies scholar, Ronald Takaki, who also came to the continental United States as a college student. Similar to Takaki, Chang perceives and experiences race matters from the unique perspective of having grown up in an Asian majority environment. The legality of Hawai‘i’s admission into the union in 1959 is disputed. Hawai‘i more closely resembles the post-colonial world and the continued Hawaiian sovereignty movement underscores this tension.
In his early teens, Chang fell in love with hip hop and through this way of being, became racially aware in the “mainland” paradigm. Another shared aspect with his mentor, Takaki, is their national roles in the culture wars. Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (1993) was at the center of the culture wars, and Takaki defended multiculturalism in national debates. Fearing fragmentation, mainstream academics like Arthur Schlesinger criticized multiculturalists with such works as The Disuniting of America (1991).
In my email interview, Chang foregrounds the role of artists and activists because they “help us to see what we can’t yet see. They are constantly showing that another world is possible. At this moment when it’s impossible for us to imagine how change could come through the way politics is currently structured, they keep the imagination for change alive. In this regard they are indispensable to the movement.”
Chang cites a “2014 MTV poll [that] showed that 73 percent of millennials believe that ‘never considering race’ would improve society. The poll also showed that 81 percent believed ‘embracing diversity and celebrating the differences between the races’ would improve society.” Chang suggests that “after decades of culture wars, they are really confused about how to move forward on issues of racial justice.”
In Who We Be, Chang points “to young organizers, activists, and artists who are doing this (generating new language on issues of racial disparities)—and they use the language of dreams—the DREAM activists and the Dream Defenders.”
“I’m really inspired by the way that they think of identity, difference, and movement,” he continues.
Chang acknowledges the inspiration and influence of Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American revolutionary, activist, and author. Chang explains that “Grace’s vision of a new American Revolution is the most expansive, ethical, and sustainable path forward. She draws on both Malcolm X’s rage against oppression and Martin Luther King’s ideal of the beloved community to help us understand how we form movements now. And in Grace’s vision, everything is connected—and we all must take responsibility for addressing these big questions and shaping the future together.”
Jeff Chang will deliver a talk entitled, “Who We Be: The Colorization of America,” based on his book of the same title, at UW Bothell, March 10 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Discovery Hall 061.
Editor’s note (3/11/2015 at 11:00 a.m.): An edit was made to clarify that the legality of Hawai‘i’s admission into the union in 1959 is disputed.