Interview: Cultural critic Jeff Chang discusses how race is (and isn’t) talked about in America

 -- photo by Jeremy Keith Villaluz
Jeff Chang, author of Who We Be: The Colorization of America reads at The Mill on April 2 as part of the Mission Creek Festival. — photo by Jeremy Keith Villaluz

Writer Jeff Chang

The Mill — Thursday, April 2 at the 7 p.m.

Journalist and cultural critic Jeff Chang reads in support of his new book Who We Be: The Colorization of America at The Mill on Thursday as part of the Mission Creek Festival.

In Who We Be, Chang looks at how artists — everyone from Wee Pals cartoonist Morrie Turner to conceptual artist Glenn Ligon to street artist Shepard Fairey — have represented our country’s “colorization,” a term used to describe the social, cultural and racial demographic shifts that the United States has experienced since the civil rights era. In a fashion similar to Chang’s previous book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, Who We Be also provides a social history of cultural change in the U.S. since the 1960s, with a particular focus on the legacy of the multiculturalist movement of the 1980s.

Little Village interviewed Chang by email about his new book and the nature of both public and artistic discourse on issues of race in America today.

Little Village: Much of Who We Be: The Colorization of America is devoted to examining how artists have represented the demographic shifts that have “colorized” the U.S. since the ’60s up until the present day. With the national protests over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the activism organized around “Black Lives Matter,” a central topic in race relations today is racial bias in both policing and police violence. Are there works of art that take on this issue that you find particularly important in terms of how they speak to colorization?

In the book I included a poster that Nikkolas Smith created after George Zimmerman’s acquittal of Martin Luther King Jr. wearing a hoodie and posing in the same way Trayvon Martin had. I did so because I thought it conveyed in a very direct way the key theme of the book: Race begins as a problem of seeing.

Nikkolas’s image asks so many crucial questions. What if Martin Luther King, Jr. had been in a hoodie on an evening like that? What kind of future could Trayvon Martin have had — could he have grown up to be a great leader? That was why it seemed so fatuous and silly for some pundits to suggest that Trayvon should not have worn a hoodie that night. The problem is bigger than a piece of clothing.

It literally has to do with the way people of color are seen. And so, the most important question of all is: Can people of color, can anyone who is Other be seen in their full humanity?

In your book you contrast multiculturalism’s success with achieving greater cultural representation for minority groups with its failure to gain equity for these groups. While our culture is inclusive enough to accept a black president, you point out that there is still little open discussion over race, even at a time when our society is becoming increasingly segregated, particularly for black Americans, in terms of housing, schools and income. Do you think cultural movements can successfully address racial inequities, and would artists play any role in such cultural change?

Absolutely. And against the available evidence, I guess. But I have to believe that artists do the work of changing the culture, of making ideas that once seemed insane — “school segregation can be ended,” “gays can marry,” “a Black man can be president” — to be possible, even inevitable. What we know now is that representation is necessary, but not sufficient. Artists have to create the space for masses to imagine what a different and better world can look like. As many of us who work in this arena like to say: Cultural change precedes political change.

With regard to today’s lack of conversation on race, you discuss what you term as “shallow media spectacles.” You write, “We make a noisy ritual of rapidly shunting to the dim wings of the image-world celebrities who reveal themselves as bigots. … We know what not to say to each other, but what to say.” Are there incidents of celebrity-shaming of late that you think could have been discussed more constructively?

I think celebrity-shaming — or simply people-shaming, as in the more recent case of Oklahoma University’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity — is a ritual we practice in order to tell ourselves that racism is dead. I am not completely cynical about such rituals, if they remind us how we have much work to do, individually and institutionally.


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To give an opposite example, Starbucks took a lot of hits for its well-intentioned #RaceTogether campaign. But if we can’t create practices for change, how do we get to change? Too much of the criticism there seemed to come from the side of “Oh please, we can’t do anything about this. Just let me have my latte in peace.”

That impulse is the same impulse that drives celebrity-shaming — “I can’t deal with this, just make it stop” — and the ritualistic aspect is the idea that I want everyone to give me credit (like me! retweet me!) for saying, “Make it stop.” The ritual allows me to show to others I am not a racist, because I can show you someone else who is or show how someone else’s efforts to end racism are foolish and inadequate. It’s all disingenuous and asinine.

To me the fairest criticism of #RaceTogether is that Starbucks should have started by recognizing the lack of diversity in its own leadership structures. My point is that we must move beyond these rituals of shaming and critique and develop an ethics of conversation. We have to say that there is a problem and we will first put ourselves on the line, make ourselves open to real change even if it makes us vulnerable and uncomfortable, not simply point the fingers at someone else.

How we do that in today’s polarizing, get-me-likes-and-retweets media and social media environment? I don’t know.

Your first book was a history of hip hop and you continue to write on issues in hip hop today. Do you have any thoughts on the recent album by Kendrick Lamar, an artist who, to me, is striking for challenging the assumptions of what hip hop can engage with while still maintaining mass appeal.

I love Kendrick’s new album. The thing I love about it most is that it’s obsessed with questions, not answers. That’s where I’m writing from right now, too. It’s not a great time for answers, but it’s the golden age of questions.

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