Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Q&A with author Jeff Chang

Jeff Chang is the author of the new book Who We Be: The Colorization of America. He also has written Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and edited Total Chaos. He is the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. 

Q: You write, "Everyone seems to agree that with Obama's election we have entered a new era in U.S. history. But how do we describe this time?" What do you see as the most important similarities and differences between this "new era" and what came before? 

A: [Recently,] the internet got into an uproar about disclaimers placed on "Tom & Jerry" cartoons from the 1940s and 1950s that warned there were ethnic and racial prejudices depicted in them.

What's new about our era is that there is much more awareness, especially among whites, about the toll that racism exacts and has exacted. We couldn't have imagined such disclaimers even being contemplated before the 1990s.

What's the same, however, is that we still don't know how to talk about what to do about it. We've learned what not to say to each other but not what to say to each other. So we have these big going-nowhere-fast debates about the weirdest things. 

Q: Throughout the book, you include references to the cartoonist Morrie Turner and his work. What does he exemplify for you?

A: For me, Morrie represents a generosity of spirit and a well of empathy. He knew that, because he did cartoons where he put his words into kids' mouths, he could say a lot more than if he had issued a polemic. So he could be edgy and gentle at the same time. He was a predecessor to Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. in that regard.

In order for us to really have that "race conversation," we have to be able to dig deep into some wounds, but to go there with empathy and wit in our back pockets.

Q: One of the political moments you choose to look at is the Willie Horton ad run against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. What role do you see that ad playing, and does its legacy continue?

A: The Willie Horton ad crystallized the Southern Strategy for a new generation--it made it possible for race to be coded into the very language of politics.

From that we had two decades in which policies that exacerbated resegregation and inequality could become mainstream. We are now at a point where, even in the midst of changing demographics, we are seeing all indices of racial progress in complete reversal.

Q: You write, "But oh multiculturalism--where was your sting, where was your victory?" How do you see multiculturalism affecting the country, and did it end up having either a sting or a victory?

A: Ah, great question. Both. The book means to draw our attention to the way that we see race—and how that has changed and has not changed over the past half-century. We have culturally desegregated, there is no doubt of that.

But the early proponents of multiculturalism meant to bring about a cultural shift, where greater acceptance of difference would lead to greater material equality, not to mention greater cultural mixing.

Well, this post-multicultural America has plenty of exciting mixing going on. But after two summers of polarization, both of which catalyzed by events in which the way young men of color were seen made all the difference in the world, it's impossible to say that we are closer to equality.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Staying afloat! I have a short book on Youth that I'm working on for Picador. Super excited about that! Then the big long-term project is a biography of Bruce Lee, which scares the hell out of me--all for the better.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm super proud of the amazing graphic design in the book done by Stephen Serrato, and the amazing website (whowebe.net) done by Hassan Rahim and Jon-Kyle Mohr. Hope you enjoy both of those, which are works unto themselves. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. What a fabulous interview! I cannot wait for his Bruce Lee biography!