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Jeff Chang on Hip Hop, Street Art, and Racial Justice in America

The Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) kicked off its new live event and essay series, "The Counterculturalists," this month by celebrating Jeff Chang’s new book, “Who We Be: The Colorization of America.”

The Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) kicked off its new live event and essay series, "The Counterculturalists," this month by celebrating Jeff Chang’s new book, “Who We Be: The Colorization of America.” AAWW / Basil Rodericks

Inspired by the idea that communities of color can resist assimilation by organizing against the status quo, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) kicked off its new live event and essay series, "The Counterculturalists," by celebrating Jeff Chang’s new book, “Who We Be: The Colorization of America.”

“You don’t have to try to fit in with the mainstream,” said Ken Chen, Executive Director of AAWW. By organizing the series, Chen says he wants the idea of being different from the norm to excite people, not intimidate them. “At the margins, it’s a more interesting place for creativity.”

The first event featured videos, performances, readings, and conversations with a multi-generational roster of artists, writers and activists including Jeff Chang, Jessica Hagedorn, Vijay Prashad, Ayesha Siddiqi, Jay Smooth, Sonia Guinansaca, and Hank Willis Thomas.

Chang -- the American Book Award winner of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” -- is a longtime champion of marginalized communities. In his new book, “Who We Be,” Chang explores the growing multiculturalism of America, and the extent of racial progress -– and setbacks -- over the last fifty years. He sat down with NBC News to talk about his life, his work, and where Asian Americans fit into the national racial dialogue.

In his new book, “Who We Be,” Jeff Chang explores the growing multiculturalism of America, and the extent of racial progress over the last fifty years.
In his new book, “Who We Be,” Jeff Chang explores the growing multiculturalism of America, and the extent of racial progress over the last fifty years. AAWW / Basil Rodericks
You grew up in Hawaii and moved to California for college. How did the shift in racial majority impact your understanding of race?

I arrived in Berkeley as an eighteen year old and within the first couple of weeks, I had been involved with what people would now call “racial microaggressions.” All these incidents where -- just walking down the street people are calling you names or pushing you around or frat boys and hippies and all kinds of folks letting you know, “Hey you’re really a chink, you’re really nothing more than that,” you know what I mean? That happened literally the first couple of weeks at Cal and I was like, “This is Berkeley?”

"What if cultural change actually preceded political change?"

In “Who We Be,” you incorporate visual culture – street art, contemporary art, propaganda and advertisements – in the discussion of racial progress. Why this approach?

You could see it in the street art in 2007-2008 -- this explosion of images that surrounded Obama. And part of the story of the "Obama Hope" story is that it never was officially endorsed. So it becomes this free floating signifier, symbol, image that inspires the creation of all these other images. In the past we’ve said, well, we need to think about it in terms of politics, think about it in terms of organizing coalitions, then building towards power. But these were individual artists who were creating images that were embraced immediately by millions of people. So what if we had it wrong. What if cultural change actually preceded political change? I was really interested in visual culture and the metaphor of seeing and how we see race and how has it changed and not changed. What has been the central role of artists who work in culture -- artist, idealists and dreamers -- in moving us forward?

Asian-American visibility in mainstream media has clearly increased over the past decade. What do you make of those advancements?

In the 80s, I remember there were specific advertising agencies that were specifically setting themselves up to try to be the broker for larger companies who wanted to reach into the Asian-American market. At the same time, you have this massive backlash amongst the elites against multiculturalism. You also have corporations moving towards trying to understand what the new demographic is telling them. Because previous to this they were thinking largely about a demographic that is largely middle class, White suburban, U.S., or North American based.

Identity is really the currency of the global economy now. It’s based on all your previous purchases and all the data they’ve collected on you as a consumer. So your identity becomes the sum of your buying patterns. And so that’s the extent to which the market will really care about racial progress -- to the extent that you are going to watch “Fresh Off The Boat,” that’s the extent to which they will serve you. Beyond that, they’re not responsible.

Jeff Chang's new book "Who We Be" explores racial progress in America over the last 50 years.
Jeff Chang's new book "Who We Be" explores racial progress, and setbacks, in America over the last 50 years. Sahra Vang Nguyen for NBC News. / Courtesy Jeff Chang
What was the hardest part about writing “Who We Be”?

Trying to modulate my voice. Trying to figure out what the right voice was for the book, and cycling through everything on the spectrum from really angry like I was in my 20s to like, "oh it’s all gonna be fine!"

I turned the book in early 2013, and thought I was done, although I didn’t feel like I was done. And then the summer happened, within the course of a week you have the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case, you had the partial repeal of the Voting Rights Act, then you have DOMA being overturned and I was going, "what the hell just happened?" Me and my editor Monique went back immediately and said, lets figure out what happened here and what we have to do. I completely rewrote the last third of the book. Because the ending was too happy -- it just didn’t make any sense.

"Are we gonna align with anti-black, anti-brown notions of whiteness, or are we gonna align with a society that’s gonna be seeking racial justice for everybody?"

So where do you see Asian Americans sitting on the spectrum of racial justice?

The U.S. is very, very racially segregated. Whites by far are the most racially segregated -- an average white student goes to a 75% white school, an average white person lives in a 75% white neighborhood. And then you look at black and brown numbers. Black kids and brown kids tend to go to schools that are majority non-white in large numbers. The measures of segregation put whites here and blacks and Latinos here.

Asian Americans are dead center. Asian Americans are the least segregated group. Our relatively small numbers don’t explain it by itself. It’s the fact that we tend to be in these spaces where we’re the minority group on the come up or the minority group on the bottom. And so what that tells me is that in terms of alignment, the question is really crucial. How are we gonna align? Are we gonna align with anti-black, anti-brown notions of whiteness, or are we gonna align with a society that’s gonna be seeking racial justice for everybody?

Jeff Chang holds a copy of his new book, "Who We Be: The Colorization of America."
Jeff Chang holds a copy of his new book, "Who We Be: The Colorization of America." AAWW / Basil Rodericks

--Interview was edited for clarity and length.