Couldn’t make out to Facing Race 2012, our national conference? Or want to share what your experience there? Here’s the full 70-minute video of one of three plenaries we hosted on the weekend of Nov. 15, 2012, in Baltimore, Maryland.
In this plenary, Colorlines.com publisher Rinku Sen leads a conversation with Define American’s José Antonio Vargas, comedian Negin Farsad, journalist Jeff Chang, and Treme writer Lolis Eric Elie. Together, they discuss the role art plays in shaping society, in ways politics often can’t.
We’ll be posting full video from all of the plenaries throughout this week. You can find them and other stories about the event under our Facing Race 2012 hot topic.
A note on audio: since this is a recording of a live event in front of a real audience, there are a few quirks with sound quality. We’re working to get text transcripts available of this and the rest of our plenaries—stay tuned! [UPDATE: Transcript below.]
Rinku Sen: All right, welcome to our closing plenary. We are going to wrap up this conference with a really stellar panel of cultural—of culture makers, artists and cultural critics and activists. Uh, I’m going to introduce each of them briefly and we’re gonna watch a clip of their work because I want you all to know the context in which you’re going to be listening to them, the context of their work.
So, we are going to start right here with Jose Antonio Vargas. Jose Antonio Vargas is the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who was on the reporting team at The Washington Post that won the prize for its work on the Virginia Tech shootings.
In the summer of 2011 in The New York Times Magazine he came out as an undocumented person [applause] and since then has started the organization, Define American, to help change the conversation about immigration in the United States. Let’s watch a little clip of Jose Antonio Vargas’ work.
[video clip starts] George Wallace 1963: And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!
“Bull” Connor: You can never whip these buddies if you don’t keep you and them separate. I found that out in Birmingham. You’ve got to keep the white and the black separate!
Male: The entire problem is the fact we haven’t sat down at each other’s table. Paco and his family, they spent the night at my house. I spent the night at their house. I’ve eaten at their table, they’ve eaten at my table. It’s a friendship deal and he works with me also. I’d rather say he works with me than for me.
Male: The idea that if I’ve got Paco in a vehicle with me then I’m liable also and I can be arrested, well that’s telling me who my friends, the state of Alabama is telling me who my friends can be. That’s what buffalos me.
I tell his grandkids that they’re nietos, my grandchildren because to me they’re sort of like another set of grandchildren.
When they leave, they’re like family—I’ll have, I’ll have tears in my eyes if they’re not running down my cheeks. Ain’t no doubt about it. This is not the kind of America I want and it’s not the kind of Alabama I want. No way, we’re going backwards instead of forward. [video clip ends]
Rinku: All right, thank you. While we continue, can one of our staff please find Jonathan and get my phone from him? Thank you. I see him in the back, he’s bringing me my phone, I hope.
All right, next we have Negin Farsad. Negin was named one of the funniest, one of the 50 funniest women in the world, presumably, which is really elite, by the Huffington Post. She has written for and appeared on Comedy Central, MTV, the Independent Film Channel and many others. She is hilarious. She has a potty mouth, which makes me a fan of yours. And she is the producer of the documentary film, really the tour documentary, The Muslims Are Coming! And we’re gonna watch the trailer for the film right now.
[film trailer starts] Pat Buchanan: Make no mistake about it, Islam is a violent religion.
Donald Trump: Is there a Muslim problem? Look what’s happening.
Bill Maher: We’re dealing with a culture that is in its Medieval era.
Male: These are young, angry terrorists that want to kill you. They want to kill me and you know it. Stop with the PC crap.
Farsad: Can I invite you to a standup comedy show? It’s absolutely free tonight at 8 o’clock. It’s called The Muslim Are Coming! There’s a bunch of Muslims on stage, but they’re hilarious.
Dean Obeidallah: …claims responsibility for things they could’ve never done. The [inaudible 04:48], we did it for Allah. The goal of the tour is to go out to middle America using comedy, reaching out to people beyond our community.
Farsad: And give America this big Muslim hug. Come on, America, bring it in. Ah, yeah, that feels good.
Jon Stewart: People don’t notice minorities usually until either one of them has a hit song or does something horrible.
Female: Well how do you feel about 9/11?
Male: Today is the day a live Muslims is here to answer your questions.
Male: Why doesn’t the Muslim community be more proactive in denouncing terrorism?
Aasif Mandvi: Why do I have to prove to you that I’m not dangerous?
Soledad O’Brien: If you’re constantly trying to prove that you’re the model minority, it’s exhausting.
Lewis Black: Oh, wait, we have unemployment? What about those Muslims! Having trouble creating jobs, what about the fucking Muslims!
Farsad: I’m standing in the middle of the dance floor and I see this dude checking me out. And so I do what any good Muslim girl would do, and I allowed him to grind up on me right here.
Ali Velshi: …much rather the edgy Muslim who says vagina is the one that we’re more associated with than the edgy Muslim who kills people.
Aron Kader: The Mormons ask me if I wanted to be a missionary when I turned 19. And I said look, to an Arab, a mission is a whole different deal.
Omar Elba: I don’t know if Muslims watch this documentary if they’ll consider these comics proper representations of Islam.
Farsad: I wish I had more support from some sub sects of the Muslim community and I don’t. I wish these folks the best. They may well be setting themselves up to be killed.
Janeane Garofalo: Comedy has a huge role to play for saying things that the mainstream media will not say.
Colin Quinn: Any dummy can do a standup show.
Jon Stewart: What a great moment for Muslims. The eyes are upon you now.
Rachel Maddow: You have to appeal to what is un-American about Islamophobia. You have to make an appeal based on American values.
Farsad: The casing flew back into my cleavage.
David Cross: They work with you, we’re your neighbors, we’re nice, we make pie. We hate gays, but outside of that we’re just nice normies.
Song: The Muslims, you know they are a-coming!
Jon Stewart: We’ve barely just let the gays in recently. The fact that the Muslim are coming in now, things are getting a little crowded in the green room, if you know what I mean.
Song: You know they want to friend you, they order from the… [film trailer ends]
Rinku: Great! [applause] Lolis Eric Elie is a writer and a documentary filmmaker. He writes about food and music, and more recently has been a writer on the HBO show, Treme. How many of you have been watching that show? Is it awesome or what? We’re gonna watch a clip now from his documentary for Faubourg Treme.
[documentary clip starts] Woman: What you had here was constant contact between free and enslaved people. And what you had here was revolution and rebellion and agitation against slavery that was as strong, if not stronger in the free black community as it was in the enslaved black community.
Kalamu ya Salaam: Louisiana has the distinction of having the largest slave revolt in the history of America, 500, by their own estimation, by the estimation of the newspapers, 500 enslaved Africans broke free off the plantation and were marching on New Orleans.
Male: What happened with that revolt?
Salaam: That revolt eventually was put down by the military. I mean it became an all out battle and the leaders of the revolt were executed, some of them right here in Congo Square…heads cut off, put on pikes and everything else like that to try and discourage any further activity.
Female: It was no accident that rebellious slaves were executed here. Congo Square was and is the heart of Faubourg Treme and all of black New Orleans.
Here, generations of African Americans played music, danced and sold goods at the market. In Congo Square, African culture helped give birth to jazz and together they spilled out onto the streets of Treme. We call this the second line after the line of dancers that follows the band.
Male: New Orleans breathes Africa. [documentary clip ends]
Rinku: Awesome, thank you. [applause] Jeff Chang is the person that I have known the longest on this panel, since we were like three…not really, just 20. Jeff Chang is the executive director of the Institute or Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. He is also an organizer with Culture Strike, which is an effort to bring artists together around immigration issues, particularly in Arizona and the Southwest. He is the author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: The Definitive History of the Hip Hop Generation. And also the author of the upcoming book, Who We Be? Who We Be, which you should buy when it comes out, which is gonna be when?
Jeff Chang: Next year.
Rinku: Next year, okay, that’s a, that’s a long time. You will know when to pre-order it. So let’s watch a clip of Jeff’s.
Male: And Jeff, over the last four years you’ve written a number of articles and you’ve spoken to this resurgence of a culture war. And maybe I can start off with you because you said in order to move things politically you’re gonna have to do things on a cultural tip. And you made the assertion that many people on the left, at least in the power establishment of the left, have not really embraced that while the right is running roughshod on the culture wars. And maybe you can, maybe you can start and you can set the tone in how you framed that.
Chang: Well, you know, we, I think all of us here at this table—and there’s a lot of folks out in your audience and that kind of thing would agree with the idea that cultural change proceeds political change. And you know, there’s all kinds of examples that we could talk about. You could talk about Jackie Robinson, you know, coming out in Dodger Blue. On the field seven years before the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
You could talk about Ellen DeGeneres coming out on TV all these years before you know, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell gets repealed. There’s just numerous examples.
Hip hop in a lot of ways, I think we’d all agree, made it possible for us to imagine that there could be a black president. I mean in 2000 they did a poll of young people and something like 60% of students of color couldn’t even imagine there ever being a black president. But eight years later they were the ones that helped elect Barack Obama.
So you know, we think that, that if you change the culture then you have a shot at changing the politics, that politics is sort of the last domino so to speak. [clip ends]
Rinku: All right, thank you. [applause] All right, so we have just a tiny bit more than an hour, really about an hour, so we’re gonna go really quickly rapid fire. We gotta get Negin and Jose onto various kinds of transportation.
So I’m gonna start with the question that is the title of the plenary. So in this clip Jeff asserts that cultural change proceeds political change, you know, that’s a very specific kind of sequencing that he is suggesting. And I just wanna hear from each of you, you know, your broad strokes notion about the notion of the relationship between culture and politics—do you think that they’re sequential? Do you think that there’s—might you ever disagree with Jeff and say oh, well, actually here in x-example, the political change came first and it was really critical. Let’s just, let’s just hear your answer to the “or does it?” part. And why don’t we actually not start with Jeff, and can we start with you, Jose?
Jose: Yes, I agree that culture, the cultural change happens before political change. And let me just—but when we talk about culture I wanna kind of unpack a little bit of what we’re talking about. I think, you know, as somebody who’s been a journalist for like a decade and I’m actually working on my second documentary, I think of culture as storytelling.
To me that’s kind of at the heart of culture. And the fact that we have now new technologies, I mean I remember when Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, kind of like 2005-2007, when I was a reporter at The Washington Post, I was drawn to it initially because you know, having worked in newsrooms my whole life, newsrooms that never reflected the diversity of the people that they cover…I mean we have a situation right now in which The New York Times finally has a woman editor.
And it’s like, it’s like the Nile has parted. What are they gonna do when they get a Puerto Rican one, you know. It’s like…to me, the great thing about you know, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, it allows people to tell their stories, right.
And I mean for us kind of in the undocumented movement and also in the gay movement or any other movement that has always been considered as the other in America, I think we now are all telling our own stories. We are now in charge. We are now playing offense. And how we do that, how we make sure that we’re empowering not just our own committees, but how we bridge the gap and preach beyond the choir, to me, for me as somebody’s who you know, I’ve been working on this film now for two years before I came out, “came out.”
Rinku: Came out for the second time.
Jose: For the second time, and I’m like totally done coming out.
Rinku: Oh, really? You sure.
Jose: Totally done, nothing more to say. But it, it, it is fascinating to me watching how the very notion of whom we define as minorities, you know, as somebody who’s Filipino with a name like Jose, who’s gay, who’s undocumented and who majored in Black Studies in college, like I fit in a lot of minority boxes, but I’m actually not a minority.
I think this election in some ways has rede—has redefined for us what a multiethnic majority America looks like. And I, I would like to declare independence from being called “a minority.” I’m a majority of one. And I think culturally, I think that’s something that it’s funny because even you see that in all the work here, I think that’s the subtext, you know. And it’s gonna be fascinating to see how that evolves in the next few years.
Rinku: Okay, great. Lolis, let’s go to you next.
Lolis: I was all prepared to take the opposite position and say that my brother was wrong. Then I thought about it and what’s striking to me about political change is that part of what happens is for you decide to come out, for you to decide to take a stand there has to be a feeling there’s the possibility of the community reacting. There’s enough feeling, even though people may not necessarily have already put their bodies on the line this way, you feel that society is ready for a kind of change.
A big part of that lesson for me was in reading Parting the Waters,” and checking out the ministers who proceeded Dr. King in Alabama, and therefore, made it conceivable that they might be successful.
And second of all, a big part of the discovery for me in the making of our film was this idea that the Civil Rights Movement was taking place in New Orleans in the 1890s when there were still black folks in the legislature, at a time when lynchings were at an all-time high.
Now, because national cultural change had not happened to such an extent as to enable that movement to become national, even regional, the country did not do Brown vs. Board, they did Plessy vs. Ferguson instead. But I think in order for the political change to take place, either the political leadership, or even the leaders themselves have to, have to believe that they exist in society, will for this change.
Also, if you think about the word avant-garde and what it means in military terms.
Lolis: What usually happens with avant-garde is they get killed. They go out and they say we should fight the battles or we should go. They come back—or if they come back at all, but the people are actually able to take advantage of the information and do something with it, of the folks who have a successful movements.
Rinku: Yeah, so in some ways you guys are starting to talk about the um, the pre-movement periods, right. So we’re really accustomed in our study of history to focus in on those periods where dramatic things happen, where there’s spontaneous growing action and replication of action, the sit-ins get replicated everywhere, but before that happens there’s a lot of stuff that goes on.
The community has to get consolidated and has to develop an identity. And it has to do some things together. So we could, you know, one way of thinking about this might be as the pre-movement periods. Negin, what do you want to say about this?
Negin: Well, I said this in a panel earlier, so apologies for not being able to develop two different thoughts, but I—like Lenny Bruce went on stage and and he was a popular comedian. And he used his popularity to be able to say “cock” on stage. And that means that now like I can say cock on stage and that’s like the gift that he gave me, and I utilize it freely, like a lot, cock, cock, cock. And that was like a, I’m sorry, she did say I was a potty mouth, so you’ve been warned.
But that is the kind of cultural change that, that you know, that, that, that happens. But I think what’s interesting about the question is almost in a lot of these circumstances is like it, it doesn’t matter what the political, like some of the—with the stuff I do, I’m not like, there’s not a law that I want enacted that says you know, don’t think of Muslims as shitty people.
Like that’s not a reasonable law to expect me to get enacted, right? So I don’t even give a—I don’t care. I was gonna say I don’t give a shit. I don’t know why I didn’t just say that. I don’t, so in some sense I don’t, I don’t, I’m not even thinking—I don’t care what the political outcome is of the, of the stuff that I do. I care about, I almost only care about the social outcome of what I do. I only care about—like my goal right now is to replace the stereotype that Muslims are all terrorists with the stereotype that Muslims are fucking hilarious, right? That’s my goal.
And so there’s, and so there’s no—and so which makes the question you know, not directly related, you know, related sometimes.
Rinku: So you couldn’t possibly be suggesting that cultural activity might have some inherent value beyond the political.
Negin: I mean…
Rinku: Right, thank you. Jeff, we have your clip. You get the last word on this question.
Jeff: Um, I don’t even know where to start actually because they kind of summed up everything I was gonna say, but um, but I guess-
Rinku: But you’ll talk anyway.
Jeff: Yeah, so this book I’m working on is called Who We Be: The Colorization of America. And it started out—the way I pitched it was as a book about the rise and fall of the multiculturalism arts movement. And I went to my editor with it and she’s like multiculturalism has got no swag, who cares about that anymore?
And what it turned out was, was that the book ended up being about the persistence of the culture wars, why the culture wars never went away. And so I think like one of the things that was, was really interesting to me was that the multiculturalism arts movement, it was a short-lived movement, all right. It’s really like dating between the ’70s and it sort of breaks in the early ’90s, and by ‘93-‘94 it’s the, the wave kind of comes back out, right.
So it’s short compared to say hip hop, right, as an arts movement. But the notion was was after you get the laws changed, after you have de jure segregation removed, like how are we going to live together, right? And so the culture wars that continue today are about still these questions—how are you going to live together?
And I think that all the questions that we’ve been asking this weekend come to that. We have a view of how people should live together. We believe in integration, we believe in empowerment, we believe in a majority of all, right?
And I think that that’s in opposition to this, this notion that was defeated in the last election that you know, it ought to be an assimilationist type of process…that it ought to be about hierarchies, racial hierarchies about maintaining thse racial heirarchies that date back hundreds of years.
And so I think that in that sense we have to fight in the culture, we don’t have any choice. You know, it’s, culture is where everybody’s out pretty much all the time. And political change we think of in terms of events like judicial decision, like an election and these kinds of things.
But what’s all this stuff that’s happening outside of that? Before that, after that, in the lead up to it, in the middle, all around that it’s, it’s happening in the culture. And I think that’s where we need to seriously think about playing and playing hard.
Rinku: Great. So let me ask you all, you know, organizers and activists, people who are trying to push policy, we tend to be, well we, I shouldn’t say we…they tend to be really transactional about the cultural engagement that our organizations do or have, you know. We, we just want another way to get out the message that we developed you know, in the, in the context of making political change.
And that can—I’d love for each of you to talk about what kind of advice you would give to organizers who have some inkling that we need other ways to communicate with people, you know, beyond the straightforward political speech or the, the uh broad side, the mobilization email. What would you say to people who want to be cultural engaged, but who tend to just end up producing a flyer with their existing slogan in a different font than it had last week?
Can we start with Negin? Oh, actually, Lolis looked ready, so…you raised your mic, I’m gonna call on you.
Lolis: How deceiving these looks can be. My suggestion would be that you listen and try to get some sense of how people are already expressing themselves. Evaluate to what sense your own vision, your own message is parallel to what people are already saying or already doing.
There are a couple of instances in the context of New Orleans culture that was especially powerful for me in the days following the levy failures. It’s a story that I have told many times before, so perhaps you’ve heard it.
But years ago a friend of mine was visiting from South Africa and we saw a second line parade like the one that my clip ended with. And—I’m sorry, he saw a protest in the city and asked me where was the dancing because in the South African context there’s a toyi-toyi dancing that accompanies a lot of the political protests.
And so he’s like how are these people, these black people protesting in the absence of this sort of dance. I had no answer.
After the levy failures when people were being told that they could not return to their homes, suddenly the second line parades, which I had never seen as overtly political, became political, became a statement about poor people, about how badly they wanted to return.
And among other things, the signs they held were the signs, the street signs from the neighborhoods that had been destroyed and that were most likely not to be allowed return. So in that sense an expression already had been, a part of the culture had been transformed because it had a purpose at that point, it was useful at that point.
Similarly, one of the great tragedies of American culture, American regional culture, I think is the fact that we’ve lost our regional foods and we’ve lost our regional music.
The week after Hurricane Katrina, it was a Monday, the storm hit on a Monday, and I was in Baton Rouge, LA. And Baton Rouge is about as far from New Orleans as the North Pole is from the South Pole. In New Orleans, every Monday the tradition is to eat red beans and rice, and so those of us exiled in Baton Rouge gathered that evening and had a meal of red beans and rice…and in that sense affirmed our belief in our city, despite what the national media was saying about the inadvisability of rebuilding this place.
And so simple an act as choosing a menu, we were able to make a statement about our own patriotism, our own determination to rebuild. And I can imagine that in various other kinds of context when you find whatever the sacramental food of your movement, or your people or your group would be…whatever music speaks to you in a certain kind of way. Imagine what it would be like to hear your national anthem in the middle of France, in the middle of Nigeria, in the middle of the Philippines or whatever, and they played The Star-Spangled Banner. There’s an aspect to that that would touch you in a way that a sign proclaiming your political position wouldn’t be able to do.
So my advice is to look for those kinds of expressions that already exist and try to figure out how you can appropriate them in a way to be most consistent with your own aims.
Rinku: Right. Thanks. [applause]. Negin.
Negin: Um, that’s like a really tough question and I think it’s a really tough question because you know what’s hard, like the internet. The internet is so difficult because the, because you can’t—here’s—I’m like a young lady, right. I’ve got like a Twitter account @NeginFarsad, follow me.
And I find the internet daunting, so never mind if you’re an organization you actually want to push out and you’re maybe not as well-versed in the internet. And suddenly you have to make a flyer, except for flyers aren’t, you know, pieces of paper anymore, you know what I mean? They’re digital and they—you have to put a drop shadow on it and what is that? and oh, my God.
And so I can see that like, that you know, the idea of like communicating like in this, in this new space is really difficult. And I see, like I work a lot with, I’ve worked a lot with like AFL-CIO, local, statewide chapters. And I see these people who are like older and just like barely like able to use their smartphone, and they are just trying to figure it out.
And I think that, the one thing that I found most heartwarming about these people who are dealing with, with you know, advocacy, is their willingness to say I don’t actually know who the internet works. That’s one thing that you can do as a leader of an organization is like admit to yourself and your staff that you don’t know what the fuck is going on with the internet.
And then to, to allow you know, and to bring in these like younger people who might know. And not even, they don’t have to be young, but just like that they’re, there are people that actually do know how to communicate on the internet. And that’s I think probably, I think the biggest challenge is just admitting that we’re in a different world order and and you know, you should use email instead of type a memo or whatever. That’s like the fir—and I think, I see that a lot, you know, with organizations I’ve worked with. And that’s I think my biggest piece of advice.
Rinku: Great, thanks.
Jose: I remember when I first saw the term social media in like a conference. This was in like 2005 in DC. And I remember thinking like man, that is such a bad term. I don’t think social media, it really, I mean all it really is is the “me” in media. Like that’s what social media is, there’s a “me” in media, right?
And how that is again, like realigning the way we, not only the way we consume media, but who’s producing the media and who’s watching, right? So that conversation. But back to your original question, I think a lot about—by the way, my favorite magazine is Fast Company. I don’t know if you read Fast Company. It’s a really interesting magazine.
And they had a great article a couple months ago about narrative as branding, about how brands really need to think about their narratives. And since I am like a you know, I guess my life, my professional life has always been about narrative, the first question I always ask is who’s my audience—who’s my audience, what’s the message and what’s the space I’m creating?
It’s so funny because whenever I talk about immigration, I’m doing a lot of the talks that I’m trying to do in places like Alabama. I just got back from Birmingham two weeks ago. I was there for a week. And I did like a symposium at the Univ. of AL, Tuscaloosa. And people, like I remember I gave this little talk thing with all these students, mostly white, maybe about 200 kids. They expect to like you know, talk about immigrant rights, and I do, but usually I begin with remember, you know, back in 1896 to 1956, when 12 million undocumented people from Europe crossed the border called the Atlantic Ocean? And then landed on Ellis Island with no papers.
And some of those students were like whoa, wait, wait, you’re revising history. I’m like no, no, I’m just trying to give you context, right? And you guys, one out of three of you are sitting in here be cause somebody without papers crossed the border called the Atlantic Ocean and landed on Ellis Island. I mean that’s just context.
So here we are nearly 60 years later talking again about another 12 million people. Is it because we look different and we have different food and I don’t know, like what is this shit really about? And then turn the table around, the illegal that you call me is the illegal that you don’t understand, right?
And a lot of my work, I mean at least in terms of narrative—so I’m working on this documentary now on immigration and my next documentary discussion will be on whiteness, is really exploring what that means. And in many ways I think, you know, I remember coming to America when I was 12 from the Philippines and being really shocked because you know, we learned to speak English in the Philippines by listening to like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson songs.
And I never knew that they were black because like we just thought that they were Americans. And then I get to America and I’m like ooh, they’re black. And I’m like wait up, so did white people, like who—I feel like this country invented white as much as it invented black. Right?
And now, and now, and now that history is cracking open, now that nearly 50% of the kids under the age of 18 in America are not white, we gotta start redefining this shit or else we’re gonna be in real serious trouble.
Like one last little comment I wanna make about Alabama, so here I am talking about Latin people, and Asian people and you know, I’m gay and all that stuff, and this young woman after my talk comes up to me
Rinku: White woman.
Jose: and she was like shaking, and I’m like why is she shaking? And she goes um, I’m in a sorority and it’s a really big deal here to be in a sorority…and they won’t, the sorority sisters won’t let in this girl because she’s half black…like how do I talk to them about this? Like I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna get kicked out of the sorority because you know, it’s really important to me, but I know that it’s wrong.
And here I am talking to them about letting an Asian guy named Jose who’s gay, and here’s this young woman talking to me about how they won’t let this girl in because she’s half black. I’m in fucking Birmingham 50 years after that segregation. Now it’s like, post-racial Obama America? Bullshit, sorry, I’m like cussing.
Rinku: Now you’re Negin.
Jose: But you know what I’m talking about? Like that’s what we’re talking about here. And I think it’s very important I think to really start connecting these dots. That’s why it’s so, I can tell you it is so heartening to me to be in a place in Alabama and seeing so many African American civil rights warriors who stand alongside brown people, you know, and saying, I mean that, that’s how we have change happen.
You know, we had one African American judge, U.W. Clemon tell me on the record that because of HB56 the hispanic man is the New Negro in the south. And I’m like sir, can I get your phone number? I’ll email this phone number to every producer I know on CNN, NBC, MSNBC and FOX. I mean, please, when you want someone to talk about immigration, can you call this federal judge?
It is, it is so, now immigration reform is going to happen new year, we need so many of our white and black allies to really step up and say that this is also about you. Right? Like that’s by the way culturally where we need to be and I hope you can help us out.
Rinku: Thank you. Before Jeff goes we do want to take some questions from the audience. We’re gonna use our little you know, write it down, hand it to Melinda system and she’ll do some sorting and get them to me. So we’re gonna keep going until I start to get audience questions and then I’ll start asking the audience questions. All right? So, Jeff.
Jeff: I feel like we moved from the original question. Should we, do we need to-?
Rinku: Go wherever, do you
Jeff: I just wanted, so maybe if I could take a little digression here. Rinku: Yeah.
Jeff: I just want to put a word back into everybody’s vocabulary. By the way, I don’t think that culture trumps politics and I actually, I would like us to remove the word “trump” from our vocabulary…if that’s good, is that good everybody? Okay, cool.
But insert in place of that these two words that used to be really really big—cultural equity—because we haven’t talked about cultural equity for a very long time. We talked about a lot of issues, but we seemed to have lost track of this question of cultural equity. And I think that in a lot of ways folks who used it in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s were talking about questions of access.
So access to the tools of, of creativity and um access to the tools in that sense to transformation, right? And then also access uh for artists to be able to get their work out there. So the other issue was representation, of course, and this lead to the culture wars, right?
Questions of lack of representation and questions of misrepresentation. And I think we’re in a different era now, right? We’ve learned obviously that more representation isn’t necessarily better representation. And I think that more than ever we’re all aware of how you know, we have to challenge content. We have to challenge you know, the faces of—we were just talking actually at the table earlier at lunch, right?
Lolis mentioned a wonderful singer-songwriter, Erin McKeown, did I get your, I, I probably mis—anyway. And Rachel, a partner, we were talking about for instance, the notion of the black president. You all might remember the show 24 that came out, right? 24 was written actually by a very right wing writer-director-producer, but the president was black, right.
And this happened in the context of the war on terrorism, so it was really this circling of the wagons of here’s an image of a black president during a global war on terror that we’re trying to get everybody united around, like we make these racial advances during war time and it’s very related that we would have this particular character being shown at the same time that Colin Powell and Condaleeza Rice are the new faces of American militarism, right?
So all representation isn’t necessarily good representation, we all know that. But if we are able to come back with this notion of cultural equity tied into transformation, right, individual transformation, so the basic level of being able to make sure that kids have access to the tools of creativity…and yeah, please clap. I want everybody to be into this.
And the tools of transformation community-wide, nationally, globally, if we can talk about cultural equity in that context of this new decade, I think that we’ll be able to move a lot further, closer to the agenda that we all want to push around this sort of new integrationist ideal and platform.
Rinku: Right and so the original question was what advice do you have for activists and organizers who want to get into—who want to do better on the cultural tip as well. Did you want to say something? Okay.
All right, I’m gonna ask you—I want to know what you consume, what you like to read and watch and listen to, you know, who’s your favorite novelist, what’s your favorite TV show? Wherever you want to go with that.
Rinku: Treme, certainly my favorite at the moment, yes.
Lolis: Flattery will get you everywhere.
Jose: I’m watching a lot of FOX News.
Rinku: You are?
Rinku: For entertainment purposes?
Jose: I actually made a decision a couple of months ago that I’m not gonna do as much MSNBC and CNN that I used to and just do more FOX. So I’ve done O’Reilly like maybe seven times now. And not because I care about O’Reilly, but I care about O’Reilly’s audience.
Jose: So I’m really doing a lot of KKK reading, a lot of you know, I get a lot of hate mail and so I usually follow them where they come from. Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m doing, a lot of masochistic stuff, I guess.
Rinku: Interesting. Tells us a lot about you, Jose. Lolis?
Lolis: In terms of music I’m in my Brazilian period, so [inaudible]. And I’m kind of studying TV, so watching a whole lot of TV, some just a couple of episodes. There’s a show on AMC called The Killing, which is great, and Homeland, obviously. So.
Rinku: Okay, we have some Homeland fans here. Jeff? Negin?
Negin: Well, so where, like I watch some garbage, you know what I mean?
Rinku: Yeah, tell us what it is. Name names, and stations.
Negin: Well, and then the reason I watch garbage like The Soup or I watched an episode of every of the really shitty Housewives shows. I mean you know, have I watched Honey Boo-boo? Yes, I have. And I’ll tell you, the reason why, and I also watch Breaking Bad and Mad Men and all the requisite like smarty-pants things, and I also, like I read, guys, okay. There’s a New Yorker in my bag, so.
Rinku: Yeah, right.
Negin: Don’t look at me like that.
Rinku: We want proof.
Negin: But I think it’s really important actually to see like what the garbage is because you have to be able to communicate in the like universal language of garbage. And it’s really, and so you have to know if you’re a writer, if you’re an artist or whatever, you should have to know what people are consuming so you can take whatever you can take from it and make it better.
Rinku: Jeff has told us I need some questions. I don’t know who’s got my questions from the audience, but I want them. Oh, they’re way in the back of the room, okay. Yeah, I’ll do some, yeah.
Jeff: I just wanted to shout out Erin again. On Monday on NPR she’s gonna be having a song that’s gonna be debuted about immigration. And it’s part of a trip that we all took to Tuscon and also to Nogales, to the border. And that song is gonna be coming out, so everybody check out NPR music on Monday for Erin’s amazing music.
I’ve also been listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar actually, of late, because I feel like you know, there’s also this, there’s also a new generation of folks that are coming up. And there’s been a turn, I think there’s sort of a new sort of post-hip hop aesthetic that I think is actually beginning to emerge in a lot of ways.
And there’s a lot of the critique of the excesses of hip hop, particularly around its sexism and violence, so I’m really excited about that. So I just wanted to give a huge shout out to all of the undocumented artists here up in the house and the folks who’ve been working around those issues. And to also give a shout out to Jose because I just wanna say like if anybody’s kind of on the fence about you know, cultural change and the importance of story, I just wanna say like I feel like the election was won because of the undocumented activists and Jose in a lot of ways. Because everybody’s gonna say okay, all the Latinos turned out, okay, but the issue of immigration would not have been on the table if there had not been this whole spring and summer of protests, of art, of exhibition, of folks marching on Washington, of folks like doing all kinds of amazing events in all these different types of cities…of folks sitting in in Obama’s campaign offices, of folks getting arrested by trying to you know, to sit in in ICE centers. If none of that had happened and then if Jose hadn’t had this cover on Time magazine, then that issue would not have been rising to the forefront for Obama.
And so we, we have a direct example here of what happens when we put the pressure on. Things can happen, you know. And this is an example of not the policy folks getting together in a small room somewhere and saying you know, this is what it’s all gonna look like then we’re gonna take it out to the world, this is something that bubbled up from the grassroots, proliferated all over the place, created these memes, created this excitement around the country. And then actually changed shit, right?
So I think that’s something that we should just recognize today as well.
Rinku: Yeah, right on.
Jose: Can I add something to that?
Jose: Jeff, that was very kind. I, and I wanna make sure because you know, I, it’s very important to acknowledge the fact that the undocumented movement has been happening, especially among young people, since at least 2005, if not earlier, you know.
I mean in some ways I came at this very late. And if it wasn’t because of you know, activists like Julio Salgado—by the way, if you don’t know his work, you’ve gotta really check it out.
Rinku: Is he in the house?
Jose: Julio, where are you, man? Okay, he’s not here right now.
Rinku: He might have had to go.
Jose: People like Prerna Lal is really amazing, does a lot of work within gay rights and immigrant rights and all that. Like I basically, just like plop myself completely unannounced and showed up. And the very question I have to ask myself—and Jeff and I talk a lot about this because Jeff has been an incredible mentor in this regard—is you know, I’m not an organizer. I’m not a leader. I’m not a community activist. That’s not what I do, that’s not who I am and that’s not my lane.
And from the very beginning—I remember when I “came out” in The New York Times, my next thing is how do we get on the cover of Time magazine? You know, how do we get on the cover of People magazine? Like my next thing right now is how do we get all of the allies that help out people like me…if it wasn’t for people like my high school principal or my editor at The Washington Post who lied for me for five years, I would not have stayed at The Washington Post and covered a presidential campaign and won a Pulitzer.
How many other editors are out there lying and protecting their coworkers—maybe in a restaurant, in engineering, whatever, right? Like creating those spaces. And making sure—and this is why I really believe you know, I love that phrase by the way, cultural equity, you’re right, Jeff, we haven’t heard too much about it.
But to me, creating kind of the cultural space in which to be undocumented now I think has like hit the mainstream. People understand what the Dream Act is, but now how do we make sure that it’s not just about the DREAM Act because the Dream Act, as we know, is just one slice of the pie. It’s the sexy thing, you know, it’s the kids that go to college and speak English well, you know. Like what do we do with most of the people who may not?
So to me that’s kind of the importance of not just, not just realizing the role that culture plays, but making sure that we’re really reaching various audiences and thinking as mainstream as we possibly can.
Rinku: Great, thank you. Many questions. We have about 25 minutes to go and um so we’ve been doing four responses to each question. We don’t have to if you don’t feel like have something interesting to say. You can feel free to pass it along. Um, but I do want to deal with the question of stories and storytelling, and what effect you think stories have—so you spoke about this a little bit earlier. So maybe we’ll focus on the, the three to your right.
But, and I’d love Negin or anyone to talk about um the role of humor in taht because it can, it can, people can be very attracted to it and also not and really fear it.
So when you’re telling a story, why would you, you know, in the context of making change, making social change? Lolis, you want to start? I know you don’t want to start, but I also know you can.
Lolis: The great thing about story as opposed to just having a speech, a totally nonfiction speech, the great thing about story is it brings the reader or the listener along with the person telling them the story. So suddenly your story becomes my story in a way that your issues may not be my issues, then at the point when I can see you as human, I can see resonance between your life or the life of your character in my own, then there’s a shared community and it is possible then to talk about the kind of implications of the story.
And in terms of humor, the same kind of thing. We can establish—like in the panel right before this one—they were talking about humor being a two-way street in the sense that the joke is funny if the audience laughs. If the audience don’t laugh, it’s not a joke.
Well, if we agree that this is funny then we’ve already established a kind of common ground, we’ve already made a deal here, we’ve already established that there’s some commonality on which other things may be based.
The other problem is that if something is always—I remember one time I was in the Church of the Black Madonna in Atlanta, right, back when I was trying to find my religion. And so the minister gets up there and there some kid in the front row, like 6 or 7 years old who’s playing around or something. And the minister says, “John, this is too serious, boy you can’t be sitting there playing…this is serious, you know, the white man…” And I’m like the kid is 6 years old, ain’t nothing that serious.
But when folks got this sort of sense that you know, the revolution gonna happen tomorrow at noon, you all better go home and get ready—well, not really, you know. So-
Rinku: Not really.
Lolis: We have a reputation for not taking ourselves so seriously—I mean, I’m sorry, for taking ourselves too seriously. I fear that we have earned that and should seek to lose it.
Rinku: Well said. Thank you. Negin?
Negin: Well there, like first of all, you know when you’re like being held hostage and in the situations we normally find ourselves, someone with a gun or something. You’re like supposed to talk about your family. You’re like supposed to be like my name is whatever and I’ve got—my sister’s name is whatev-blah—and you’re supposed to do that. And it’s like a tactic I know because I’m Muslim. I’m kidding, guys.
Rinku: We’re laughing.
Negin: And and and it’s because you know, they can’t—they’re gonna have a hard time torturing you or whatever if they like can picture you as a person with a family and like family and like shit like that.
And so, that’s, I mean that’s why stories are effective because of this weird hostage metaphor that I’m drawing. And it, you know, because you can really like, you can really connect to people. And I think with comedy, I mean here’s the thing, like if you see someone give a lecture or whatever, you may not want to talk to them afterwards because you’re like I get it buddy, you already put me to sleep in the room…I’m gonna go you know, have a beer to get over what just happened to me in the minutes I’ll never get back.
But if you are like, you know, if you, if you get to have a good time because of a talk, or standup or story or whatever, and I’m obviously driven by humor here, if you can have a good time, you’re gonna, I mean whenever I do shows or whatever, like when I did shows with The Muslims Are Coming, people would always come up and talk to me afterwards and ask their questions…because they suddenly felt like they could because comedy is welcoming.
It doesn’t, it doesn’t assume that you are not smart because I don’t, I don’t need to fucking quote Edward Said when I’m doing standup, I don’t do that, you know what I mean. And so there’s a language of comedy that’s like I’m not fucking smart, you’re not fucking smart, let’s not be smart together. It’s okay. You know what I mean?
And so I think that’s what like humor does. It kind of like, it makes it okay for you to ask a question and that’s all, that’s all we wanted when we were on tour. And I have to note: it helps, you know, if you’re just like a friendly person or whatever. If you’re dressed like a cartoon as I normally am, these, these kind of things make people feel welcome. And so I think that’s the end—all I have to say now.
Rinku: Great, thank you. Jeff.
Jeff: Um I think, I think Patrice O’Neal had this quote about how when he you know, Patrice O’Neal is this great, late great black comic who passed away last year. And there was this quote that was attributed to him where it was like you know, if white audiences come and see me they have to sit there and listen to me say oh, yeah, you’re the double mother fucker. And they laugh, you know. And I think that that that kind of comedy hit me really strong because I was trying to think in terms of this book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America. Am I plugging too much?
Jeff: I’m sorry.
Rinku: There’s no such thing.
Jeff: So I was thinking in terms of—and I didn’t end up getting to, actually I want to do something on this in the future, but it’s gonna take a while because I have to learn a lot more.
But anyway, race comedy is really fascinating to me because there are only two places I feel like where we’re actually able to have this conversation on race that had Clinton had like officially begun, all right, back in ‘90-whatever, ‘95 or ‘96, and concluded like a year, yeah, a year later. And before the Monica Lewinsky scandal, after he had done that.
Right, we’re supposed to have this conversation on race. And now the only places we have it are in race comedy and in scandal. So like Michael Richards, right, Kramer, said some crazy shit and then all of the sudden everybody’s piling on for about 12 hours and then he’s done. He’s been like exiled from the island. And whatever conversation we’re supposed to have about the meaning of those words—where they come from, what they represent, you know, about racial hierarchies…all this kind of stuff never gets talked about.
But in race comedy that’s the only place where folks actually are able to get together, sit there, laugh, maybe then have a conversation you know, afterwards about it. And so I think that’s, that’s, that’s really interesting and says a lot about the state of the race conversation in the US. And it says a lot about the power of comedy, I think.
Rinku: Yeah. We are, I have a lot of really interesting questions here, but we’re not gonna be able to get to all of them. But I do wanna pull up a couple in particular and whoever feels moved can respond. So the first one is from a social studies teacher, probably middle school or high school, asking what advice you might give to educators who are trying to give their students more complete or better context for dealing with the ways, for dealing with these issues, the ways in which race plays out.
What advice might you give to teachers uh uh about things they could do or resources they could use…or approaches they might try? I’m riffing on your question and I hope that’s okay, whoever you are.
Jeff: Teach rap poems.
Rinku: Teach rap poems.
Jeff: Straight up, I’m actually really serious about this. This is a way to actually engage the students right where they’re at and you’ll find that students get really, really engaged in it. And folks are able to kind of think through really complex issues—they already actually have all this knowledge. Like we actually assume in most cases that we have to transmit and kind of pour into their heads all of this stuff. They know all this stuff already. They talk about it all the time.
They just don’t talk about it in your classroom, maybe. You know, they certainly talk about it in the context of the latest Kendrick Lamar album, I can tell you that, you know, or the latest whatever, whatever thing that they’ve seen on TV in ratchet culture or whatever. They’ll see stuff and they’ll be talking about this stuff all the time, so it becomes sort of a guided conversation and if it’s a guided conversation then there’s the opportunity to be able to move folks in a new direction.
So engage with the popular culture. Don’t be afraid of it, you know. That’s what I’d say.
Rinku: Anyone else? All right. There’s a question about cultural appropriation. This person would like you to speak to the issue of cultural appropriation, particularly in regards to white activists use of cultural symbols and so on in their work. So, the question doesn’t include an example, but we could—we can certainly think of plenty examples of cultural appropriation.
Lolis: Who’s white enough on this panel to tackle this question. I’m kidding! I don’t know. What’s hard about that is how do you draw the line between the this is white culture, this is black culture, this is Asian culture, this is Korean, Chinese, Japanese…where do you draw these lines?
And it also gets into the whole thing about at what point the funny jokes about race become an offensive joke about race. I don’t think you can, you can talk about that in some generic or some theoretical sense. If we do believe that it is possible to arrive at definitions of America, perhaps, that there is something of a shared culture and indeed part of or problem is the extent to which we try to pretend that we don’t share a culture, if we do indeed share a culture in a broad sense then are we not appropriating from ourselves?
In the context of black folks in culture, a whole lot of the problem really breaks down to money. You know, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, straight up, we listen Howlin’ Wolf, we listen to Chuck Berry, we listen to B.B. King and Chuck Berry’s saying I ain’t making no money.
So perhaps we can get royalties to these cultural appropriations, you know, in advance of reparations, that might solve the problem.
Rinku: So there’s maybe a cultural equity issue, but appropriation as a notion, I mean I hear Lolis really pressing us against trying to prohibit the replication or the engagement or the, the use of cultural things that get produced out of one community by another community…that we don’t want those kinds of prohibitions, but we do want equity and credit where it’s due, and money where it’s due because money does get made, culture you know, through cultural products.
Negin: The cultural appropriation is a really slippery concept because like Jose, I haven’t, I graduated with a degree in African American studies and obviously, why wouldn’t I? And it’s, it’s, I, I, and that’s weird. But why did I feel like I could do that, you know what I mean? Because it made sense because I’m from a smaller group, we don’t have a whole thing with a president and people in it, you know what I mean? And I wanted to be a part of something.
And so was I—you know what I mean, that’s what I feel like and I, I, or you know, I’m writing a musical called The Israeli Palestinian Conflict: A Romantic Comedy. That’s right. And it’s neither, I’m neither Arab or Jewish, but this is a story for me and I feel like I have every right to to write it, like it’s my story, I’m gonna write it.
And so that, I don’t, I feel like I don’t know with that.
Rinku: I think it’s, that’s an important perspective.
Jose: I mean, let me just say by the way, I always get asked why I majored in African American studies, and in San Francisco, where I went to school, it’s actually called black studies. It was the first university in the country in 1969 to have a college of ethnic studies.
Because when I got to America in ‘93, like I learned how to speak American by like watching movies and by like, this was like the rise of like Lauryn Hill, you know, the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which was like a—you know, this is a black woman. And I’m not a black woman.
And there’s that one song called Everything is Everything.
Jose: I remember sitting in my room in Mountainview, closeted gay, closeted undocumented, and one of the lyrics is about you know, again, like, it spoke to me in such a way that I didn’t anticipate that it would. And then I started realizing from where she was coming from, I couldn’t really, I don’t think any American can understand American history without understanding African American history.
Like I don’t, and having said that, how do you explain the fact that as we all know, the attack against like Chicano Studies, right, in Arizona, like these are American history. The fact that our ancestors you know, the Filipinos have been here since the 17th century and actually, they first landed in New Orlea—in Lousiana. We’ve been here.
So to me it’s a question of how do we make sure that we’re really connecting these dots and we’re not ghettoizing each other. And I actually think we are now at this space where you know, I can probably say that, I mean I wish in college, I was actually gonna do African American studies in Jewish studies because there’s no Jewish people in the Philippines too, but my college counselor was like you can’t do both of those things, just pick one.
He was totally wrong. I should’ve totally done both of them, but yeah.
Rinku: Great. Um, Jeff, you might want to get in on this, but there’s a related question for you. So, the question is uh, hip hop has been instrumental in political rhetoric and social climate, so in shaping those I imagine. What relevance does that have, does hip-hop have with its uh rhetoric and change and social climate, what relevance does it have to race relations uh in non receptive communities? Uh and under non-receptive in parenthesis it says white people. So, what is the relevance of hip-hop in changing social climate among white people?
Jeff: Um well first of all, the dominant portion of the market now is is white buyers, so I actually disagree a little bit with uh, with the formulation of the question because a lot of—and okay, there’s an amazing documentary that Byron Hurt did several years ago called Hip Hop Beyond Hits and Rhymes, in which there’s this crushing scene where he interviews a white guy in an SUV who’s shown up for a hip hop festival, and interviews him about why he likes hip hop. And then goes, cuts from that to interviewing a bunch of aspiring rappers who are outside of this convention and doing like classic sort of—the classically hardcore battle rhymes that that you know, I’m gonna cut your head off then shoot you 15 times, flip you around and you know, and kick you in the butt, you know, like that kind of stuff, right.
I mean the kind of stuff that they thought would get them a contract. And he said wait a minute, like I know you guys are all doing this because you know, you think that’s what folks want to hear. What about like talking about stuff that really relates to you. And somebody gets up and kicks a rhyme about not having a job and you know, being depressed, and all these kinds of like real stuff.
And he’s like you know, why won’t you do that? And he’s like nobody’s gonna listen to me for that. So there’s an element, he’s saying implied in these scenes, in the juxtaposition of this is that there’s a performance aspect going on to all this, right? And I think that only now in a lot of respects are we kind of moving in some ways away from that.
There’s always been that push away from that, but now, like you know, Kendrick Lamar number 2, you know on the album charts last week, I think that there’s gonna be an interest in seeing where that opening goes and then that’s gonna get calcified and that’s what the market does.
But I think that you know, the question, the larger question is is what role does hip hop have to play in sort of helping us to think about where our race relations should be. And I think that we can’t rely upon commodified culture to get us where we go in everything.
And I think that we can have openings and we can make openings, but we really need to kind of understand the ecosystem that culture kind of works in, and that the structure of capitalism is not necessarily always going to allow for radical stuff to be talked about and moved. And when it does, it’s gonna close ranks. And that’s real and that’s stuff that we’ve learned over the last 20 years.
And so we need to be looking again, you know, at questions of cultural equity, pushing the system on these kinds of things, but we also need to be looking again at questions of alternative systems. And I think that that’s something that it’s very hard to imagine for us now, right? There’s a saying that the occupy movement brought back—it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Right?
And I think that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than imagining the end of racism as well. And if we kind of put those two together we’re gonna actually be moving in sort of a really interesting direction that we haven’t really tried it out yet.
Rinku: Great, thanks. We are heading toward the wrap up and so I’m gonna put out—are you clapping because we’re done? Really? Okay, so I’m gonna put out a last question. You can either address the question or give the audience a last word that you uh feel like they just uh their lives won’t be complete unless they hear that from you. So the last question is uh very practical. Are there—what are the skills around art and culture production, criticism, uh relation that you think this facing race audience should cultivate among themselves, whether people think of themselves as artists or not, what are the kills or the attitudes or the like ways of being that you think would be good for this particular movement to cultivate within itself.
Either answer that or say whatever you want. I think that’s you know, I’m a really great moderator. At least for the panel.
Jeff: I just say for, for those of us who are thinking seriously about racial justice just to consider the, the importance of culture and to listen to the artists. I think that in a lot of respects we haven’t necessarily given the artists the kind of dap, the kind of the kind of respect, the kind of autonomy actually that there’s a certain amount of autonomy that needs to be given to artists in order to create.
And so you know, these are, these are, I never liked the term cultural worker because it always presumed, I always heard the term cultural worker in the context of cultural workers follow political leaders, right. And I think let’s reverse that. Let’s, let’s like think about what happens if culture leads. And what happens if artists lead in certain kinds of situations? I’m not saying artists should take over the movement, although I’m sure there’s some artists in here that would like to take over the movement, that’s all good. We’ll take care of you in a bit.
But you know, I’m saying let’s like think about what that looks like and let’s open that up so that we can understand different ways of getting to that sense of possibility that art brings, that culture brings.
Rinku: Great. Jose.
Jose: Um, my friends say that I’m like a walking uncomfortable conversation. And I guess that’s probably my main message is if we can be a little bit more of walking uncomfortable conversation ourselves…I actually, you know, I get beat up a lot sometimes on like listserves. I’m not in any of them, but I get told that some of my decisions sometimes get likes hey, why’s Vargas talking to Lou Dobbs? You know, or for example, like why did I cross a picket line, or things like that.
And again, like I’m now a public person so it’s very weird for me to even—I’ve spent my entire career writing about other people. And now I consciously made a choice to like insert myself in it. And the thing that I deal with the mostly is how do I make sure that I’m really preaching beyond the choir? That’s my number 1 thing that I cannot emphasize more.
Meaning that, how do we make sure that we’re not just talking to just progressive people all the time? You know, how do we make sure that you know, the phrase white privilege, which all of us are familiar with here—I don’t know, I’ve been in KY and AL and WI and OH, and a lot of working class blue-collar white people don’t know what the hell white privilege is. How do we get white people to talk to other white people about white privilege?
I mean it’s so wonderful that we have so many white allies going to conferences like this and being our allies and standing with us. Can you infiltrate tea party meetings too? Can you go talk to them too?
Rinku: There’s a charge.
Jose: I know, I’m just saying, I’ve gone to them. I’ve crashed like four tea party meetings. I’m just—how do we make sure that you know, as far as I’m concerned as somebody who’s never voted, I’m neither a Republican nor a Democrat because I’ve never voted.
I grew up in San Francisco—gay rights and immigrant rights and all these rights are not, they were my neighbors, it wasn’t a political party. And progress shouldn’t have a party. And I guess that’s my main message is how do we make sure that we’re really you know, not demonizing each other.
And I know in my heart, especially when I go to places where I am like, they think I’m a threat. They think I’m gonna go in there, wrap myself in a Filipino flag and like talk Spanish to them…and recite the poems of James Baldwin. Like they don’t know what the hell I’m gonna do. And then they’re like so surprised and I’m like oh, yeah, I love the Waffle House, I think pot pie is great. What do they think I’m gonna say, you know?
Jose: So yes, please be walking uncomfortable conversations, and embrace that.
Rinku: Thank you. Lolis, can we go to you next and finish up with Negin?
Lolis: Warming up for Negin.
Rinku: It’s an honorable position to be in.
Lolis: Say something funny too. Um, what I would say is folks gotta remember that artists don’t work for free, you all. And that this whole thing where you know, your art is supposed to—my art ain’t supposed to do nothing I don’t want it to do. If it’s consistent with what you think it’s supposed to be and it is useful in your movement, that is your business.
If I choose to align myself in the way that some of the artists represented here have chosen to do, and have put their talents in the service of these causes, great, but this notion that art is supposed to do something or to follow your aesthetic—because that’s the idea that I took art class in second grade, I know what’s good art and that’s not good art.
Your opinion in that regard is irrelevant. And this notion, art has to serve it’s own, be it’s own master and then we can decide to what extent it is useful for our purpose, or to what extent this art represents what we’re trying to deal with…when Jeff talks about culture proceeding political change, always bear in mind you might not understand what’s happening in art because you too far behind.
So keep that in mind. Don’t be trying to you know, it’s like that vision of art that’s purposeful art—art is its own purpose.
Rinku: Thank you. Negin.
Negin: Um, thank you guys for warming up for me. Um, no, I, and I feel horrible that I have to say the last thing. Well, I would say two things. One is don’t be angry, like don’t ever be angry. You’re gonna get so many stupid questions. I get hate mail all the time. I get shitty people yelling at me. Whatever. And the key I think in the movement is don’t get angry because that closes people off and we want to bring people into the fold. And anger is like just, it doesn’t ever work. I’ve never seen it work.
And then the other thing I would say—and this is also something I said earlier today, and again, my inability to come up with two things is upsetting…but I, my parents, so my parents were like weird about Jews forever. And then we had neighbors move in next door who were totally super Jewish, and they came over one day to introduce themselves and they brought my parents a rum cake. Now, a couple of words on this rum cake, it was really delicious, okay.
Now, maybe the rum cake was made with the blood of Christian babies. I don’t know, but it was delicious enough that my parents who had been weird about Jews forever, suddenly started loving the shit out of Jews. And suddenly the discourse changed from like Jews are weird to Jews are really, they have really tight family units just like Iranians, just like Iranians, they would say. And all it took, I swear to God, all it took was a fucking rum cake!
And the, and the last thing I’ll say is, and I don’t even need to go to that level to get a story…this guy right here, I used to be homophobic in high school and now I’m begging for Jose’s attention. Why? Why?
Jose: I swear to God I want to marry you, I really want to marry you. I’m so in love with you, no, I totally am.
Negin: Because in college, my freshman year of college, my next door neighbor was gay and one night we got wasted together. And then I was like wait a second, gay people are super fun. And literally overnight I went from you know, being homophobic to being a fag hag. So, um, so it’s, these small gestures have such a huge impact. Bake your rum cakes. Go out and get wasted with people you don’t know. And together we’ll change the world!
Rinku: Let’s give this panel a round!