Rinku Sen and Jeff Chang Discuss His Latest, ‘Who We Be’

By Rinku Sen Oct 21, 2014

My friend Jeff Chang has written "Who We Be: The Colorization of America," a wide-ranging history of racialized culture clashes of the last 50 years. It’s a great sequel to "Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop," which is about the early years of hip-hop. Jeff and I have known each other since 1987, when we went through the Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program of Center for Third World Organizing together. He later went on to become the first associate editor of Colorlines upon the founding of the print magazine, and later still to become a music and cultural critic. He is now the director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University.

"Who We Be" is hefty. It looks and feels like a coffee table book with a lot of art and thick paper. But unlike most coffee table books, you will actually want to read it. It covers a vast number of debates over race, cultural consumerism and artistic production that took place between 1963 and 2013, some of them well-known, others much less. Jeff and I sat down for a talk about the book, why he’s obsessed with culture and how he writes.

"If Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop" was a history of hip-hop, "Who We Be" is a history of multiculturalism, a deep, wide-ranging history about the nation’s conflicts over who gets to define our culture. You look at high art, street art, political art, advertising and a whole host of other cultural products and the fights, often quite intense fights, over them. What made you want to take such a deep dive?

I don’t ever start out like "this is going to be comprehensive or definitive" anything. I start with the germ of an idea and a bunch of stories. This book came from one day in New York City, several months after "Can’t Stop Won’t Stop" came out. In "Can’t Stop Won’t Stop" there was a whole swath of history I didn’t give any kind of attention to. That was the rise of the multiculturalism arts movement during 1980s as well as the student activism that you and I were a part of in those days. Shortly after the book came out, I was on a panel with Greg Tate, Brian Cross, Vijay Prashad and Mark Anthony Neal. Everybody had a different take on the question of how hip-hop fit into this post-multicultural moment. It was mind-blowing, all these aspects and positions on multiculturalism that I’d never considered. Mark saw it as a college hustle; Vijay as a grand illusion; Greg saw it as this amazing moment of cultural nationalisms coming together. Brian, coming in from Ireland, saw all points of view, and that it was an amazing time of fervor. He saw all these questions about consumerism that we hadn’t resolved. Then I got on the train to the Bronx, where Lydia Yee had an exhibition on contemporary arts. We talked about how race had been drummed out of the contemporary arts world.

I pitched it to my editor Monique Patterson, one of the few black editors in the business, and she said "nobody cares about multiculturalism." Multiculturalists were ancient history. Diddy was on billboards so there was no need. Then Obama runs, and all this stuff comes out about his college history. Then the anti-Obama backlash happens, and the culture wars flare up again. When I began writing, Obama was about to be elected. I thought, cool, I’ll get this book done in a year, and it’ll have a happy ending. But 2009 starts up with Van Jones, Yosi Sergent, Shirley Sherrod and [Henry Louis Gates]. That’s when it really got going. What was going to be a short victory lap became six-year deep dive.

In the book, you use the metaphor of a wave to describe culture as a process, one that lives in the soft spaces between events, between political events in particular. You have said, in other places, that culture trumps politics in terms of changing minds and behavior. Why are you so obsessed with culture?

The trigger for these thoughts was looking at the 2007-8 election cycle and seeing Obama not as politician but as symbol, and the explosion of street art and creative activity that begins to happen in the lead-up to his election. What does this all mean? Is it ephemeral, just an interesting phenomenon? Or does it represent something deeper about the way we think of change? There’s been huge cultural churn in social life. Social media, communications strategy, messaging, framing. We talk about all these things in progressive movements now that point back to conscious and unconscious ways of thinking.

A lot of research has been moving in that direction. Not just in movements, but also in the academy. What we’re concluding is that we are complex individuals, having our minds change all the time. The metaphor of the wave actually reveals something deep about how change happens. Culture functions a lot like the ocean. The wave builds, it recedes, when it builds again, there’s new stuff in it.

You partly argue that multiculturalism was presented to Americans after the 1970s, especially in colleges. You seem to be saying that initially a lot of Americans bought it and then got buyer’s remorse that was ginned up by conservatives.

The term "multiculture" was coined by Ishmael Reed in mid ’70s. The idea’s pretty simple: America is not a melting pot and there are a million different ways to become American. We then start wanting to understand what the exchanges look like and how they evolve. Now this seems basic to us, but at the time that was a huge challenge to everything. You can see how big a shift it was in the 1980s when, first academics and then the right in general, and the left, too, begin to organize against multiculturalism. This idea that there could be multiple paths to the same end, a society that’s built of all these different types of people, came under attack. It’s this long run, a 33-year path from Reed to Obama being elected president.

The last section of the book covers September 11, 2001 to 2013, when it became clear that the country would become majority people of color by mid-century. You use the term "demographobia" to describe the racial anxiety that erupted. Tell me about that.

Stanford faculty director H. Samy Alim coined the term in the lead-up to 2012 elections. It was a snarky, 140-character way of explaining all the backlash we could see in the resurgent culture wars. He tweeted that demographobia was the irrational fear of changing demographics. It made me laugh for hours. It really fit the moment. Richard Benjamin talks about this in his book "Searching for Whitopia," about white folks fleeing these multiracial spaces because they can’t stand the idea that the country is changing this way. It’s white flight 40 years after term got set. It reflects a deep-set fear among certain whites who just can’t comprehend what a multiculture could look like, can’t conceive of it as anything but apocalyptic.

You are a particularly visual writer. I can see the settings and people and fights you talk about in the book. How do you write? What was your process on this big book?

The book’s central metaphor is of seeing race. Race happens between the actual appearance and the more complicated perception of difference. That was always in the back of my mind. You have to figure out how to describe a thing that hangs on the wall, just like you think about how do you describe a three-minute song and how it changes over time and how it makes you feel.

After I took the job at Stanford, I couldn’t write whenever I wanted to. I’d get up at 4 a.m. and write for two hours before I went to work. If I was feeling it, I’d squeeze out a little extra time and show up late. That was the quiet time, in the mornings. On weekends, Lourdes, [my wife], would let me not clean the yard so I could write. But the bulk of the writing was at Sea Change cottage. I walked out of Provincetown with 150 pages. I’d get up, read a passage out of Twyla Tharp’s book on creativity, have breakfast and start up by 8:30, go strong til 4:30 and then get on the bike. At night I’d read Italo Calvino or James Baldwin. I was reading "Invisible Cities," 600-word bursts of images of these fictional cities. It was the furthest thing from what I was writing about but exactly what I needed at that point

What does a setting have to do with the writing? Is it just the quiet?

There was stuff in the house, like a Jaune "Quick-to-See" Smith piece downstairs, and a lot of other art, so there would be all these different types of sparks. You don’t do it 100-percent consciously, but you surround yourself. At home I have my room, my records and music. It’s all there; I just have to open a cabinet door and there are these visual cues. You just want to have those kinds of things to be able to light you up and get you going or help you get out of a writing cul de sac. 

What effect do you hope to have on the reader with this book?

I would hope that people get to a point where they say, "Yeah, why do we have this strange paradox where I feel like I may be closer to you because I can see a TV show or read a book about you now, and yet, I still don’t want to live next to you?"

Can we have a more open conversation about that? At this particular point, it’s heartbreaking for those of us who were young and in the streets in our 20s, half a lifetime later, seeing that the students are still asking for the same kinds of things we were. And things haven’t gotten much better. Anyone with our background in trying to change the world, you want a person to leave with not just empathy, but with the feeling that they want to go out and change the world afterwards.