Published by: Picador
Genres: Politics & Social Sciences; Discrimination & Racism
Description (Amazon): In these provocative, powerful essays acclaimed writer/journalist Jeff Chang (Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Who We Be) takes an incisive and wide-ranging look at the recent tragedies and widespread protests that have shaken the country. Through deep reporting with key activists and thinkers, passionately personal writing, and distinguished cultural criticism, We Gon’ Be Alright links #BlackLivesMatter to #OscarsSoWhite, Ferguson to Washington D.C., the Great Migration to resurgent nativism. Chang explores the rise and fall of the idea of “diversity,” the roots of student protest, changing ideas about Asian Americanness, and the impact of a century of racial separation in housing. He argues that resegregation is the unexamined condition of our time, the undoing of which is key to moving the nation forward to racial justice and cultural equity.
I was sent “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation” from Picador quite a while back. I finished it then but put it back on my bookshelf because I needed much more time to think about its content. This week, several events on my college’s campus have deeply troubled me and I found myself constantly thinking about racial issues.
During conversations with friends, we debated about free speech and student protests but left with no agreement and further discontentment. Thus, I wanted to revisit Chang’s book, in hopes that his extensive knowledge and reflection will help me expand my understanding. Since “We Gon’ Be Alright” is a collection of seven essays (and because it is final exams week), I will comment on each essay individually (albeit, not in order), and then review the collection as a whole.
Introduction: The Crisis Cycle
The opening essay begins with: “We are living in serious times.” Even though the book was published before the 2016 Presidential Election, its contents still ring true, perhaps more so. In the introductory essay, Chang writes with direct and powerful language, providing a brief overview of key moments in history (from 1965 assassination of Malcolm X to 2014 Ferguson shooting) to communicate to readers that “we as a nation are caught in a bad loop of history”, one that is fraught with continuous racial upheaval. This essay is a perfect lead-in for Chang’s research as well as his masterful writing–each sentence captivated my attention and stirred emotions within me. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
“The paradox of the ‘post-racial’ movement [is] that while our images depict a nation moving toward desegregation, our indices reveal growing resegregation and inequity…the idea that there had ever been a post-racial moment come to seem naive, even desperately so.”
“Race makes itself known in crisis, in the singular event that captures a larger pattern of abuse and pain. We react to crisis with a flurry of words and, sometimes, actions. In turn, the reaction sparks its own backlash of outrage, justification, and denial. The cycle turns next toward exhaustion, complacency, and paralysis. And before long, we find ourselves back in crisis.”
Is Diversity for White People? On Fearmongering, Picture Taking, and Avoidance
The section discusses the fear of “the end of whiteness”, which demagogues have used to gain power in recent elections. Chang explains that “data project[s] that whites would drop below 50 percent of the national population within a generation” and “scholarship on the rising rates of white suicide, drug overdose, and premature death” reveals “the steeply declining white middle and working class.”
He contrasts this fear with the desire for diversity, which oftentimes is founded on capitalism intent, and asks a startling question: “[Is] diversity for everybody, for people of color, or just for white people?” Take for instance, admissions brochures. Three years ago, when I applied for college, I flipped through countless glossy pages featuring seeing beaming faces of every color. Chang uses the University of Wisconsin Photoshop Fiasco to illustrate how “the commodity of nonwhiteness is exploited for its market value”. This intriguing example made me question the role of universities in fostering diversity. In other words, if diversity is attractive to potential students, shouldn’t university take more responsibility in fostering genuine connections between people of different races? Or perhaps, because diverse racial interactions are supposed to be organic, the responsibility should fall upon the students’ shoulders? Chang ends this section with a question that will be on my mind: “Is it possible to reimagine diversity separated from histories of exclusion? What would diversity that liberated everyone look like?”
“Inequality impacts us unequally. The truth is that we cannot address it without starting from the bottom.”
“But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: ‘Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please’…Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” ~Lyndon B Johnson
“I get the sense that for them, diversity is an end–a box to check off–rather than a starting point from which a more integrated textured world is brought into being” ~Anna Holmes
What a Time to Be Alive: On Student Protest
The Odds: On Cultural Equity
Vanilla Cities and Their Chocolate Suburbs: On Resegregation
Hands Up: On Ferguson
The In-Betweens: On Asian Americanness
Like Chang, I identify as Asian-American, and was most interested in this essay’s take on how we should respond to current racial tensions. Asians are often excluded from conversations on race, which are often only spoken in terms of the white and black binary. Being “model minorities”, Asians have to navigate the “in-betweens” of racial relations in America.
This essay, by far, is the most personal out of the entire collection. The intimacy is emphasized by Chang’s use of the second person pronoun, “you”, which allows the reader to imagine herself as Chang: growing up in Hawaii, going to “college on the continent to become Asian American”, and finding out the consequences of “being a minority for the first time.” Although my experience of Asian Americanness is profoundly different, this statement hit me like a brick:
“You went days and weeks feeling like you had never been seen. You were conspicuous and invisible at the same time”
I found myself nodding along while reading, agreeing with Chang’s view of the “instability at the heart of Asian Americanness”. I have long questioned hyphenated identities. Would it be better to simply be American or does adding the word “Asian” celebrate the resilience of our ancestors (who uprooted from their home countries and survived in a hostile one)? Nonetheless, I have to agree that lumping “all kinds of people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent” is highly problematic since we have vastly different histories and cultures. Thus, such classification runs the risk of oversimplification.
Asian American identity is one of confusion and contradiction. Chang writes, “Yet here you are, the evidence of American warfare and familial risk and survival…a tiger clan, a model fucking minority, a blueprint for multicultural democracy. You too are the exception and the exceptional. When you are summoned, you too may teach the rest of the world exactly how to get along.”
This piece was incredibly honest and vulnerable. It was difficult to read and the words definitely hit home.
“Pundits…talk up ‘Asian privilege’ not out of concern for other people of color but because of a fear that whiteness itself might be eclipsed. What does it mean to be the evidence that racism is not real? To be fetishized by colorblind liberals and white white supremacist alike? To be so innocuous that teachers and policeman and figures of authority mostly allow you the benefit of the doubt? To be desired for your fluid, exotic, futuristic, yielding difference? What does it mean to be the solution?”
Chang discusses controversies within the Asian-American community that revolve around the struggle for whiteness, specifically protests against affirmative action and the 2014 Peter Liang case. He writes that these instances make “you want to walk away from being Asian American”.
Yet at the same time, there is a lack of advocacy of Asian Americans for other societal issues. Chang brilliantly invokes the metaphor of the fence to visually represent the Asian American position. Being in-between “means that one can afford to sit on the fence, decide not to take a stand, to always reserve the privilege–while the battle rages all around–to disengage”. And of course, this essay collection is Chang’s call to us to question and to engage. It is meant to startle us, dissolve any notion of contentment or presumed privilege. He writes, “You have said to Asian Americans that it’s time to get off the fence. It’s time to declare your Asian Americanness. But where will you land?”
The essay concludes with a beautiful vision of the future of Asian Americans; Chang pictures his children “telling audiences his family’s stories” and “things [have] changed enough for them to know that their eyes were never too small, nor their noses too wide, their skin too brown, their bodies too weak, their minds incapable.” And I, too, share the hope that the future generation will “learn to see everyone in their full humanity–their difference, their beauty, their glory…”
Conclusion: Making Lemonade