Influenced by Hip Hop, Journalist Jeff Chang Weighs in on "Post-Post Racial" America

Scripps Presents hosted hip hop critic and journalist Jeff Chang, accompanied by University of Southern California professor Josh Kun, on Thursday, Sept. 15, and they discussed the urgent need to address racial violence and resegregation in the United States.

The urgency in discussing racial issues is increasingly evident; Claudia Rankine, a poet, essayist, and writer, recently spoke to Pomona College students about her book Citizen, while Chang highlighted the country's lack of racial progress.

Chang, of Chinese and Hawaiian descent, grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii. Growing up, he never experienced racial adversity or what it meant to be a person of color because of Hawaii's diverse racial makeup. "Our family photos looked like the United Nations," he joked. "But when I went to [University of California,] Berkeley, I immediately experienced micoaggressions. I got called all kinds of racial slurs and I'd never had to deal with that before." 

It was that experience that attracted him to the anti-apartheid movement, which was at its social peak during his first year at UC Berkeley. Chang also alluded to his fervent interest in hip hop, claiming he would be DJing by night and protesting, “fist in the air and all” by day.

His book, We Gon’ Be Alright, focuses on resegregation in what Chang calls the post-post racial era, a period of crisis at risk of regressing back into backlash. “It deeply saddens me that my kids are fighting the same battle that I had to fight.” Chang said. He said that there is such “a palpable tension in American society" that, despite peak racial integration, racism has barely improved. Chang argued that the true notion of "diversity" is easily within reach, yet currently appears inaccessible.

Chang explained how the word 'diversity' has been repackaged so many times that it no longer indicates its very definition, but instead has become superficial. While institutions focus on the notion of diversity, its "diverse" students arrive only to relive the negative experiences of the '80s and '90s. Chang argues that America's post racial, all-accepting era is a thinly veiled illusion and that while the packaging may be different, the issues are the same.

For Chang, hip hop is an access point to talk about these issues. 

“We’re living in this complicated moment where a song by a hip hop artist can connect with so many communities” Chang said. "These creative pathways, networks, and connecions strengthen and amplify these creative ecosystems."

In Chang’s eyes, black artists speak to the vision of what it means to live and what it means to live together as one. “Even when politics seems untenable, culture becomes a place for all these ideas to bubble and grow for change,” Chang said on what inspires him. “It’s not about blood or war; it’s about shifting consciousness.” 

Chang’s presence was recieved warmly. Although the event was set up for him to have a conversation with Kun, they were both tacitly and silently engaging with the audience. Sitting forward in his seat, Chang was attentive, answering everyone's questions. 

Leah Shorb SC ’20 enjoyed the event, but had one critique. “My only disappointment was the lack of specificity,” she said. “But staying for the questions and having kids’ concerns come out [about] more specific topics … I really enjoyed that.”

Many appreciated Chang’s authentic response to a the cultural appropriation of black hip hop culture. "Art opens up these veins of empathy," he explained. "[I want] to find a connection to not only be an ally, but also an accomplice." For him, hip hop is tha entry point to better understand another's experience.

“As a white woman on campus with a lot of different racial groups, I want to engage and I want to do so in a respectful way so to hear his optimistic message about that was encouraging,” Shorb concluded.