Chang remembers the first time he saw the comic strip
Wee Pals and the jolt it gave his young mind. Right
there, on the comics pages that were generally colorless
even when they ran in full color, was an Asian-American
face looking back at him.
could relate to it," he says by phone as he drives
to a reading of his new book, "Who We Be: The
Colorization of America" (St. Martin’s, $32.99).
"I thought, hey, I’m on the funny pages."
Pals, Morrie Turner’s strip about the adventures and
observations of a multiethnic group of kids, takes pride
of place in the first chapter. But "Who We Be"
is far from a victory lap or a chorus of "Kumbaya."
In tracing the rise, fall and growing commodity status
of multiculturalism in America, Chang casts a skeptical
eye on the country’s rhetoric and dreams of reaching
across color lines and accepting difference.
but steady — Chang is too good a writer and thinker to
resort to bomb-throwing — "Who We Be" asks
the kind of questions too often swept under the rug:
What does racial identity mean? How do you assert it in
the stew of the melting pot? What have the culture wars
cost us? And where are we now?
heart of Chang’s study resides in the ’70s and ’80s,
when marginalized groups, emboldened by the civil rights
era, increasingly stood up and demanded to be
recognized. The idealized melting pot, once viewed as
the ideal, was boiling over.
had this notion that everybody is going to melt into one
unified, assimilated American culture, where everyone
will conform to this norm," Chang says. "Multiculturalists
really challenged that in the ’70s and ’80s."
Their message, as Chang puts it: "We’ve always
been a whole bunch of different cultures, and the
vitality comes from the exchange in all of that."
response, including dire predictions of unfixable
divisions and the dilution of Western civilization,
ensued from the left and right. Presidential candidate
Pat Buchanan declared a culture war at the 1992
Republican National Convention. The phrase
"politically correct" gained currency.
can be very funny writing about all this: "Charging
someone with ‘political correctness’ was like
putting on white-guilt deodorant — smells like freedom
of expression!" But the undercurrent is dead
serious. Reading these pages, you’re reminded how far
we remain from finding answers, with or without
fantasies of a post-racial America.
first book, "Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,"
focused on hip-hop culture and won a 2005 American Book
Award. "Who We Be" takes a deeper dive that
includes fine arts; one chapter goes inside the
kerfuffle generated by the racially charged 1993 Whitney
Biennial art show. But hip-hop still has a presence
here, as it must: "Who We Be" is particularly
astute on how multiculturalism was bought and sold back
to the public (a process that includes the famous 1972
Coke ad that exhorted the world "to sing in perfect
was not in the avant-garde," Chang says. "It
didn’t have a manifesto. It was wide open to being
politicized and commercialized. All the things
multiculturalism wanted — better representation,
hearing the stories of poor folks of color — hip-hop
made all of that happen."
still happening. It’s hard to say we live in perfect
harmony in an era that brought us Trayvon Martin,
Ferguson, Mo., and all manner of Islamaphobia. But it’s
not difficult to find the world multiculturalism made.
You’re sitting in the middle of it.