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Jeff Chang examines the rise, fall and selling of multiculturalism

December 1, 2014 

Jeff 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.

"I 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."

Wee 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.

Provocative 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?

The 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.

"You 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."

Venomous 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.

Chang 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.

Chang’s 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 harmony").

"Hip-hop 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."

It’s 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.

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