Writer and activist Jeff Chang talks about code switching, his new book ‘We Gon’ Be Alright,’ Asian American spectator status, and President Obama’s favorite comic book store in Honolulu.
Barack Obama, code swiching, Hawaii, Hip-hop, Jeff Chang, multiculturalism, Peter Liang, protest, The Cornering
I first met author/activist Jeff Chang in 2014 when I joined him and my brother Hari Kondabolu on stage at an event for the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU. I brought a duffle bag of anti-Bloomberg shirts I was planning to sell to the students afterward, but Jeff and his sister were the only people who bought one.
Jeff and I met again almost two years later at the Moustache Cafe on 14th street across from Eddie Huang’s Baohaus, which was yet to open for business when we decided to talk. Over intermittent drill and saw sounds from an unforeseen location, we had a long talk about Hawai’i, unheralded early 90s activism, meeting (then) Senator Obama, theoretical secret Donald Trump White House tapes, and the Peter Liang protests, which he writes about in his new book, We Gon’ Be Alright (Picador).
Ashok Kondabolu: I started practicing “Kundalini yoga,” which was started by this Sikh man Yoji Bhajan who came to the U.S. in 1969, saw these hippies everywhere and was like, “Oh, these people are doing a lot of drugs and they want some spiritual connection but don’t know how to get it.” So he decided to teach them this custom form of yoga designed for westerners. At least that’s what I think I read on the internet.
Jeff Chang: That’s so interesting! I’m doing a thing on Bruce Lee and it’s kind of like that, too, but anyway, go on.
I’ve been reading Autobiography of a Yogi. Half the book is about “magical” people doing “impossible” things. So I’m like, “Wow! I really wanna practice this, whatever’s making these guys able to live 5,000 years and fly and not breathe sounds about right!” And then the reality of it is I’m, like, rolling around in a giant, carpeted room with twenty people and I’m self-conscious and in pain—that’s not flying!
[laughs] Yes, yes!
And most of the teachers and the majority of the students are white, so I feel a mild identity crisis.
I was in D.C. this past weekend. When I was there in the 1980s, U Street Corridor was pretty much Howard students and it was also historically Black. I mean, Duke Ellington used to play jazz there and all the clubs used to be there. And now it’s totally gentrified, so million-dollar condos. I look on the map, I’m like, there’s a park near here, that’s cool. I can go and practice my tai chi and qigong and my kajukenbo forms and that kind of stuff. It’s called Malcolm X Park. It’s Sunday, and there are literally all of these circles of white folks doing yoga, and I was like, “When did this happen?” How did it get to be like this, where you can suddenly have all of these yoga instructors, these people who are so far from the traditions who are leading these other folks? In martial arts, you have to get certified, or you could get your ass beat, you know?
Pretty much everybody in the park was white, except for some kids who were doing capoeira in the far corner of the park. And it was Sunday, so all these people, they’re doing hardcore jogging and they’re doing steps and everything was on steroids and amped up. I mean, Malcolm X Park looked like being in Gold’s Gym or something. That’s how hard people were going. And it’s like, “Wow, that really weird.”
You helped start the SoleSides label in the Bay Area in the early 1990s and wrote what many consider to be the definitive history of hip hop music, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. Have you ever been criticized as an interloper or appropriator in that regard?
I mean, there are always folks who criticize you and I don’t really pay attention to those folks because, usually, if they’re saying stuff, they haven’t read the book. And once they do, I never hear from them again. The fact that the book has been able to survive for, shit, 11 years now, I think speaks for itself.
Writing and talking about rap, especially old school rap, is tough, people can be very defensive about it.
Well, you brought that up, so I’ll go there, too. The folks who I do take seriously are the folks who were there. KRS-One actually wrote this whole song in response to Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop that he did with Marley Marl called “I Was There.” He didn’t call me out by name, but I took it seriously. Since then we’ve had long conversations and we’re all cool.
What was his primary beef? That you didn’t talk to him?
No, the way that he raised it was that there were some factual inaccuracies about my treatment of stuff with violence. So I corrected those in future editions. And that was really it, you know? I mean, it’s contested, right? Everybody’s got their own story and I never wrote this thinking people would be reading it 11 years later.
You weren’t like, “I’m writing a rap textbook!”
Yeah, that wasn’t what I was trying to do at all. I was like, “I want to write this ’cause I love it, and there’s some stories that people have entrusted me with, and I’ve collected them and I like to write,” and so then you put it out there. Kinda naively, I guess.
What exactly constitutes your idea of multiculturalism and in what ways does it complicate these legacies of debasement, discrimination, and inequity that you talk about? The visibility of minorities is now more than ever, with the reality of, maybe not translating into a better quality of life.
Right. Into reality. So, “multiculturalism” is like the word “diversity.” It’s been defanged and nobody really knows what it means anymore. At one point, it was a really radical idea. When you look at the usage of the word “culture” before the 1980s, culture is this unitarian thing. Like, the Japanese have a culture, the Chinese have a culture, and Americans have a culture. And American culture is about being white and assimilating into whiteness. And so, when the multiculturalists come in, the word itself was an oxymoron. Like, “Really? A country can contain multiple cultures?” It was this big threshold for a lot of folks to cross and some people clearly still haven’t crossed it. So, it was a radical idea back then, and then it becomes mainstream in the 1980s and the 90s through all the efforts of these artists, who are claiming it. And then, suddenly, when you’ve got the George W. Bush cabinet looking more diverse than a lot of museum boards, you’re like, “Wait a minute… What’s going on here?”
So, to me, all the students walking out last fall, 100+ campuses, was about that. There’s this picture of diversity that everybody likes to put out, and then there’s the reality of continuing inequity. So, part of what I talk about in my latest book We Gon’ Be Alright is, if you look at these reports on “campus climate” from 1992 and you look at the ones that have been done in the last 4 or 5 years, they’re virtually identical. Students are asking for the same things that students like me were asking for in my generation.
You said in that interview that 1992 was a crisis point. What do you mean by that?
Well, all of the trends that had begun during the Reagan-Bush years that meant to further divide us and segregate us came to a boil. And, really, the neglect of communities of color. The L.A. Riots are the flash point for all of that in the same way that Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Keith Lamont Scott today have been flash points for forcing us to look at racial inequity now. So by 1992 on campuses there had been years and years of student protests around, “Hey man, we got a diverse student body here, and you’re acting like we don’t exist, and yet, there’s all kinds of hate crimes, microaggressions, sometimes even hate violence happening on the campus, and you guys aren’t dealing with this. Deal with it!”
You’ve talked about how that kind of activism from the 80s and 90s went unacknowledged.
Yeah. Sort of forgotten. And I don’t want to sound like a Gen Xer, “Oh, woe is us, nobody pays attention to what happened to us”! But it is true that those stories, those histories haven’t been written until now. That’s partly why I wrote Who We Be and that’s partly why I’ve continued to teach this stuff. About ten years ago students began asking me, “What happened? Why are we here? How did we get to this particular point?”
In your travels, where have you seen the most legitimate multi-culture? I feel like New York has a reputation as a melting pot, and certain neighborhoods fit with that. But generally, I feel like the attitude here is like, “Hey, I take the train with Mexican people, I know a lot about Mexico and its culture!”
Every place is different, you know? Every place has got its own kinds of questions and issues. I grew up in Hawai’i, and on the one hand, there’s this pidgin language that is sort of a local culture that brings people together. It also creates these new ways that people get marginalized, so newer immigrants, darker-skinned immigrants, Pacific Islanders get marginalized in Hawai’i a lot and have written about this. But on the flip side, pidgin language was created so all these different folks could talk together, right? It’s this inter-language which is English, but some of the sentences have structures that might be more familiar to somebody who grew up speaking Portuguese or Japanese or something like that, and there’s all kinds of loan words, you know?
You think it would be difficult for someone who’s eager to pick it up in the same way that different types of patois could be, or?
Yeah, absolutely. Fake patois, right? And I think being able to speak Pidgin marks someone who’s been born and raised and grew up in the Islands versus somebody who hasn’t. And actually, it’s really funny because back in the day, when they had Americanization campaigns in Hawai’i, the missionaries and white teachers were trying to stamp out Pidgin. And so, we would have classes when I was growing up where it’d be like, here’s the way that people speak ‘incorrectly’ and here’s the way to say English ‘properly,’ you know what I mean? And the worksheets that they used weren’t developed for Hawai’i, so it would be African American Vernacular English, right? So: “You don’t say ‘imma’, you say ‘I’m going to,'” you know? [laughs] Stuff like that, right? This is before hip hop kind of took over Hawai’i.
But, the funny thing about it is, my mom, she grew up working class, and she grew up on the windward side, which is considered ‘country.’ And yet, she met these Haole folks when she was pretty young who almost did this finishing school thing with her. Like: here’s how you speak proper English; here’s what fork goes where, what you use each fork for. All of that kind of stuff. And my dad grew up working class and then they hit it big and moved up the hill in the cityside in Honolulu. He went on to go and work in credit unions and stuff, and the language of business was almost always Pidgin. If you could speak Pidgin, then you could do business.
So in my fam, my mom would always be correcting my dad, but because my dad was the person who was engaged in business, he never felt any reason not to speak with a Pidgin inflection. In Hawai’i, you learn to be a code switcher. You learn immediately, in different types of situations, what’s appropriate.
So it’s almost like native Hawai’ians have that kind of immigrant mentality of these multiple worlds they traverse.
Well, “native Hawai’ians” is an interesting word, because there’s folks who have been born in the Islands and raised in the Islands, but they may not be Native Hawai’ians, you know what I mean?
Yeah, and for pretty much the last two generations that’s become a very big question in the Islands. So we say ‘Local’ with a capital ‘L’ when describing somebody who is born or raised in the Islands but may not necessarily be Native Hawai’ian. And then, all Native Hawai’ians are Local.
And if you’re white?
Folks who come in from the continent or that kind of thing, if you’re white, then you’d be marked as Haole. But, I’ll give you a perfect example of this. I did a radio show in San Francisco a few weeks ago. It was the first interview for the book tour, and my mom is all, “Yeah, you know, so I tuned into the radio show and I wasn’t sure that was you because you kinda sounded Haole!” And I was like, “Ma! Really?!” ‘Cause I remember coming back from California the first summer after my freshman year at Cal, and all my friends and my cousins constantly ripping me for the way I was talking now, you know? [laughs] Yeah. Anyway, so I continue to be a code switcher in that kind of a way. Even my kids make fun of me, because they’re like, “Yeah, when we get on the airplane, somewhere halfway between San Francisco and Honolulu, you start talking Pidgin again!” And I guess it’s because I’m girding myself for the moment I get off the plane, knowing my mom or my cousins or my friends are gonna be—
You don’t wanna take the beating!
Yeah! I want everybody to know that I’m local, and I’m back! [laughs]
You did an interview with President Obama in 2007. Did you guys know any of the same people in Honolulu?
Oh, yes! We did! This is a nugget that I haven’t dropped on too many people. So, he’s about six or seven years older than me. But, we started talking and the first thing I told him was, “Alright, before we do this interview, I gotta tell you, I went to ‘Iolani.” [laughs] ‘Cause he went to Punahou. ‘Iolani and Punahou are two private schools in Hawai’i and there’s a little bit of rivalry. And so, he took a look at me and he kind of leaned back and he kind of gave me side-eye, and then he goes to his press guy, and he’s all like, “We used to wipe the floor with these guys! They sucked at everything, they were terrible!” And I was like, “Aw shit.” Facepalm, you know? [laughs]
I’m trying to remember how or when it came up, but it was either in one of his books or the interview, that he used to go and buy a lot of comic books. And also, he used to hang out at this place that was right by ‘Iolani called Puck’s Alley, which was the place where all the university kids hung out. There were foosball tables. There’s pizza spots and vintage clothing spots, arcades, and whatnot. And there was a little flower stand right next to it, an old style plantation days kind of shack property where an older Japanese guy sold comic books. He was blind. And I was like, “Man, I know there used to be a comic book store. I used to hang out around University Ave. a lot. Did you used to go to that blind dude and buy comics from him?” He’s like, “Yeah! I used to go to him and buy comic books from him!” So we’re like, “Oh cool!” It was one of those moments where it was like, damn, okay.
And then you’re both transported back to your childhoods.
Yeah, we’re both kind of like, wow… It was pretty wild.
Also, a blind guy selling comic books is a thing that would be in a comic book.
[laughs] Right? And he’s got a cane that’s superpowered, and he goes out in the back and he’s swinging around.
Stopping shoplifters. [laughs]
Have you read Eddie Glaude’s book Democracy In Black? He kind of takes Obama to task. The idea of the post-racial presidency contrasted with the declining quality of life for African-Americans.
Yeah, totally. I was reading Hillary Clinton today. Her response to Tulsa, her response to Charlotte, and she’s clever to say something like, “You know, more unarmed Black men were killed this week. We have to get to a point where we think that this is intolerable. But, we also need to be aware that more police were shot at,” and blah blah blah. And it’s this triangulation that’s happening. Like, “Yeah, Black lives matter, but Blue lives matter too!” And it’s really disappointing and I feel like that’s the legacy of the Obama era. Maybe when he leaves office, he’ll be able to speak a little bit more freely. But I feel like I’ve been largely disappointed.
There’s a scene in the book that recounts the moment where he meets with a lot of the young organizers from Ferguson and proceeds to lecture them on, “I’m an example of what can happen if people are getting educated.” And they’re all like, “What are you talking about? We’re here to talk about police accountability, and you’re getting us back on this, ‘Everybody go pull up your pants and study.'”
Do you think there’s certain parameters he’s had to speak within because he’s a Black president?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that he’s definitely felt as if he’s had to walk the fine line, from the campaign all the way forward. He’s often said, “I’m a president of all people, not just Black people.” But, having said that, these issues begin with the killing of Black men and women. Resolving these types of questions will push us towards reforms and changes that will help everyone, all Americans. He has the unique position to be able to say that and do that. To be able to say: look. In the same way that Alicia Garza has written, when Black people get free, all people get free.
Which is essentially what Lyndon Johnson said back in the 1960s when he was trying to pull strings to push all of these Civil Rights pieces of legislation through. That if we take care of resolving these issues that are holding back African Americans, we improve all of the U.S. Everybody will be better for it.
You said in the interview that Donald Trump is emulating Richard Nixon? In what ways?
[laughs] He’s literally taken everything out of the Richard Nixon playbook. You know? He’s using the Law & Order theme, he’s trying to lump protesters against racism and police violence with this sense of rising disorder in the country. I mean, crime rates have been at their lowest in decades, you know? And yet, he’s still maintaining this specter of this wave of disorder that has a distinctive color tone, skin tone.
He’s picking up on this white anxiety.
He’s played to all of these things—anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia, and kind of put it all together in this ball of toxic bullshit that doubles as a campaign pitch. So, the thing that’s the different between Trump and Nixon is that Nixon was a pretty canny political operator. Trump doesn’t have any of the —for what it’s worth— subtlety and nuance, or Machiavellian intelligence that Nixon had.
I feel like if there was a secret tape recording of Trump, he would only be talking about himself. Whereas Nixon recordings were him just being paranoid and shitting on everybody else. [laughs]
[laughs] He’d be talking about himself in the third person, yeah! “Donald, Donald, you’re great! You’re just beautiful, you’re wonderful! You’re gonna be great. You’re gonna be really good.” You get the feeling that he has no inner life.
What are some examples of the complacency brought on by the post-racial era that we were talking about?
Well, I don’t think we’re in complacency anymore. Like, right now, we’re at a moment where all the polls show that Americans are more concerned about race than at any time since 1992, and then before that, since 1965. We’re at a peak of concern about race right now. We were in a moment of complacency, I think, in the years leading up to the Obama election and just afterwards, and even well into Obama’s first term. And then Trayvon Martin gets shot, and suddenly things are bubbling. And then Michael Brown gets shot, and things are boiling. And then, the non-indictment comes down and Eric Garner gets killed, and the sort of case quickens and the tempo rises and we’re now at this point where people are like, “We’ve gotta resolve this.” But, what we haven’t gotten to is a consensus, a national sort of will to deal with these questions, you know? So instead, it just feels like this ongoing horror show in which we’re sitting in our seats and we don’t have the agency to do anything. And so, that’s what I’m writing towards, you know? What is it gonna take for you to say that this is not just a show, this is not a game, this is not something that you need to sit in your seat for, that you can get up and you can do some shit about it? That’s what I’m trying to get at.
What do you make of the Peter Liang protests?
Pfft. It was all bullshit. I mean, okay, so that’s the essay “The In-betweens.” What does it mean for Asian Americans to be in-between Black and white? That’s what I’m writing about in that chapter.
I always call that “spectator status.”
‘Cause there’s this duality in the U.S., and we’re kind of outside of that.
Exactly! And that’s where the privilege comes in, where we can just be in the stands, eating popcorn or whatever, and watching everybody duke it out, and then be like, “Oh yeah, I was down with the winner!” Whoever the winner gets to be.
And you reap the benefits of the Civil Rights Movement while still being able to maintain your privilege.
Absolutely. And so, the protesters who were supporting Peter Liang were a perfect example of that. Even the fact that you can call yourself a civil rights organization when nobody who’s been working in Asian American civil rights knew about you before you started doing this. There have been hundreds of thousands of people who have been working around Asian American civil rights for decades, and you suddenly show up claiming these civil rights… I ain’t seen you before. That’s where I will call people out.
And then, they’ve used the banner of civil rights to say, this policeman’s been discriminated against, and have made an argument that is essentially, “Well, if it weren’t for the Black Lives Matter movement, this guy wouldn’t have been charged, and therefore, he should have the privileges that every other white police officer has been given in killing unarmed Black people!” Like, fuck you! [laughs] I’m sorry, that’s just how I feel. When I wrote the essay, I was literally trying to understand it. I was writing towards the ambivalences. But I also know how I feel.
I deeply supported the real Asian American organizers, activists, and civil rights people who greatly outnumbered these organizations. I mean, these folks were, I’m sure, out in the community, giving money out to get folks to show up at these things, you know? None of these folks had ever really cared about this stuff before. And suddenly you’re gonna care about it when you’ve got this one police officer? I think something’s fishy here. I think it was definitely a grasstops thing. I don’t think it was a grassroots thing. That’s my gut. People can call me out on that. You can show me the proof. I’m gonna reserve the right to say that stuff until proven otherwise. I just never had heard about these people before, and what I know is, is that the right wing has been funding Asian American front groups to go after racial justice initiatives in the past. So there. I probably sunk my career. But there it is. I mean, that’s how I feel at this point.