Cultural critic Jeff Chang talks race, activism

Jeff Chang, left, and Sarah Jackson discuss the intersection of race, art, and politics in the event space on the 17th floor of East Village on Feb. 16, 2017. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Near the end of their 45-minute Q&A on the intersection of race, art, and politics in modern-day America, Northeastern social movements scholar Sarah Jackson asked Stanford cultural critic Jeff Chang a pointed question: “Are we going to be alright?”

It was Friday afternoon at Northeastern, in the event space on the 17th floor of East Village, and Jackson was purposefully invoking the name of Chang’s latest book, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation.

The book, which was released in September, just two months before one of the most contentious presidential elections in the nation’s history, takes an incisive look at the recent tragedies and widespread protests that have shaken the country to its core. In what The Washington Post called “the smartest book of the year,” Chang 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.”

If anything, he said in his response to Jackson, assistant professor of communication studies, he’s been “buoyed” by the public’s widespread social activism in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. “Social justice movements have never been at a higher state of alert than at this moment,” said Chang, a native Hawaiian of Chinese decent, who currently serves as the executive director of Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts.

He pointed in particular to last month’s Women’s March, a global protest among more than five million people on all seven continents who united to advocate for women’s rights, immigration reform, environmental justice, and other issues. “I definitely feel like we’re in a moment that feels very dangerous, but we got this,” he said. “You’re at airports, you’re at Standing Rock,” he added, referring to those protesting Trump’s immigration ban and the Dakota Access pipeline, “and you have to believe it’s alright too.”

Social justice movements have never been at a higher state of alert than at this moment.

Jeff Chang
cultural critic

His resumé suggests that you should believe him. Chang was named by The Utne Reader as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” He is the cofounder of ColorLines, a magazine on race and culture, and his first book, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, won an American Book Award.

His conversation with Jackson was sponsored in part by Northeastern Crossing, the Center for Community Service, and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. It drew more than 100 students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members, some of whom asked Chang challenging questions on topics ranging from education to community-building on college campuses.

One Boston youth organizer asked Chang for advice on talking about race without fighting or getting defensive. “The conversations have to be generous and you have to listen hard,” he told her. “It has to be a one-on-one exchange that’s overdetermined not by power but by love.”

Two Northeastern students—one African American, the other Asian American—told Chang that they are working to bring together the two communities on campus. In March, they said, the will hold an event aimed at uniting Black and Asian students, and they wanted some tips to make it successful. “Have a dance party afterward,” Chang told them. He wasn’t kidding. “Make sure there’s culture involved.”

He noted that the college campus is often the first place where many students encounter people who don’t look like they do, prompting universities to emphasize equality and community. In response to these remarks, Jackson asked Chang to explain what colleges could do to promote diversity and inclusion in meaningful ways that effect positive change.

“It’s about fostering intimate and deep discussions around these questions and creating places for folks to talk this out,” said Chang. “It’s about having places where white students can talk about race, where cisgender men can talk about gender,” he added. “This should be a model for how we deal with these issues in society.”