Who We Be: The Colorization of America

Reviewed by Lynda Turet

Jeff Chang. 2014, 403 pages, St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY

Who We Be: The Colorization of America is a journey through the nation’s relationship with race from 1963 until today. It is a story of both bravery and forgetting, of invisibility and hypervisibility, and of hope and disillusion. By telling the stories behind “multiculturalism,” “the culture wars,” “post-racialism,” and the “new majority,” author Jeff Chang offers us a nuanced understanding of our current state of both progress and backslides on racial equity.

Chang’s book could not be more on time. Gallup polls indicate that the last time this many Americans considered racism the nation’s most important problem was in 1992, following the Rodney King verdict and the Los Angeles riots. And yet, as the author highlights, when we talk about race, “we know what not to say to each other, but not what to say.”

Chang attempts to give us the words by sharing stories about how we arrived at our current state. He centers culture — imagery, art, advertising, and popular media — in his analysis, which he calls the “invisible force” that shapes history. The author’s focus on culture helps the reader see that history is more than a series of events. It is formed of a tapestry of meaning constantly made and remade in language, imagery, and the dialogue between them. The result is a world that is sometimes illogical and contradictory. This is why President Barack Obama, one of the world’s most powerful leaders, can acknowledge that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” The coexistence of reformation and retrenchment, what Chang calls “stumbling forward and staggering back,” is a central theme of the book.

Chang’s writing style is part history, part journalism, and part poetry, which is an incredibly effective approach for the book’s subject matter. He gets to social history through storytelling, centering the biographies and perspectives of the culture makers themselves. Doing so allows the reader to connect personally to the historical context, thus better understanding how these individuals and their experiences fit into a larger arc of history.

Discourse and history are at once nonlinear and cumulative. Thus, Chang divides Who We Be into three chronological sections. The following provides a summary of each.

1963–1979: Multiculturalism and Its Discontents

While civil rights victories were inscribed into the nation’s legal and legislative frameworks, conservative strategists successfully consolidated the southern states’ electorate using “social issues” and coded racist language. This “Southern Strategy” stoked white working-class anxiety using words like public order, welfare queen, and urban youth. It was the beginning of colorblind racism whereby you did not have to mention race in order to conjure it.

At this same time, people continued to push for inclusion. Black artists in New York City — including Faith Ringgold, Norman Lewis, and others — mobilized for recognition by New York City’s elite art world. While several years of protest garnered some victories, artists were faced with a new burden: not just struggling for recognition despite their race but also being valued for more than just their race. Artists of color were invited to participate when issues of race were central to the inquiry, but invited less often to mainstream shows. This is what Chang dubs the “untenable double-bind.” The assumption that undergirded this logic was that only white artists and their work escaped identity, context, and subjectivity. Chang returns to the theme of the “double-bind” several times in the book.

While student activists of the third-world movement pressed for inclusionary curriculum on their campuses, corporations and marketing firms began to recognize the strategic advantage of incorporating “multiculturalism” into their fold. Chang uses Coca-Cola’s 1972 “We Buy the World” commercial as a prime example. In Disneyesque fashion, the camera pans across Italy’s green rolling hills where twelve hundred young people of various ethnicities and dressed in ethnic costumes sing, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” The commercial’s message oozes of contradiction and folly (could world peace be purchased in a red fizzing bottle?) and so did its production. Chang explains that extras were recruited from local orphanages, and after several hours of being locked in steaming buses on the hot day of the shoot, they stormed the truck containing the gleaming Coca-Cola bottles. This was a fitting example of the state of colorized America: fraught, unresolved, and rife with paradox.

1980–1993: Conservative Forgetting and Liberal Fatigue

The book’s second section describes the time period when the discourse of “culture wars” raged and a hollowed-out version of “multiculturalism” went mainstream. Attacks on “identity politics” and “political correctness” became the socially acceptable ways to undermine the post–civil rights vision for multiculturalism. Conservatives blamed extremists, radicals, and feminists for fostering a weak and nihilistic state and attacked any government program thought to support them.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was one such target. Senators Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato led conservative efforts aimed at defunding the NEA based on its support of art labeled “obscene” or “indecent.” Artists and institutions that addressed controversial topics, such as the AIDS crisis, black queerness, and sex abuse in the church, were now under the microscope.

While war was waged against identity politics in national discourse, multiculturalism blossomed among artists of color who considered it a unifying framework for coexistence. Still excluded from the old boys’ clubs of mainstream museums, galleries, and magazines, visual artists of color began to initiate their own exhibits. The Decade Show was a comprehensive and multiyear effort involving the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem to show art by a wide diversity of artists around themes of memory and social history. While the work struck a chord with many museum-goers, mainstream art critics were dismissive at best and downright ugly at worst. Los Angeles Times’ William Wilson called the show “a simile of a stay-with-the-gang sub-culture,” and Washington Times art critic Eric Gibson declared that “[I]t is simply another attempt to cater to and/or pacify some political interest group, all at the expense (as always) of any real aesthetic standard.”

Chang uses these examples to show that artists of color and their work were relegated to the sphere of “propaganda art,” “mope art,” and “grievance art,” as if the social and historical context they spoke to compromised a universal notion of aesthetic quality. Once again, the unspoken implication was that only white artists could be objective and their work universal and timeless. The “untenable double-bind” struck, once again, leaving artists dancing between being either “too ethnic” or “just ethnic.”

Chang also explores the contradictions embedded in mainstream media’s incorporation of multiculturalism in these years, from Benetton’s United Colors advertising campaign to the emergence of cable television’s first black cable network: Black Entertainment Television (BET). He closes this section with a montage of backslides: black conservative activist Ward Connerly winning a war against affirmative action, fatigued white liberals calling for a return to a politics centered on the “Big White Middle,” and Clinton’s attempt for a presidential commission on race thwarted by Kenneth Starr and a stained blue dress. As Chang puts aptly, we moved into the new millennium “stumbling forward, staggering back.”

1993–2012: Hope, Identity, Post-Identity, and Post-Hope

In Who We Be’s final section, Chang elevates three themes that characterize the era: post-identity as reassertion, post-racialism as retrenchment, and demographobia in the face of a rising new majority.

Chang tells the story of a group of artists who, faced with the unrelenting double burden of invisibility and representation, forged an artistic movement for, as painter Raymond Saunder’s put it, “color [as] the means and not the end.” The term post-black started as a joke between black artists but soon became a framework for embracing identity while defying its bounds. A “post-black” exhibition was commissioned in New York City, and Asian American and Chicano artists soon followed with their own versions. Mainstream art critics were unsupportive, one calling the identity-based group show “a bureaucratic artifact as much as a curatorial one.” Given the context of white and male artists continuing to be disproportionately represented in mainstream art exhibitions, this comment was not only out of touch, it was caustic. As artist Eamon Ore-Giron cleverly pointed out, “People say multiculturalism is dead and we’re like, “OK, when’s the Post-White show?”

In this era of selective colorblindness and identity backlash, Barack Obama emerged as the 2008 election’s presidential hopeful. His biracial background was a symbol of reconciliation for a country tattered with a teetering economy, two failed wars, and partisan discord. Formerly disaffected nonwhite voters aligned with liberals to elect the nation’s first black president and recolored the electoral map in ways not seen since before the Southern Strategy.

And yet, the newly elected president would soon find out how he, too, faced an “untenable double-bind,” having to be, as Chang writes, both “twice as good and half as Black.” Persistent hostilities toward what conservatives deemed “racial tribalism” rendered Obama “colormute” on everything from housing, education, and the economy to even racial profiling. Tea Partiers pushed for small government while holding placards with the president pictured as a Muslim terrorist, Hitler, and a tribal witch doctor. It was back to “culture wars” as usual, but this time the attacks were personal. President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign was considered by Mike Davis as one of the most racially divisive in history.

Chang’s recounting of the fifty years of racial discourse that preceded Obama’s presidency helps us make sense of his simultaneous color-mutedness and hyperracialization. As the author later explains, “It was a classic post-racial reversal — one had to think race to deny race. It flattened the race-conscience yet colorblind conscience.” This same logic played out in the court case freeing George Zimmerman from consequence after killing an unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2012. It also played out in the US Supreme Court’s recent decision to gut key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In a post-racial world, race (and racism) is a thing of the past, but its coded versions (Barack Obama as un-American, Trayvon Martin as criminal, and the suppression of voters of color) remain uninterrupted.

One fact that anti-multiculturalists cannot avoid is that by 2042 people of color will outnumber whites for the first time in US history. Backlash has occurred in places, like Arizona, where these numbers are tipping faster than the national average. Chang sees the legal attacks on immigrants as part of a larger wave of “demographobia” plaguing discourse and policies. What has happened in Arizona and in other states provides a cautionary tale as to what lies ahead as the nation edges toward 2042.

Leaping for the Dream

Chang ends Who We Be with the same contradictions he begins it with. He offers images of a Los Angeles suburb with its overcrowded prisons and blocks of foreclosed homes. He recounts war stories of DREAMer activists who reimagine civil rights tactics to gain reforms for their American Dream despite their undocumented status. A multiracial group of students compare skin colors to the paint chips of Byron Kim’s Synecdoche in the National Gallery of Art. These are stories rife with hope and disillusionment, victory and retrenchment, and open-ended questions. If history is an indication, these contradictions will continue to shape our discourse until we break ties with the fallacy of post-racialism and the futility of colorblindness. Only then can we understand race as something that can define us without binding us and can ground us as it frees us.

While Who We Be is more a book of questions than answers, these questions may pave a new way. Creativity and imagination, Chang suggests, may be one of our best ways forward, and the artist, a central agent of change. The author offers these hopeful words:

[Artists] help people to see what cannot be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make changes feel not just possible, but inevitable. Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Change presents itself not only in spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but in explosions of mass creativity.