Monday, November 24, 2014

In which I share a lot of quotes and comics in hopes of getting you to read a book

Have you ever seen a book and thought, "Ohmigosh, THIS is why scholarship exists in the world!  So that THIS PERSON could write a book on THIS TOPIC and be totally awesome?"

That's pretty much how I felt when I first heard about Jeff Chang's Who We Be:  The Colorization of America.  Seriously, if someone can spend his whole adult life being an academic who just thinks and analyzes the world all day, and then pulls all of the thoughts in his head about race and identity and multi-culturalism in America and somehow mixes that with visual arts, comics, advertising and how all of those things influence politics... then I think the world is a better place for it.

From the book description:
Race. A four-letter word. The greatest social divide in American life, a half-century ago and today.
During that time, the U.S. has seen the most dramatic demographic and cultural shifts in its history, what can be called the colorization of America. But the same nation that elected its first Black president on a wave of hope—another four-letter word—is still plunged into endless culture wars.
How do Americans see race now? How has that changed—and not changed—over the half-century? After eras framed by words like "multicultural" and "post-racial," do we see each other any more clearly?
Who We Be remixes comic strips and contemporary art, campus protests and corporate marketing campaigns, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Trayvon Martin into a powerful, unusual, and timely cultural history of the idea of racial progress.

I first heard about Who We Be on Racialicious, and then it was serendipitously, prominently displayed at the library.  So I grabbed it immediately and dropped pretty much every other thing in my life (including my new obsession Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, thank you very much, Ana).

I have noted down so many quotes from this book.  Right from the beginning, when Chang states that:
Race happens in the gap between appearance and the perception of difference. It is about what we see and what we think we see and what we think about what we see. In that sense, it's bigger than personal affinities, preferences, tastes and bonds.
and then onto why people who say "I don't see race" drive other people crazy:
...Let us act as if we had always recognized the greatness of artists we once (and still) objected to seeing. It restated the lie of color blindness: I refused to see you before because of your color, and now that you have revealed my blindness, I see you *despite* your color.
This is a densely written book.  There are many artists presented here that I don't know, references to works of art with which I am not familiar.  But much of the book is very accessible, and there are a lot of important themes that resonate throughout it.  What I mean is, it's worth the work.

Those hoping for some sort of resolution or solution will be disappointed, though.  Chang's book is a retrospective about how American has approached and reacted to race over the past several decades; it is not a treatise on how we can all live happily ever after.  In fact, Chang does more to highlight issues and inconsistencies and disturbing situations than he does anything else.

What I found particularly powerful in this book was just how politicized race has become, even as we have changed the language around race.  Clearly, being racist is now frowned upon, so instead of using loaded terminology, politicians now use the language of economics to push for or against immigration, welfare reform, the national debt, and education.

The education piece in particular spoke to me - America's schools have been undergoing a rapid resegregation even as the country becomes more and more a "majority-minority" culture.

At the risk of making this less a review than it already is, I will share here some of the quotes that really gave me "a-ha!" moments while reading:
"Johnson's dis was part of a maddening continuity.  In an earlier generation, critics had dismissed artists of color by calling their work 'identity art.'  Now that a new generation of artists of color was 'post-identity,' critics were still uninterested in the questions of race they were raising.  The world had been colorized, but the art world remained colorblind." 
"The future of America is in this question:  Will the baby boomers recognize that they have a responsibility and a personal stake in ensuring that this generation of largely Latino and African-American kids are prepared to succeed?" - Stephen Klineberg 
"In a broad 2007 study of almost 19,000 subjects, a team of scholars from Vanderbilt University found that 75 percent of white parents never or almost never discussed race or ethnicity with their children.  Some of the parents didn't think it was a big deal.  Others genuinely did not know how to talk about race so they avoided talking about it altogether.  Many of those parents ... believed teaching their children not to see race was the proper way to teach them how not to be bigoted or racist."

Who We Be also introduced me to this amazing comic strip, Wee Pals, written by Morrie Turner, which features kids of all races having open and adorable conversations about important topics.


  1. This sounds really good. Did we ever talk about that study I read of blind people, that showed how they had absorbed all the prejudices about race even though they couldn't see! What's really interesting too are the studies by economists that show that in all other areas, people act on their economic best interests, except racism. (So, for example, it was actually not good for the Southern economy to continue with slavery, but they didn't care....) It's really sad/infuriating/depressing/frustrating....

  2. Sounds interesting. Great review.

  3. It is so baffling to me that white parents don't talk to their kids about race. One of the reasons my parents chose to raise us in South Louisiana was so that we'd be around people who weren't just white all the time; and they talked to us about race a LOT. One of the earliest elections I can remember talking to my parents about was the one where Edwin Edwards (a total crook) was running against David Duke (I swear to God a member of the Klan), and they were explaining why Edwards's slogan was "Vote for the crook; it's important", and about the KKK and the history of racism etc. It's such a mistake not to talk to your kids about race, because they really will find out about it on the street, which means they'll absorb all kinds of crappy messages you don't want them to absorb. Bleh.

    All of which to say: This sounds fascinating!

  4. I immediately added this one to my wish list. Awesome.

  5. This sounds amazing, thanks for the heads up!


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