February 18, 2008

Hip-Hop Author Discusses Asians in America

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Jeff Chang, keynote speaker at this year’s East Coast Asian-American Student Union conference, sat down to talk with The Sun about issues pertinent to forming Asian-American identities.
Chang’s long and storied career includes time spent as a labor and student organizer, an Indie label record mogul and most notably as an author chronicling the rise of the hip-hop movement and its political implications. Chang, whose works include Can’t Stop, Don’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop, spoke about the current issues facing Asian-Americans as they try to carve out their own identities along with the class warfare taking place at universities.
The Sun: Many people perceive Asians as no longer a minority in the United States, yet you don’t see a lot of Asian politicians. There is often a stereotype that Asians are indifferent to the social injustices around them. Do you find this to be true in your experiences?
Jeff Chang: More people are involved than we’re lead to believe. Studies show that this generation is more into volunteerism, activism and working for social justice than any other previous generation, which counters the notion that only people from the ’60s and ’70s cared about change. For years, I’ve been saying apathy is a lie. The problem now is that politicians treat [Asians] like we’re an emerging community. We need to push them out of their comfort zone and have them treat us like an insurgent group . . . We’re managed very well. The current stereotype is that Asians all get along together and play nice in the sandbox. But we need to push people who are in power into realizing that we have our own demands.
The Sun: What obstacles to empowerment do Asian-American youths face today?
JC: There’s this perception that Asian students have it all together. It’s the model minority myth. Two decades ago people were not educated about who we are. From our point of view, this is a people’s struggle for justice. We need to give attention to who we are and where we need to go.
The Sun: What makes the struggle for Asian-American identity different from other cultures? Conversely, what unifies all of the cultures together?
[img_assist|nid=27909|title=Speaking his mind|desc=Jeff Chang delivers the ECAASU 2008 keynote speech in Bailey Hall.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]JC: The first thing to recognize is that diversity brings all of this to the table. But point blank the biggest issue, especially in Ivy League institutions, is Asian-Americans and class. In the last two decades, college admissions have become so impacted and there’s been a dramatic shift in the background of the student population due to issues of class.
Now, at many of these so-called “elite” institutions there is less of a mix. It’s predominantly students who come from non-working-class backgrounds. It is an issue that Asian Americans need to deal with, not just their ethnic backgrounds. We need to emphasize diversity, but also class diversity. There’s this notion among white anti-racists that in a way you have to become a ‘race traitor’ to your own race to resolve racism. A lot of Asian-Americans are considered to be overachieving and over-educated, but we also need to remember to do what’s right.
The Sun: What do you think of the current trend of reverse discrimination and affirmative action that has been impacting Asian-American youths all over the country who are applying to get into colleges?
JC: It’s funny in the ’80s, there was this huge blowout especially at Brown, Yale and Harvard to stop discrimination of Asian-Americans because there was a cap on how many they would admit into their schools. We won the protests we launched, but what did we really win? We won the right to see both conservatives and some liberals push to end affirmative action, especially for blacks and Latinos. We won the battle against discrimination against Asian-Americans but at the cost of real diversity in some schools.
Currently in the U.C. system, it is becoming an issue of class as well because of Proposition 209 in California. It reversed affirmative action for all public, in-state universities and the number of enrollment of Latinos and blacks just dropped. These groups have recovered a little bit, but the number of Asians just skyrocketed. Asian-Americans should be fighting for affirmative actions, whether or not it’s in our strict numerical interest. There’s a larger moral interest that outweighs that. If the role of the university is to create the world’s leaders, and we value diversity in society, then there should be diversity in universities. We have to stand against our own naked self-interest. You have to play nice in the sandbox. In the ’80s, it was only five of us in that sandbox, it was about demanding that we be in the sandbox. Now we’re all up in there! But what about the people that aren’t in it? They deserve to be in there too.
The Sun: What kind of paths are young people taking to have their voices heard?
JC: Since I’m a post-youth at this point, I’m not as up on my shit as I used to be. But there is a whole new generation that is finding their voices in hip and schooling us. I can’t tell you how many 15-year-old b-girls and b-boys I’ve met and how many poetry slams I’ve gone to where every year there’s a kid that just goes up there and makes me cry.
The Sun: Judging from the audience’s reaction, there was some criticism of President Skorton’s opening address — that he glossed over the unique identities that make up the Asian-American community. What was your opinion of it?
JC: I guess I should say there is an ongoing struggle against invisibility and every time, whether it is an ad agency or someone who wants to be a community leader, numbers dictate that people should do their homework before they make an appeal to us. It’s not just about the President or the Dean of Students, but it’s a societal thing. We’re at the point where we need to recognize and set people straight. The comments made by the students [at the conference] were thoughtful and provocative. It was also a teaching moment. I get weary of this stuff ‘Hey Jeff you’re Asian, educate us!’ It’s part of the daily routine and it is what it is.
The Sun: You are of Chinese and native Hawaiian ancestry. How is the composition of your own family a model for diversity?
JC: If you take a picture of us, the whole color spectrum is represented. It’s something that Asian-Americans are uniquely equipped to deal with — diversity amongst each other and diversity within their families. It’s a unique strength and we know what the stakes are and where the problems occur and how to make diversity work on a daily basis.
The Sun: Lastly, do you have particular stereotype that you like or dislike?
JC: People expect you to sit in the back and check it all out without being an active participant. You become a cipher. As a writer, I make it a strength because you know what to watch for and what to listen for, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to stand up for myself. Especially as a journalist, you put this mask on and back up from your own ego, so it makes you a better reporter.
The one stereotype I hate is the one that all Asians are good at math! I’m horrible at math. I failed calculus twice. My kid, who is six, teases me everyday about it.