Last Updated on August 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1010
Jeff Chang's We Gon' Be Alright guides readers as they step back and come face to face with the realities of race and increasing racial tensions in twenty-first-century America. In the face of #BlackLivesMatter, the Ferguson protests, and increasing displacement of communities of color, Chang responds to his previous work on post–civil rights era America with a sense of urgency, directness, and necessity.
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We Gon' Be Alright is a collection of essays chronicling not only the roots of hip hop and culture but also the persistent specter of whiteness that pervades American politics, social relations, and definitions of "progress" and "diversity." Looking at the contemporary crisis, Chang assesses the progress and limitations of the extant moment. America no longer defines itself by overt contests of citizenship and belonging. Slavery is a thing of the past. It is assumed that the major victories of the civil rights era have been won. Thus, Chang ingrains himself in the silences and neglects that continue to exercise power over communities of color, their lives, and their futures. He writes,
Institutional neglect of racism and injustice is the exercise of power, the kind of power that refuses to notice and refuses to speak.
Chang's analysis utilizes the contemporary moment to reflect on the necessity of undoing resegregation—and other similarly overlooked power structures—in order to bring about cultural equity, racial justice, and a better nation. Inequality harms everyone, thus the responsibility to fix it lies with all of us, not just those targeted by it.
Chang's first essay ("Is Diversity for White People?") argues that a limited understanding of "diversity" can undermine its intended notion of progress. Most concepts of diversity draw a distinction between a white majority and a nonwhite minority. In being defined only by the absence of a characteristic (that is, whiteness), the nonwhite minority is, therefore, "diverse." This nonwhite minority is then reintroduced into social and political spaces as proof of "diversity." This arrangement, according to Chang, does more harm than good, as it maintains a distinction between whiteness (the key perpetrator of inequality) and nonwhite, "otherizing" communities of color, thus serving to maintain them in positions of less power and agency. The nonwhite group must constantly seek approval and acceptance by whites, reinforcing existing power structures in the name of diversity.
Next, "What a Time to be Alive" critically examines recent contests over the tolerance of hate speech through student protests and free speech debates. College campuses have always been a target for protest and free expression, but with the rise of the far right and other extreme ideologies, the question remains: has America become too accommodating to hate speech? Chang acknowledges that freedom of speech must be protected, but argues that, by tolerating hate speech by labeling it free speech, America provides it with an unnecessary platform and megaphone. The arena of free speech, once used by marginalized people seeking to be heard, now becomes a safe haven and forum for those seeking to harm those very marginalized groups. Even in rhetoric, America is experiencing a process of resegregation.
The third essay, "The Odds," looks at cultural equality. Despite the diversity in entertainment and art, power in these fields still remains in the hands of the few. Anyone should be able to control art, make art, and have their stories heard.
Turning to tragedy, the fourth essay, "Hands Up," castigates the national reaction (or lack thereof) to the murder of Michael Brown. Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, was unarmed and innocent when he was executed by a white police officer. Chang goes through the investigation following the murder and the results and subsequent protests. While the media saw chaos and spoke of black lawlessness, they refused to see or acknowledge that Michael Brown's family, friends, and community had seen him gunned down, his body resting in the streets for hours, and received no justice or recourse. Politicians and police officers saw black rage and responded with armed occupation and containment of both the physical space of Ferguson and the rhetorical space of the narrative. Chang minces no words in condemning the use of tragedy for political performance and gain.
The fifth essay, "The In-Betweens," looks at the Asian American community, often left out of conversations of race in America. Chang discusses the unique experience of being an Asian American and what it is like to have an intersectional identity. Ultimately, he suggests that identity can be both a site of sanctuary and a tool. Although one is in-between, at some point the separate parts must come together. In America, that often means choosing. He writes,
What does it mean to be the evidence that racism is not real? . . . To be fetishized by colorblind liberals and white supremacists alike? To be so innocuous that teachers and policemen and figures of authority allow you the benefit of a doubt? To be desired for your fluid, exotic, futuristic, yielding difference? What does it mean to be the solution? For you, the Duboisian question is turned upside down. It haunts you.
To be Asian American is often overlooked in conversations of race in America. For Chang, it is a necessary conversation to be had.
Finally, in "The Making of Lemonade," Chang argues that everyone experiences a different process of achieving grace. That process would entail breaking down the barriers between us to get beyond the mistruths, aggression, guilt, and neglect.
Looking back on American history, there has been obvious progress. But the existence of progress does not negate the persistence of inequality and the institutionalized biases that pervade our homes, schools, public spaces, justice systems, recreation, and beyond. It is easy to fight things on the surface. It is harder to address the things we would rather leave forgotten or untended. For Chang, it is an absolute necessity—requiring honesty, dedication, and the willingness to see the truth—to end resegregation in America, an act that will liberate all Americans. There is still a chance to fix things, but America needs to act now. America needs action and America needs empathy.