Jeff Chang Transcript
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Eric Brown: So let’s get onto the show.
Kirk Brown: And we’re back. Welcome in again to let’s hear it. You found us once again, welcome to the couch. Welcome to the conversation.
Eric Brown: Welcome to the couch. What is this therapy? Maybe it is okay. Maybe it is. It’s welcome to the couch. There’s a campfire.
Kirk Brown: There’s a couch. There’s a warm light. There’s you know, talk about your mother.
Kirk Brown: There’s. Yeah, appetizers. How’s it going, Mr.
Eric Brown: It is going, sir, it’s going my, my boon companion. My hail fellow well met. How are you sir?
Kirk Brown: I’m good. And I’m, I’m ready to do some cultural wing walking if you will. I’m ready to just get out of the wing and see where it takes us. So tell us what’s ahead. Because once again, we’ve got much, much to talk about.
Eric Brown: I had a conversation with Jeff Chang. We are on the board of the Narrative Initiative together, and Jeff’s a senior advisor at Race Forward. He leads the Butterfly Lab for Immigrant Narrative Strategy. He is, as I said to him in our conversation, a cultural wing Walker. He’s one of those people who walks out on the wings of planes while they’re flying, because he is an observer of culture.
Eric Brown: He just gets into it in ways that are exciting and interesting. And from, and he’s someone that we can learn whom we can learn so much from he’s a, an amazing guy, really fun. And I think we had a, a pretty dynamic conversation. We had this conversation and I should note this right after the Oscar. So for those of you who follow, let’s hear it, there are occasional gaps between when we do the interview and when it ends up being posted. But so this conversation happened right after the Oscars. And for those of you who don’t remember. Things happened at the Oscars. Chris Rock had something happen and Will Smith was there and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith were there and engaged in it.
Eric Brown: And it was a cultural sensation. And it’s interesting because I mentioned this to someone and they had forgotten and I’m thinking, oh wow, you gotta be kidding me, but still, this may be a good time for us all to refresh our memories about. What happened to the Oscars and it’s under, and it’s relationship with race and narrative and culture and, and engagement and all of these other things.
Eric Brown: And, and Jeff helps by just reading his books and speaking to him is helping me to make sense of where we are.
Kirk Brown: A little bit and Jeff’s many accomplishments are too numerous to even recite. So we will point you to Jeff chang.net, where you can see Jeff’s work and read about his background, what he’s been involved with and to find Jeff on Twitter.
Kirk Brown: It’s @Z E N T R O N I X. Please find him, please check him out. And as you’re about to hear, this is quite a contributor to. A lot. Yeah. So this , this is Jeff Chang and let’s hear it.
Eric Brown: Welcome to let’s hear it. My guest today is author, journalist, and I don’t know, cultural wingwalker Jeff Chang.
Jeff Chang: What’s a wingwalker?
Eric Brown: You know, someone who gets on the side of a plane and walks along the wing of the plane.
Jeff Chang: Got it.
Eric Brown: A cultural pulse taker. A zeitgeist reader?
Jeff Chang: Whoa. I, yeah, that’s crazy.
Eric Brown: I don’t know. You are way more than all those things, Jeff. So thanks so much for coming on. Let’s hear at my friend. It’s it’s great to talk to you.
Jeff Chang: Oh, it’s so great to be here. Thank you. Thank you, Eric. That was a crazy introduction.
Jeff Chang: I don’t know if I can live up to any of that. wing walkin.
Eric Brown: If you don’t walk wings in the next 30 minutes you failed.
Jeff Chang: Whew. Okay. Well, let’s, let’s take off. Let’s stuff big off.
Eric Brown: There we go. Well, you you also, you’ve had, you’ve had quite the journey you’ve been in inside the, I dunno what you would call it.
Eric Brown: Well, you were in the academy, you were the executive director, the Institute for diversity in the arts at Stanford university, which sounds. Pretty fancy. You were vice president for a narrative arts and culture at race forward where you’re still a senior advisor and you’ve written a whole bunch of books.
Eric Brown: If you don’t mind, I’m just gonna list them or some of them for folks. Can’t stop, won’t stop a history of hip hop gen of the hip hop generation. We go and be all right, notes on race and resegregation. Oh, there’s one more that I wrote down and I can’t find it, but and there’s
Jeff Chang: it’s out there. Yeah. It’s called Who We Be.
Jeff Chang: Thank you. Who
Eric Brown: be? Yeah.
Eric Brown: Let’s so let’s start with, with the early days. Yeah. If, if you don’t mind, I wanna see how you got from. There to hear, cuz it’s such an interesting bunch of things that you’ve done. So you grew up in, you grew up in Hawaii. Mm-hmm in Honolulu, Hawai’i? Yes. In Honolulu. And you are part native Hawaiian and part Chinese mm-hmm is that correct?
Jeff Chang: That’s yep. That’s me. Yeah.
Eric Brown: What was that experience? Ho I’ve been to Hawai’i as an, as a outsider. I know that I, I understand almost exactly zero of the cultural experience. Of people of Hawai’i. And, and so I’d be curious to know what your, what you’re growing up there was like and how that’s informing your own sense of race and identity.
Jeff Chang: Mmm, such a good question. There’s so much to talk about. And actually there’s probably a book in this somewhere but I, you know, I, on my Chinese side, I’m seventh generation on the islands and on my point side, obviously, Been there thousands of years. So the, you know, the family that I come from is huge.
Jeff Chang: It’s a big family. We’ve intermarried in, you know, all the ways that are possible. Like all the combinations you can imagine are, are within the family. So when we take a picture, we kind of look like the United nations. It’s pretty crazy. And you know, for, for that reason, that’s obviously shaped my understanding of.
Jeff Chang: What can be possible, I guess, you know, in community, it’s not like you don’t have tensions in family that just like you don’t have, you know, like you have tensions in community, you have tensions in family, but at the same time, the idea that everybody can belong each belong to each other, right. Is, is something that probably I’d learned at a really young age.
Jeff Chang: And certainly it’s definitely at the core of my, of my being and what I’m, what I’m about. So, When I, when I look at questions these days, like, you know, of, of segregation or of questions of equity or, or justice racial equity or racial justice, it comes literally it’s informed by, by the way I grew up and by my family histories, we, we could talk, we could go back generations, if you want to Eric, I probably don’t have the time to do that.
Jeff Chang: but just suffice it to say, I think that in that regard, there’s, there’s a sort of, you know, I’m, I’m very aware. That, even this notion of America, right. Is, is it’s in some ways an, an ideal, and it’s been a weapon as well, right. It’s been wielded to take away, you know, the rights and, you know, and, and the culture of my family’s, the language, right.
Jeff Chang: Americanization. Taken away language. And it’s only now that me later in life, that I can come back to it and, and try to find some sort of reconciliation. But those are the kinds of things that, that motivate me is, is kind of thinking about what the previous seven generations of my family have been, you know, able to do and thinking forward to like the next seven generations.
Jeff Chang: So and what we need to leave.
Eric Brown: Then you came to the, to California. I did. Yeah. The, the mainland, I don’t know what the do we call the mainland?
Jeff Chang: Yeah, we used to call it the mainland, but then, then folks were starting to say in the nineties, Hawaii’s the mainland. So above the continent, which is another way of describing it, that’s a little bit less fraught with connotations of, you know, main or not so main or periphery or whatever.
Eric Brown: I had a feeling as the word came outta my mouth, that there was no it’s, it’s
Jeff Chang: fun. It’s really funny. There’s a great poem by this guy named Joseph Laz. Who’s like Hawaii is the mainland, so right. yeah. So, and that, and then we were all like, Ooh, you know, that was one of those moments. We’re all like, wow.
Jeff Chang: That really reframes things for us. But yeah. I’m sorry. Go ahead. So
Eric Brown: yeah. So you came to California and, and you went to Cal. Go Bears. Yes. And, and then you started a hip hop. You were DJ. Is that right? Yeah. That’s right. Yeah. Your hip hop and you start a hip hop record label. Yep. So I don’t know, was, are lot of Chinese Hawaiian hip hop labels or , you know, speaking of cultural kind of, I don’t know, experiences, how came you Jeff to start a hip hop label?
Eric Brown: How do you tell me about hip hop? Tell me about your, your relationship
Jeff Chang: to hip. Oh, well, you know, I, I came to Cal and it was actually, this is gonna date me, but what the heck? You know, I’m, I, it was my birthday yesterday, so I have to own my middle age now. The, the period that I came to Berkeley was during the anti apartheid movement.
Jeff Chang: So I found myself. Drawn into to that backwards. Actually, I I’d always been a huge fan of music. I grew up on, you know Hawaiian folk music, you know, sort of back to the land type stuff that my cousins, my old, my older generation of cousins were into, you know, sort of folk rock, jazz rock type of stuff that was coming from the islands.
Jeff Chang: And then really started figuring out. Where I was going when I started hearing reggae, you know, started hearing like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and bunny Whaler. And, you know, the folks who are coming out with the roots music during the, the seventies and, you know, we really didn’t have anything to claim until hip hop came out.
Jeff Chang: You know, something that was our own generation, that other generations didn’t understand that got my parents angry when I played loud. You know what I mean? All the great things. Right. So, and hip hop was interesting because it was. It kind of spoke to this like intensification of the urbanization of the islands.
Jeff Chang: I grew up in Honolulu in, in the Eastern suburbs and of Honolulu and spent a lot of time on the countryside too as well because my grandparents are on that side of the island. But During the eighties during the seventies and the eighties, there’s a lot of development, a lot of urbanization very quickly.
Jeff Chang: And hip hop kind of gave us a voice, you know, so almost a pre political voice, you know, for, to be able to say, Hey, what’s all this stuff going up. What’s all this concrete going up, you know, I’m gonna spray paint my name on it. And you know, when I play this stuff loud, it echoes right through, you know, through all the streets and stuff.
Jeff Chang: And, and it was just amazing for us to. Have that sound coming from New York city and Los Angeles down to us. So hip hop became the thing that, that I think our generation grew up on. And when I moved to the continent, I moved right into the middle of a huge, amazing scene in the bay area, you know?
Jeff Chang: So. Jump right into it. I was literally becoming a DJ learning how to become a DJ that was happening during the nighttime. And then I’d, you know, wake up in the afternoon, skip math class and, you know, end up like on the, on sprawl Plaza where all these protests were taking place. So that was kind of.
Jeff Chang: How it all came together for me. And, and ultimately the two kind of came together in hip hop. You know, the, the sort of thing of finding our, our, not just our, our sort of aesthetic voice, but our political voice through groups like public enemy and. Bogie down productions, Carrs one, you know, queen Latifa MC light, you know, all these folks, sister, soldier articulated kind of the, the, the feelings that we were feeling.
Jeff Chang: And that’s how I came to, to become a DJ and to help start up a label that was called soul sides with folks like DJ shadow and black delicious rest, the peace, get the gab and. Lax my friend lyrics born from Berkeley and Latif the true speaker from Oakland. And I’m happy to say that another person in our crew, Joseph Patel just won the Oscar for some of soul.
Jeff Chang: So like we had a pretty amazing crew and those guys, you know, taught me so much. And, and I still rely on, on those days a lot, you know, in terms of thinking about what I need to be as an artist and. How to be able to carry the narrative forward of, you know, the America that we can have if we, if we choose to move in that direction.
Jeff Chang: Well, you,
Eric Brown: as you talk about this political voice, I’m sensing the nineties mm-hmm is that. Is that I was there in a nice year, except I was, it took me a long time to go to college. So I’m a little older than you. OK. Was I wandered into the, in the wilderness for quite some time, but that’s not
Jeff Chang: it’s you were just, you were learning, man.
Jeff Chang: You were, was part of your journey. You weren’t wandering, you, you were finding
Eric Brown: you finding you’re finder. I was learning. That’s what it was. What was that political voice and what was, what was it that you felt that you, that this. Cultural opportunity gave you the chance to say, what, what were you tr what were you trying to
Jeff Chang: communicate?
Jeff Chang: You know, it was a, it was, the eighties were, were a really intense period. And this is sort of the period where you begin to see the cultures that were living in today, you know where you have this far, right. And even actually democratic party folks pushing back against, you know, the racial justice work that really came up out of the post-war period in the us, and of course, peaks with the civil rights movement and, you know, the flowering of the black power movement, which in turn.
Jeff Chang: Inspires the Asian American movement, the Chicano movement, the American Indian movement the LGBTQ movement, right? The women’s movement. So. You know, there’s a massive kind of backlash against that during the 1980s. And that’s, I think what a lot of folks were reacting to, you know, you hear it in the music of public enemy, certainly.
Jeff Chang: And the, I, this idea of bringing back the image and the words. And the teaching of somebody like Malcolm X, you know, sampling him so that it’s, he’s saying two black, too strong, you know, and that giving us sort of a sense of, of agency at that moment. And I think coming out of the anti apartheid movement, moving into confronting racism at that particular moment under representation of, you know, people of color, as well as the lack of ethnic studies, the lack of.
Jeff Chang: Of knowledge about the communities that we come from, the rise in anti-Asian violence that was happening during the eighties, all of those different types of things, you know, were shaping who we are. And so hip hop actually gave us a way to be able to speak to all of those kinds of things, to be able to assert a different kind of, of, of way of, of being against all of these different types of forces that were coming down on
Eric Brown: us.
Eric Brown: Well, it clearly had a lot of power. You, you were talking about how the left was challenged by it and didn’t know what to make of it. You know, who can forget in the nineties, bill Clinton and Sister Souljah. Mm-hmm it almost seems like the perfect example of the baby boomer culture, not having any idea, what to make of, of a, a burgeoning sense of expression.
Eric Brown: That must have been a bomb that went off in the, either the hip hop community, but in just general progressive race politics, sisters must have been a head smacker.
Jeff Chang: Yeah. yeah, that, that moment I think was. Pretty profound cuz then it was like, oh, we thought that this is the guy that was supposed to be cool.
Jeff Chang: Like he’s on Arsenio playing the saxophone and stuff. Right. Like they’re saying that he’s about to be the first black president and whatnot. And, and then he turns around and uses Sister Souljah. As a way to be able to, to draw this line. And, and it’s, it’s clearly a racial line. I mean, when, when he was saying this, Jesse Jackson was on the DS with alongside him and you could just see Jesse Jackson’s face drop and him turn sour, because it was clear that he was trying to race bait.
Jeff Chang: At that particular moment, you know, Sister Souljah’s words were, I think, misconstrued, you know, and she was talking in that particular moment in this interview that she had given in the Washington times about the mentality of a gang banger. Right at that, at that moment. And they were flipped around to make it seem as if she was advocating, killing whites, you know, and, and so that was such a clear for so many of us that was such a clear statement that.
Jeff Chang: This was, in fact it wasn’t a Democrat versus Republican type of thing. It was like a generation versus a generation type of thing. And to be completely honest, like, and James Foreman has done great work around this, right? It’s it, it’s this flowering of all of these tough on crime laws in which.
Jeff Chang: Black communities are held up as the folks who want these laws the most. And, and so you’re, you’re dealing with this generational friction that’s happening. And that comes out, I think, in the hip hop politics of, of the entire decade, really rolling up into the new millennium of, and I think that that actually forms the shift around which we, we get to.
Jeff Chang: Black lives matter, but I might be getting ahead of myself
Eric Brown: here a little bit, but not too much. Okay. Because I’m after the break, we’re gonna come, we’re gonna kind of jump forward. We’re gonna do the time shift and, and get, get into the current conversation. And there are a few of them that I’d love to have.
Eric Brown: And we’ll be right back with Jeff Chang. You’re listening to, let’s hear it. A podcast about foundation and nonprofit communications hosted by Kirk brown and Eric Brown. Let’s hear it is sponsored by the communications network, which connects, gathers and informs the field of leaders working in communications for good because foundations and nonprofits that communicate well are stronger, smarter, and vastly, more effective.
Eric Brown: You can find lets email@example.com or on Twitter at lets hear at cast. Thanks for listening. And now back to the show. And we are back with cultural wing Walker and reader of the zeitgeist.
Jeff Chang: I’m gonna get a, t-shirt made that for both of us. That’ll just say wing walkers, wing, walkers anonymous.
Eric Brown: so, Jeff, I, I can’t decide where to start the second part of the show, cuz I have two really big questions that I wanna ask. I guess I wanna start with the, what I guess we can call it the elephant in the room, but it’s not, I wanna talk about the other Chris rock Oscars event, which I think it comes out.
Eric Brown: You, what out of your book will you gonna be all right. Which you talk about when the, the Oscar So White gave way to Not Your Mule. Mm. And this is like, so, and I’m gonna talk about Chris rock right now, because there was other Chris rock stuff to talk about that I think. It is. So it’s such an interesting way of looking at how race and conversation and culture they grind together in certain ways.
Eric Brown: Can you just tell the story about Oscars so white and Not Your Mule? And I think that’ll help us. It may help us even understand what happened. Two weeks ago I could be wrong,
Jeff Chang: but still, well, Eric, it’s been so long since I’ve, since I’ve actually thought about this and I’d be really interested to actually to kind of hear what you, how you connect the, the dots to, to the event a couple weeks ago, for sure.
Jeff Chang: I mean that particular event, what happened was Chris was hosting the Oscars again, and he made a joke about the accounting firm. That the Oscars uses to tally their you know, the votes and, and that kind of thing. And then brought up three young Asian kids on the stage. And so the joke was kind of at the expense of these unassuming, like poor little, like cute Asian kids who, you know, the joke was obviously, the laugh depended upon the stereotype of, you know, Asian Americans being all about math and being all about, you know, the, the little, doing the little things, being the sort of folks who are. Pushing the pencils around but can never necessarily be leaders. Right? So a good friend, Jose Antonio Vargas actually calls folks out and on Twitter that night, he’s like, what was that about?
Jeff Chang: What’s what’s going on here and actually begins to create this conversation about race and Asian Americans. The thing about Asian Americans is that throughout our history, we’ve always been placed between black and white. And so there’s an essay in the book called The Inbetweens in, in which I kind of get a little bit more into, into all of this, but it’s a, it’s a very difficult type of position to, to, to be in for.
Jeff Chang: Asian Americans to try to figure out what position they’re gonna take. You know, we can, we can sit on the fence and kind of watch all of this stuff happen. And that’s really just the essence and the, the, the definition of privilege, right. That we can see all of these different types of racial equity battles, racial justice battles going on.
Jeff Chang: And we could just sort of like quietly opt out of that. That’s really, again, the definition of privilege. Or we can throw down and say, you know, this is what we’re, we’re trying to be about. We’re trying to be as white as we can be, or we are trying to be as you know, down for racial justice in supporting the struggle, the freedom struggle.
Jeff Chang: That’s been most. You know, deeply articulated by the black freedom movements, going all the way back, you know, hundreds of years we can choose to take that side. And so this, this quality of being in between is literally about having the option to opt out. But the necessity to be able to make a choice in order to.
Jeff Chang: Figure out like where we’re gonna situate ourselves. And, and so anyway, in this particular debate, Mickey Kendall, who’s another Twitter, you know, sort of avatar black woman calls out Jose around what he’s raising right. And is like, well, you know, you. Are criticizing black folks who are over here, you know, are making a joke say that might be at your expense, but black people are not gonna be your mule.
Jeff Chang: They’re not using a Zora Neale Hurston reference, right? It’s not about. Asian Americans climbing up over blackness to get to whiteness. And, you know, Eric, this is like something that comes up over and over again. It came up in the school board, the San Francisco school board debates. And it was an undercurrent.
Jeff Chang: It’s an undercurrent. Now that that is actually happening. Even around the stop, a API hate, you know, kind of of movement, right? It’s it’s the question. Like, are you in solidarity with the struggle or is, are you invoking, you know, grievance in order to get over on other folks of color, particularly black folks who pave the way for you?
Jeff Chang: And so. That’s what I think I was trying to write about in the book. I’m curious. What, what, how you think it relates to like what happened between Chris rock and will Smith?
Eric Brown: Well, boy, I’m not qualified to answer your question, but I’m gonna give a shot. totally
Jeff Chang: You’re qualified, man. You’re behind the microphone.
Jeff Chang: Go for it. I’m here. I’m listening.
Eric Brown: Not not with saying the fact that Chris Rock seemed to have been the middle of the, the eye of the hurricane in these two large cultural conversations that happened on Twitter during the Oscars. So there’s just that elegance. But your, what seemed to me that happened at the Oscars this time was a collision of gender and toxic maleness.
Eric Brown: Mm-hmm . Race for sure to black men engaging in a conflict on the stage in front of everybody and disability. Because Chris Rock was making fun of Jada Pinkett’s disability, that, that she has a medical condition and all of these things crushing together. And there you saw people taking sides, you know, Tiffany Haddish was set, was taking Jada’s side saying, and, and Will’s side saying like, that’s okay, stand up for your woman.
Eric Brown: And so on. And so, so you ended up with this almost a triangulation of, of cultural conflict. Is gonna be very hard to untangle and for which there feels to me to be no elegant solution, you know, and people say, well, it’s complicated. It is. And again, this is why I feel like I have very little authority to speak, but these, these are I, it feels to me like, Folks are being asked to take a side in the sense that it feels like they were being asked to take side back then as well, which is which side are you on?
Eric Brown: Am I your mule? Am I not? Where, where do you fit in the, in the racial pecking order or in the social pecking order or in the gender pecking order or in the ability Peck, you know, that sort of thing. So I it’s, I, as you can tell, I have, I do not have an elegant answer to your question, but it feels like a lot of these themes are, are colliding.
Eric Brown: Coming together in a way that feels reminiscing. It’s a callback to that. Yeah. And all right. You’re the cultural zeitgeist, man. Well, I, you tell
Jeff Chang: me I’m wrong. No, I think you’re right about all those things and about like the explosion of that particular moment, you know, has to do with all of these different types of.
Jeff Chang: Issues that that need to be unraveled. And, you know, the problem, I think in the way that we think about things is everything is so binary everything’s. So on off one, two, you know, zero one, I guess you should say. And when we get to the intersectionality of these different kinds of issues, I mean, you know, the other thing that Mickey was kind of.
Jeff Chang: Referring to here is, you know, there’s, there’s the erasure of black women here. That’s, that’s happening in all of this. And that’s like, how, how do we bring in, you know, gender to, to actually be able to talk about this, you know, in this particular instance, like Jada. Right. What is, what is J like Jada’s either the object, the protection or the object of ridicule, right?
Jeff Chang: Like, look, we could talk about that. It’s, there’s so many different types of things that are, that are kind of going on and, you know, what’s clear, I think is that. The moment that we’re in right now is about the critique of, of all of that. And about, you know, this masculinity, this toxic ma masculinity that’s been in place that we have to, we have to take down, we have to unravel and we have to sort of put aside, but having said that.
Jeff Chang: Right. Like, what are the proper ways for, for us to be able to move forward? You know, that, that, that Chris rock chose not to do the thing that everybody said that he should have done, which was to, you know, bring the police into the situation. Right. That, that feels significant. In a lot of ways, you know, what is, what’s the proper way that, that we move towards closure on this kind of thing.
Jeff Chang: And I think that, that the, the difficulty of it all is, is. that in this social media type of environment, there’s a rush to judgment and there’s a rush to sort of create a scapegoat, you know, and to sort of put all of that stuff away. So, you know, will Smith is now canceled or whatever, right. Chris rock is selling out all of his shows on his tour.
Jeff Chang: Right. And that’s another part of this binary that, that is that’s vexing. It doesn’t make sense. You know, it doesn’t it’s it’s. We need to, we just need a lot more nuance in the way that we kind of come to these different types of situations. Any of these types of moments is gonna be explosive and contained in all of it.
Jeff Chang: Like the seeds of, of further, you know, types of moments of this or the seeds to be able to move forward. And I think that if we could probably take the wrong lessons from this, that’s the danger of, of, of what’s happened. I think I’ll I’ll let me just say this in the, in the last instance for you know, for, for the, the Not Your Mule example, what it led to was like, I know Jose he’s one of my dearest friends.
Jeff Chang: I, I love him so much. It led to a really, I could say this, it led to, it led to a really deep soul searching. In turn is, is, has led him into this, this sort of powerful kind of way of thinking about how we change the narrative for Asian American specific ISS and. How we change it in particular, in, in relationship to to black folks, the black freedom struggle to black women.
Jeff Chang: And what this requires of us in this moment where black lives matter is still on the on, and should always be on, on the forefront of, of our minds. Like this is really the key to moving towards racial justice for all is recogniz. That black lives matter and to recognize the contributions and the, the directions that the black freedom struggle is leading us towards.
Jeff Chang: So for, for, in that, it was Jose like brought us into and Mickey brought us into a teaching moment for our, like all of us. And, and, and that’s the upside I think, of, of these different types of explosive. Situations that might occur in the culture.
Eric Brown: Well, when you were writing about that moment back then you, you wrote it is the continuing strangeness and difficulty of race that all of these conversations have to happen at the same time.
Eric Brown: Mm. And that, that was one of the other things that kind of triggered in my mind, this connection point between then and now, because again, we, we don’t have the luxury of setting aside certain topics so that we can just deal with one of them at a time. And as a result, It gets, it gets quite messy, or I don’t know if, if you wanna call it that, if it’s fair to say that it’s messy, it is just the, the, the nature of our experience that feels complicated.
Eric Brown: And it just, in the, in the few moments left you, I mean, you, you write your, your book is called. We gonna be all right. Which, which seems optimistic. And and almost like an aside that you would have. To a, to a good friend. How can you just explain that? Can, are, are you an optimist? Are we gonna be right?
Eric Brown: what why’d you do that? Yeah,
Jeff Chang: it, no, you know, I did it out of, I did it as a tribute to the, to the black freedom culture that, you know, gave me a voice. You know, and a tribute of course, to one of the greatest artists of all time, Kendrick Lamar and attribute and a nod and sort of a note of gratitude to the black lives matter movement who made it an Anthem.
Jeff Chang: All right. Who made it all write Kendrick Lamar’s song? All right. Into an, into an Anthem, you know, because it’s, it’s this sort of leap of, of imagination is this sort of. Grasping of faith, right. That if we get it together, if we get ourselves together with each other, that we’ll find a way that will we’ll, we will really, you know, move towards being all right.
Jeff Chang: We’ll gonna be all right. And so, yeah, I, you know, I I’m, it’s hard to, it’s hard to say that that I’m a, a full blown optimist or a full blown pessimist. But. You gotta have hope, you know, there’s, there’s, there’s a, there’s a way in which well I’ll put it this way. I, I can’t imagine what my ancestors were thinking seven generations ago about.
Jeff Chang: What the future would look like and what, you know, the fruits of their work would become, you know, but I’m glad that I’m glad that they did. You know what I mean? yeah. And and I wanna be able to leave that to my kids and to my loved ones, you know, which don’t, don’t only include the people who are blood family to.
Jeff Chang: Right folks in my community, you like people who I, I love and trust and who I want to be able, who I grow from, who I learn from and who I want to help to grow and help to, to learn. So, you know, that’s the thing, that’s the sort of germ of the thing that the, the seed of the thing that we plant for the future generations and the, my job is, is, is just to be able to.
Jeff Chang: Do a little bit of watering while I’m here.
Eric Brown: Well, in wisdom terms, I think you are fast becoming an elder, not an age
Eric Brown: not in, not in rings
Jeff Chang: on the tree. Can I say something? Can I say something about that though? You know, like in, in, in the cultures that I come from, like, you’re really not allowed to say anything to your 70 . And I think that there’s like, there’s like wisdom in that. Right. There’s like beauty in that. So I’m like, I don’t think I’m an elder yet.
Jeff Chang: I’m certainly an elder in training. I think we all are hopefully, but yeah, it’s, I, I don’t. I don’t, I don’t have what I need to be able to, to be that person, but I’m trying, I have to, I have to strive for something. So yeah. well,
Eric Brown: if you couldn’t say anything until you were 70, there’s sure as hell would be a lot less podcasts.
Eric Brown: Yeah. Like,
Jeff Chang: no, just shut up until you’re 70, you know what I mean? That’s sort of like, that’s like the culture that those, these are the cultures that I come from. Like what do you know? You’re not 70.
Eric Brown: Well, I’m gonna get there before you do, and then I’ll do also like to talk
Jeff Chang: yeah. I’ll be listening to you for, for like a year or two or whatever. yeah.
Eric Brown: well, Jeff Chan, what a pleasure. Oh yeah. We could have gone on for days and we’ll have to come back and do some more because I have a lot more to learn from you,
Jeff Chang: so appreciate you, Eric. Thank you for
Eric Brown: having me. You too. That was so much fun.
Kirk Brown: And we’re back. So Mr. Brown, tell me, tell me about the travels, the journeys, how do your paths cross with Jeff and and how have you ever allowed him to get out of your site ever? Because I could imagine just wanting to follow him around and just keep talking all the time. So, so tell us about your
Eric Brown: background with Jeff.
Eric Brown: We serve on the board of the narrative initiative, which is. An organization that was started by the Ford foundation and Atlantic philanthropies to help develop the use of narrative in nonprofit social change. And because Jeff is who he is, he was a natural person to be on this board. He’s he’s just, as you can hear in this conversation, an amazing guy, incredibly thoughtful, but for someone with that much insight, he’s, he’s awfully.
Eric Brown: He’s awfully polite about it. He’s incredibly nice and gracious man, but what a cool guy and what an amazing perspective he has on what’s going on out there.
Kirk Brown: Well, and one of my favorite things about all these many people that have been on the podcast at this point, this piece that actually feels really consistent across all of them is how different their journeys have been to get here.
Kirk Brown: And the here I’m gonna talk about is. Communications system thinking, you know, narrative, how we pull these pieces together to support change. And I feel like Jeff has given us like one of the most interesting journeys, you know, Jeff brings this perspective and then he’s pulled together. All these different experiences and hip hop becomes the starting point.
Kirk Brown: I just wanna hear every single thing you have to say, and then I wanna follow every single, every single thing you’ve done. But tell me about that part, because I feel like for Jeff, this idea that it’s like, it’s almost like this series of. Creative expressions and creative exercises. One after the other, that run the gamut of all of the work he’s done, it’s such a cool path to forge in this field.
Kirk Brown: Don’t you think? Or what do you think about that?
Eric Brown: Well, I do, and his, his interest in hip hop and his journey as a hip, as a Chinese Hawaiian hip hop DJ, I think says a lot. yeah, that’s so great because that was, that was an expression and a music. And a, and a politics that spoke to him at, at a moment when in the, in the nineties, when many of these cultural questions were being called and, and there was a, a real generational shift in the politics.
Eric Brown: And I think that his, his ability to synthesize that, to learn from it and to interpret it is it is something that we need more of mm-hmm, pick up his books because they’re really, really interesting. Yeah. When he told the story. Chris, Rock’s kind of previous foray into cultural excitement at the Oscars for me.
Eric Brown: Anyway, I saw, wait a minute. Why just was just a couple of weeks ago that Chris rock was back in it. Yeah, but these two episodes are an expression of how our culture, I don’t know how it looks at race and now of course, gender and. In ways that we, I think we all need to find meaning out of it. Mm-hmm and the fact that he’s willing to Wade into these conversations and to try to, to better help us better understand them is just another, another reason why we need more Jangs in the world, but it’s also a, a way to help us process all of this stuff that’s coming at us.
Eric Brown: The other thing of course is that I, I, I. Can learn from a culture and a community that I’m not in, but I, I wanna know more and I wanna, I wanna be able to process that information from my perspective so that I can. That I can participate in one way in whatever way seems, seems appropriate.
Kirk Brown: And you know, the nuance that he’s bringing to this, I love that conversation that you had, where he talks about this in betweenness concept, you know, that Asian Americans can confront where, where do I place myself on this conversation around race and narrative.
Kirk Brown: And so as the narrative initiative, How much was the RA, how much was the conversation around race and, and racial identity, then how do you see this all fitting together? And I have to say like that conversation you guys had about Chris rock and will Smith, this year’s version of, of the Chris rock moment.
Kirk Brown: Yeah. You know, Jeff is coming to this notion. It’s not binary. It can’t just be on off. Yes, no, right wrong. You know, there’s, this there’s much more nuance in what’s going on here. And then, and then again, thinking about that conversation you guys had about what it means to be in between. I’m just thinking to myself, this is the kind of nuance.
Kirk Brown: This is the kind of thoughtful leadership bringing people into this conversation. These are the voices that I wish were dominat. Our cultural conversation today. And unfortunately, you know, they’re out there, but are they, but are they in the mainstream of it? I don’t know. You know what I mean? But, but what do you think about that, that nuance sees bringing to that notion of what’s in between and how, you know, how, how this conversation about race moves between all
Eric Brown: of us.
Eric Brown: Well, as you, as you very well know, nuance is hard. Yeah. And not nuance is easy. You can say like bad, wrong. Yeah. Call people names and try. And it’s so much easier to divide than it is to unite. That’s why building a narrative around how complex our relationships are between gender race, ability. You name it is is way harder.
Eric Brown: Folks who are saying, oh, let’s just demonize folks who don’t look like us, who act like us, who we don’t understand. And when you drive those wedges through, then it makes it easy to, by disrupting to screw everything up. So building is harder than destroying, you know, if you think about your, like a renovation it’s, you could take that.
Eric Brown: You could take the room down to the studs in a day. And then it takes you a year to, to put it back together again. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in our politics. And unless you have people who are really firmly committed to coming together to build that room, it’s, it’s very easy to divide. And what I think that Jeff does is help us make sense of what some of those differences are and what those nuances are that doesn’t make it easy to turn that into political movements per se, but it makes it easy for us.
Eric Brown: I, I think it makes it possible for us to chart a path. So tell me
Kirk Brown: about race forward, because this is where Jeff one of Jeff’s professional homes is at race forward. And you know, tell me about your experiences with race forward and, and how that contributes to all this, because it, you know, that definitely seems like an initiative in an organization that’s well, we’re support.
Eric Brown: Well, again, this is an organization that’s helping us understand the, the discussions around race that are, are advancing understanding of a variety of issues that matter to, to people and, and Jeff again, is such a perfect person to participate in that mm-hmm and oh, by the way, re cen who we interviewed, who I interviewed earlier in the season.
Eric Brown: Yeah. Who is. Executive director of the narrative initiative was one of the leaders at, at race forward. So if you see this thread working its way through it’s, it’s obviously it’s, it’s not a coincidence. Mm-hmm . These organizations are trying to create narratives that help us build a broad base of power to advance.
Eric Brown: Social justice mm-hmm and to create a vocabulary behind that. So race forward does it. Jeff has done it in a variety of areas in his life, through his journalism, through his books, through his cultural commentary, and then Rinku has done it across these places. And now she’s helping to lead narrative initiative in advancing that work too.
Eric Brown: And that also includes helping other people understand how to use narrative. And, and helping to identify narratives that are particularly powerful or witch hop offer opportunities.
Kirk Brown: Well, and Jeff, you know, in that work this, the work of the butterfly lab at race forward is such a cool approach, right?
Kirk Brown: This idea of building narrative that supports. Humanity for migrants, refugees, immigrants, and advancing freedom and justice for all. And if folks want to check out some of the work that’s come from that, that butterfly project is actually created a narrative toolkit a narrative design toolkit that folks can get their hands on.
Kirk Brown: And, and, and I would be curious, Eric, I mean, give me your take on narrative design and, and, and is, is, is narrative design. An upscaled version of communications planning. You know what I mean? Like, like is it, is how would you care? How would you place narrative in the continuum of this entire set of things that we’re talking about?
Kirk Brown: You know, does narrative pull the lens back even further and think about how all the actors get, get a raid and, and, and just, yeah. Tell me about that. I don’t
Eric Brown: know. This is a hard one, Kirk, cause I think narrative is one of those things. It’s almost impossible to define. And so therefore, like at the very least I won’t be wrong because there is no definition definition.
Eric Brown: I, I, you know, I’ll take a stab at it, which is, it is the ability to connect based on shared experience or shared stories. Mm-hmm or stories with. With which we can connect. I’m not a person who lived through the the freedom struggle of the sixties, but that the story that that created is something that I now can internalize and understand how change occurred through that set of activities and a set of belief structures, and, and the stories that emanated from that moment in, in a sense it’s creating a short.
Eric Brown: Between you and your audience, and that I’m telling a story that you’re familiar with, or that you can connect with on an emotional level that has a, a deeper meaning that goes to it. Our old narratives in our history, the, you know, her ratio, Alger narrative of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and that anybody can make it as long as they work hard and play the, by the rules.
Eric Brown: That is a, that is a long time narrative that has managed to persist to this day. Even though it is not true. Now, I’m not saying that you should create narratives that are not true. You, I, I think that’s the, the real challenging part of narrative is that someone can come up with an alternative narrative that becomes incorporated into our belief structure, into our systems, into our politics, into our laws.
Eric Brown: And. Counteracting. Those things are really challenging. They’re really difficult. But I think that that’s the point of what we’re trying to do now is to help people better understand. So there is a counter narrative. Now let’s just say the 16, 19 16, 19 project is a, a really good example, helping people understand how the institution of slavery has shaped every decision that has been made.
Eric Brown: For the last 400 years. Yeah. That, that is, they’re helping us to understand how things happened. So that’s, that’s an example of, I don’t know if you wanna call it a counter narrative, but a maybe it’s just a truer narrative. Mm-hmm now that’s a fairly long winded answer to something that can’t be explained in a sense, but I think we are all in our work trying to come up with new ways to communicate that connect on important levels that will lead us to.
Eric Brown: An important set of changes.
Kirk Brown: Well, and I feel like in your conversation with Jeff actually started with, you know, that notion of America I did and is like, you know, this notion of America has been an ideal and a weapon. Right. All of this time. And I think that’s another really powerful expression of this notion of narrative and how it becomes woven into our cultural fabric.
Kirk Brown: So I wanna
Eric Brown: I wanna, but thanks for asking me what is narrative? Yeah. well, we’re gonna keep
Jeff Chang: coming back
Eric Brown: to
Jeff Chang: it, right? We have to keep coming back to it.
Kirk Brown: So, so, so here, I wanna make a proposal. I wanna make a proposal because I have the benefit. Having I have the benefit of having been part of, and it
Eric Brown: cost me I’m gonna have to do work right.
Kirk Brown: Things that have do yes. Cuz I’ve been, I’ve been part of things that have not been published yet, but I feel like the conversation around relationships. In race in communications and narrative, it’s woven through so many of these episodes, both that we’ve heard and then some that are coming. And I know we don’t do paddles that let’s hear it because it’s really hard to have multiple voices at once.
Kirk Brown: But man, I want. I want to do a series of panel episodes where some of these folks we’ve talked to get a chance to talk to each other because okay, the themes are so powerful, right? And, and, and you know what I’m alluding to, cuz there’s some stuff that hasn’t been published yet that is coming, but like some of these and
Eric Brown: by the way, these people are so smart.
Kirk Brown: Great. Come on.
Eric Brown: Let’s put ’em on air, by the way. They’re smarter than we are Kirk. There’s that? Which is nice. Yes, you’re right. It, it you’ve often said that our, our guests speak to each other through this show and sometimes maybe we’ll even get them to speak to each other. Yeah. To each other. Yeah.
Eric Brown: Well all. Okay. We’ll see, Kirk. You’re excellent. It’s a fabulous idea. We’ll see.
Kirk Brown: It’s a fabulous idea. So you’ll take the time and put the work in to make it happen. So the person we know who’s doing the real work is Jeff Chang. Jeff, what a contributor and man, Jeff, thank you for coming to let’s hear it.
Kirk Brown: Thank you for talking to us and Eric, thank you for, for reaching out to Jeff and bringing him on cuz that was a conversation for the ages and we’ll continue to be.
Eric Brown: Yes, that was great. And Jeff, thank you so much. And let’s go to an A’s game.
Kirk Brown: Okay everybody, that’s it for this episode, please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show. And that definitely includes yourself and we’d like to thank
Eric Brown: John Beltrano. Our enthusiastic production assistant.
Kirk Brown: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music
Eric Brown: Our sponsors, the communications network and the Lumina foundation.
Kirk Brown: And please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast. Today’s students tomorrow’s talent, and you can find firstname.lastname@example.org,
Eric Brown: we certainly thank today’s guest. And of course, all
Kirk Brown: of you, and most importantly, Thank you, Mr. Brown. Oh,
Eric Brown: no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr.
Kirk Brown: Okay, everybody til next time, let’s hear it.