Jeffrey Chang

Beyond Empathy: Art, Culture, and Imagination

By: Sara Grossman

Over the past half century the United States has become dramatically more diverse thanks to the arrival of millions of newcomers seeking safety, opportunity, and a chance to share in the nation’s unparalleled prosperity. In 1950, people of color made up about 15 percent of the population—today that number is closer to 37 percent. And by 2050, white Americans will make up less than half of the population altogether and no longer be a majority in any sense of the word.

But with this increased diversity has arrived an equally as palpable anxiety towards what for many is a deeply unfamiliar future. For those concerned with creating an equitable and open society, the challenge has now become how to tell a narrative that reimagines, counteracts, and dispels this anxiety while building a hopeful and inclusive vision for the future. And for author and journalist Jeff Chang, Executive Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, the key to this narrative lies in culture, particularly popular culture.

In his talk at the 2017 Othering & Belonging conference, entitled “Beyond Empathy: Arts, Culture, and Imagination,” Chang sought to illustrate what the arts and artists can do, in this moment of turmoil and anxiety, to “advance the social imagination.” If we will soon all be minorities, Chang asked, how can we imagine a new, inclusive majority?

“Culture is the realm of narratives and images,” he said. “Culture is where we find community, where the collective will to change is formed and moved.”

Speaking on the hundredth day of the Trump presidency, in a moment where “it feels like we might all fall apart,” Chang said there is still an opportunity for us to assert something different. And artists “have the potential to be stewards of validating the righteous humanity of marginalized people.”

Jeffrey Chang Keynote Address, Beyond Empathy: Arts, Culture, and Imagination delivered at the 2017 O&B Conference

According to Chang, whether our society comes together or falls apart begins with how we see each other. We learn from an early age to see difference between ourselves and others, and while this can be a good thing as it helps us learn empathy and build community, we often lose this sense of openness to what is different as we get older, making value judgments on that which has no inherent value. Inequity is then produced and reproduced, particularly in the areas of representation, access, and power—even if we are often blind to it.

Yet in its most potent form, art can foster a deep empathy for those who are different, Chang said. And empathy, he said, is the first step towards equity, or shared power. “Art allows us to see again,” he said. “And great art helps us close the gap between ourselves and the Other.”

And yet, it cannot be overlooked that we are living in the midst of ongoing culture wars in the United States, what Chang called “the struggle for the soul of America,” as two sides fight out whether the future will be one of hope and inclusion, or the sad end of a supposedly “great” era. This fight, he concluded, will be fought on the battleground of culture, where hope and fear are equally enticing, and where the victor can lay claim to future political tides.

Chang, the author of We Gon Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, published last year—before the election, as he noted to audience laughter—then turned to Beyonce’s Lemonade to illustrate his vision of the cultural moment we may be in. While the album is materially about infidelity, or “the journey of a Black woman from grief to redemption,” as Chang said, when examined through a lens of social justice and through a lens of “the moment we are in now”, it becomes about something very different.

Lemonade begins by Beyonce refusing the audience her gaze, locked in a world of hurt, Chang said. She leads us through her cycle of hurt, anger, apathy, and depression, and ultimately, as she turns away from this cycle of revenge and begins asking questions about what and who is her home. “And here is where the gaze returns,” Chang said. “The healing begins on this path to attain a deeper understanding of her own place and family.”

But draw out the lens further, and the idea of fixing a relationship gone wrong becomes a metaphor for social transformation. Beyonce’s redemption reaches the level of the social; the space where we all come together, where we think about how we might mend the ways that we break each other, reimagine history, and dream freedom. Freedom is not won through bitterness and revenge, Chang concluded, but through deep love.

In the climax of album, women celebrate “with the gifts of the garden, the antidotes to the poison.” “It’s a Black Feminist move, Beyonce has created seats at the table for sisterhood and reimagined relationships,” Chang said. “And only then can reconciliation begin.”

Today, we are trying to see each other—attempting to work our way towards equity and see where we are broken. We must move from empathy to action, then from resistance to transformation, Chang said. It is the job of artists, and of changemakers more broadly, to move people, inspire them, and “manifest the idea of a nation that is yet to be.” Quoting Toni Cade Bambara, Chang concluded, artists must “make the revolution irresistible.”


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