Crystal Fleming, author and educator, discussed her new book “How to Be Less Stupid about Race,” focusing on how individuals can use their knowledge about race and racism to mobilize and change society, to a packed audience on Mon. Feb. 4 in DPAC.
Fleming acknowledged how much it means to come together to discuss uncomfortable conversations about race and racism after the incident that happened on friday and after the incidents that have happened all over the country.
“Not on my watch. Not on our watch will we allow these things to happen and not stand up against it,” she said.
When Fleming was younger she said the learning environment she grew up in didn’t teach her about race or racism.
She was raised by her mother who, and the classes she took in school, decide to not address racism. But, in her mother’s case, it was in order to protect Fleming.
“She wanted me to believe that I could do anything. … She didn’t want any racist ideas about being black, being a black girl, to hold me back,” she said.
Fleming said she had no intention of studying sociology and race until she took FSU sociology professor Ira Silver’s Intro to sociology to fulfill a requirement at Wellesley, where she began as a biology major.
She said the class read a book that changed her life. The book, “Ain’t No Makin’ It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood” by Jay MacLeod, was about a study conducted in the Boston area analyzing the experiences of young boys in working class neighborhoods dealing with racism and class oppression.
What was interesting, Fleming said, was that the white boys in the study who didn’t care about school and the boys of color in the study who focused on their school work essentially ended up in the same place.
Fleming said while reading the book, she learned “the reality of structural barriers. The realities of inequality.
“When we realize that our society does have structured inequality, unfairness, injustice, [we realize] that we can do something about it. And what we can do involves collective action,” she said.
Silver said, “It’s hard to imagine a better time than right now to be asking Crystal Fleming to come to our campus to share her messages with us. … I think Crystal probably put it best in the introduction in her book, ‘How to Be Less Stupid about Race,’ when she asks, ‘How can the same country, that twice voted for an Ivy League educated black president, end up electing an overt racist who can barely string together two coherent sentences?’”
Fleming said she was motivated by the 2016 election cycle to write the book.
“I was just really flabbergasted with the level of racial ignorance across the political spectrum,” she said.
After writing her first book, “Resurrecting Slavery,” she said she knew she wanted to do something for the public, instead of writing another academic book. That’s when Fleming began writing “How to Be Less Stupid about Race,” targeting people who want to better understand racism and fight against it.
When she started the book, she realized there was far more racial stupidity than she could address. She said, “This would probably be a part of an endless series. How to be less stupid about race volume one of a billion.”
Fleming asked attendees to raise their hands if they’ve ever taken a class specifically about racism. The majority of the people in the room did not raise their hands.
“That’s the reality for the majority of people in the country,” she said.
One race theorist, Charles Mills, argued that by simply living in a racist society, one will absorb ignorance, said Fleming. Mills said ignorance is reinforced because classrooms don’t have students studying race and racism.
Fleming said many people disagree when it comes to race and often think that we’re “beyond race” since we live in post-civil rights era.
“Oftentimes, when we notice we have engaged in racist behavior or we have absorbed racists biases, it’s normal to not want to address that,” she said.
Fleming said one of her favorite anti-racist activists, Jane Elliot, came up with an anti-racist lesson plan after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., teaching her students about prejudice and racism, which she used for the next 40 years.
Fleming said even after decades of working on this project, Elliot caught herself thinking racist thoughts.
“We live in a racist society. So it means the work is ongoing. … You have a responsibility when you notice [bias] to do something about it. It doesn’t make you a bad person to realize you have biases. It may make you a bad person if you don’t do anything about it,” she said.
During her talk, Fleming addressed Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent scandal. A yearbook photo surfaced which allegedly depicted Northam and another student in KKK robes and blackface.
Northam initially apologized for the photo, but later claimed it was not him in the photograph.
Fleming asked, “What do you think it means about his school, that this was acceptable?”
Fleming discussed several fallacies during her talk.
The “political fallacy” pertains to people assuming racism is a Republican or Democratic tendency. She said it didn’t matter that Northam is a Democrat – he is still racist.
“Now, in case you thought people of color cannot be racially ignorant – God gave us Kanye West. Kanye told us that hundreds of years of slavery was a choice,” Fleming said.
Another fallacy people fall into is the “prejudice fallacy,” or the conflating of racism with personal bias and prejudice. Racism is not just about someone’s personal feelings on race or their identity, she said.
Fleming pointed out that Martin Luther King Jr. knew the central importance of addressing racial ignorance, specifically white supremacy.
“You may be surprised how often you can hear conversations about race and never hear the term ‘white supremacy.’ … White supremacy is an embedded part, and a structured part, of our culture,” she said.
The third fallacy Fleming explained is the “KKK fallacy.” It suggests that people think white supremacy is only the KKK or Neo-Nazis. Fleming defined white supremacy as the “social, political, and economic dominance by people socially defined as white.”
Fleming said MLK pointed out the problem lies within the white moderate.
She said he argued that “white supremacy is not maintained by the KKK. It’s maintained by ordinary people who reproduce the racist status quo.”
She cited numerous studies regarding the racial wealth gap.
Fleming said whites have 81 times the wealth of their African American neighbors. To compare the gap, she pointed out the Earth is 81 times more massive than the moon.
“The racial wealth gap is the fruit of white supremacy, and it’s getting worse,” she said.
“It’s not a mistake that we have a racial wealth gap. It’s not a mistake that education resources are concentrated in white communities. It’s not a mistake that we absorb implicit biases that favor whites over people of color. It’s not a mistake that people of color are not represented in politics the way they should be. It’s by design, and if we’re going to change it, we have to take responsibility in shifting our culture,” she said.
Fleming stated three action steps to correct these fallacies.
The first is to “remedy your own racial ignorance.” Fleming suggested taking a course on racism or making an effort to do ongoing work to address your own blind spots.
The second step is to “organize for collective action” or work with allies.
The third step is to “get comfortable with the discomfort.” Fleming said no matter how many times she talks about racism, she still feels uncomfortable.
During the Q&A, sophomore Carlos Barbosa said he is involved in efforts to cultivate change, but believes “the administration at Framingham State has failed us as students.”
Barbosa asked Fleming, “How do we keep the fight going when the resistance is very subtle, but unfair?”
Fleming suggested Barbosa should take the fight to the media.
“Sometimes, students don’t know their own power,” she said. “There was a time when it was illegal for a girl like me to read. There was a time when it would be impossible for a woman of color to become an educator.”
Fleming said, “However you’re feeling about this climate, I want to remind you that it is possible to change our society and that you have a role to play.”