(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)
AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Crystal Fleming.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR McFERRIN’S “BLIND AESTHETICS”)
AARON CAIN: She is associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and she's conducted extensive research on racism and white supremacy in the United States, France, Brazil, and Israel. Dr. Fleming is also known for her frank talk and her humor. She's taken on a broad range of scholarly and personal topics, including racism and white supremacy, but also politics, spirituality, feminism, sexuality and philosophy. Her latest book is called How To Be Less Stupid About Race. Dr. Fleming was recently on the IU Bloomington campus to give a lecture for the Black Film Center Archive. While she was here, she spoke with Janae Cummings.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Dr. Fleming, welcome to PROFILES.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Your book, How To Be Less Stupid About Race, covers a lot of ground in a very tightly-written 200 pages, and so I'm hoping we can do the same today. Before we really get going, we need to cover, I think, definitions of two terms that should inform this conversation. They are terms whose consistently narrow definitions contribute to the racial ignorance that you write about in your book. The first is racism and the second is white supremacy. Can you first talk to us about the definition of racism?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Sure. First of all, I'll just say a little bit about power, because I think most people don't understand race or racism in terms of power, although, of course, Black folks and people of color tend to either have an explicit or intuitive understanding of power as central to race and racism, but particularly white folks don't. And so in my teaching and in my lecturing, I really start with power. And as a sociologist, it's also, unfortunately, something I've seen that a lot of students don't have an opportunity to learn about what power means. So power is generally about the ability to get what you want and to retain it and so forth. Thinking about race and racism, the first thing to convey is that we're talking about a system of power. And so power is also connected to resources, and that is what race was invented to do. The modern concept of race really emerged in order to justify the channeling of resources to people socially defined as white and the disadvantaging of people defined as non-white. That's the short story. When we're thinking about systemic racism, again, it's this common misconception I talk about in my book that - oh, well, racism is like prejudice, it's having bad feelings about each other. And that's not what racism is. Prejudice is a part of the equation, but sociologists really emphasize racism as a system of power - a collective system of power in which practices, ideology, institutions systematically disadvantage people on the basis of their perceived race and systematically advantage people - particularly if we're in a white supremacist society, people who are viewed as white. And that idea of whiteness, you know, something that's shifted over time - it's still shifting. It's like all other racial categories, a complete social construction, which many people don't actually know. I have students who come into my classroom when I teach about racism and ethnicity and, by their own account, they'll tell me, you know, I just sort of kind of thought races always existed. And the first few weeks of my class is learning history. Where did the idea of race come from? How is it different - is it different from ethnicity? And then what are the different kinds of hierarchies that actually predate the concept of race that then inform our understandings of what race means? So these are things I spend weeks, months teaching about. And even that is just an introduction, right? Because it's a vast, complicated topic. And that's also something my students get a quick appreciation for. They come in thinking, I know about race or what are we going to learn? You know, I have my opinions - right? - people mistake their opinions for facts. And then they start to get a grasp of, wow, like, this is a complex phenomenon that has a deep history in our society. and that has reshaped the globe, right? In terms of everything from where populations are now because of the transatlantic slave trade - the largest mass movement and forced migration of people in world history - that's the - one of the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade. And so it's reshaped our globe and produced pernicious, dangerous misconceptions and mythologies that we're all exposed to as a result of living in and being socialized in a society that's systemically racist.
JANAE CUMMINGS: And what about white supremacy?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: White supremacy - so I write in a genre of scholarship known as critical race theory. And so drawing on critical race theory, I define white supremacy as the social, political, and economic dominance of people socially defined as white. So again, we come back to the social construction of race and whiteness and a very structural understanding of white supremacy which, again, flies in the face of this misconception that, well, white supremacy is just the KKK or it's neo-Nazis, white nationalism - and those things are part of white supremacy. But when we focus on this very narrow understanding of white supremacy as something that extremists do, we sort of miss the forest for the trees. And the forest - the broader picture is that our entire society in the United States was really built on explicit white supremacy and particularly white male supremacy. But white supremacy is as American as apple pie. This country's very first immigration law, the Naturalization Act of 1790, was explicitly white supremacist, where there was this problem of undocumented people in the country. What are we going to do with all these people? They don't have their papers. Well, in the latter portion of the 18th century and the 1780s and now 1790, the idea was, well, what you do with these undocumented people is you give them citizenship if they're free white persons. And at that time, the definition of a free white person even restricted and excluded women. But, of course, they could get citizenship through marriage and so on. So our immigration laws - our laws altogether were explicitly designed to privilege white folks and disadvantage indigenous people, steal their land. I taught my students earlier this semester how the state of Georgia actually gave away indigenous land to white folks through a lottery. I mean, they just held a lottery. And there's so little acknowledgement of white supremacy as a system of entitlement for white people, right? I mean, it's handouts. Handouts from generation to generation to generation of resources from white people to other white people. This is what our nation is built on.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Sure.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: This is why we have such an enormous racial wealth gap. This is why we have disparities in every arena, from health to education to employment to life span. It's intentional and it's the system that has existed since the inception of the country and one that we still live with.
JANAE CUMMINGS: What I find interesting is that white supremacy or white supremacists as a term is something that people think just materialized in the last few years, right?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Yeah, yeah.
JANAE CUMMINGS: This is a term that critical race theorists have been using for 40, 50, 60 years - a term that James Baldwin brought up in his writings saying that to be Black was to confront and to be forced to alter a condition forged in history, but to be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Yes.
JANAE CUMMINGS: And so I'm wondering, white supremacy as a structure has long existed. When did this come into play as a definition - as something we're studying?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Well, just as you noted, critical race theorists have been using the term for decades. It's come up in Baldwin's work, and other - so it's not new. We'll talk about white supremacy, but the term systemic racism actually came out in the aftermath of the civil rights era through the work of Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton and their work, Black Power. They offered the first real discussion of systemic and institutional racism. And what we saw in the aftermath of the civil rights movement was actually a distancing from and an erasure of some of these basic conceptual terms that were really important for understanding white power as a system of domination. And so the movement away from terms like systemic racism, the rise of colorblindness and, "oh, I don't see color." "What racism," right? "It was all solved by Martin Luther King," right? But sociologists of race and critical race theorists have looked at just that, right? What happened in this so-called post-civil rights era? And I say so-called because people are still fighting for basic human rights. We could talk about the exclusion of folks from voting rights even in 2018. So we're not post-civil rights. But nevertheless, in this era, the rise of colorblind racism, racial denial, the evasion of systemic racism as actually existing - this is something that became very prominent in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. And so I think that, although the term white supremacy is not new, the term systemic racism and institutionalized racism is - these terms are not new. What I do think is happening is that there seems to be - I don't know if I would call it a consciousness raising or awakening around the relevance and salience of these terms that, for decades, have been kind of marginalized and, you know, maybe used by scholars and activists but not really reaching critical masses of folks. So one of my goals with the book, How To Be less Stupid About Race, really was to try to take some of these academic terms and the research that's been produced for decades and write about it in a way that I hope is accessible and can resonate with folks no matter their background. Or maybe they've never even heard of critical race theory. That's all right, because I'm going to explain it to you in terms that I hope are easily comprehensible and then also not just stimulate awareness and education for the reader, but also kind of convey, hopefully, some ideas about what folks can do in their backyard, in their neighborhoods, in their institutions to bring about some anti-racist transformation.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR McFERRIN’S “POSTPARTUM”)
AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest is Crystal Fleming, author of How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy and the Racial Divide. She's speaking with Janae Cummings.
JANAE CUMMINGS: What motivated you to write this book? I mean, we're speaking of academia - a lot of books are written and they're not written for the layperson. They're not written, I think, for the mainstream. What was the process that drove you to kind of turn that around to take this step?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Well, thank you for that question. You know, this is my second book. My first book, Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy In France, was an academic book. It was published by an academic press, Temple University Press. It's a revision of my dissertation. And so I did try, nevertheless, to edit it in a way and rewrite portions in a way that would be more accessible than the dissertation, which I think still had a lot of jargon. It's a thrill for me that folks are still buying my first academic book. But you can see this pretty big difference in the language, in the voice, in the writing style. And that's because of a number of reasons. I already have tenure, so I have fulfilled my tenure requirements. So there's that. Although, to be clear, this is a book I began before my tenure process, and so I was going to do it regardless of what happened on the tenure track. But a lot of things motivated me. In writing the first book, I really realized that I didn't want to just write for academic audiences and I saw the limitations of that more clearly. And I began to get some mentoring around that because I was quite frustrated with the limitations of academic work and feeling unfulfilled writing something that only folks with PhDs would be drawn to. That's - as someone who cares about these issues as a scholar, but also specifically as a Black, queer woman, among other things, there is a sense in which I'm not just doing this, you know, out of intellectual curiosity. I want to affect change. And that's also one of the central precepts of critical race theory, which I do write about in Resurrecting Slavery. What I hope is one of the innovations of that work is that there are very few academic treatments of race in France and racism in France that explicitly draw upon critical race theory. So in doing that, I'm trying to support the work of critical scholars in France and Europe, but also bring that lens - that analysis that's been excluded from a lot of their work on race and immigration and so on. But one of the precepts of critical race theory is to be explicitly activist and to think about the politics of our work. Nevertheless, even many critical race theorists have written work that's not accessible to the public. So as I began to get quite excited about critical race theory, it was so helpful in my work. And as I got excited about Black feminist thought and intersectionality, which I hadn't learned much about in graduate school, I really wanted to share some of what I was learning, some of the analysis that was generated from what were, for me, new literatures, but were not actually new literatures. I wanted to write about that in a way that other folks could access because even some of the most radical transformative work done by critical race theorists and even some Black feminists - it's actually not accessible. And yet and still what we also see is scholars who do different kinds of work for different audiences and I think that's also a model that I embrace. You know, I continue to write academic work and, you know, by all kinds of definitions, that's not going to be accessible to the wide public. There are paywalls for journals, they're, you know, academic presses and so on and so forth. So some of what I do is for an academic audience. But I'm not satisfied with that being all that I do. And so I was really motivated by that desire to speak beyond the academy. I was motivated very much by the racial stupidity I encounter and see on social media, as well as the anti-racist community that also forms on social media and in these spaces. And by the 2016 election. That pushed me - I had already been thinking - there were a few projects I had in mind that might be for the public, and the election - I was kicking my butt to go ahead and move forward with this.
JANAE CUMMINGS: You just mentioned anti-racism - anti-racist communities. I don't think a lot of people understand the difference between not being a racist and being an anti-racist. Can you talk about that?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Yeah, there's a huge difference. Whenever the topic of race and racial oppression is brought up, there is very often a white person who will say, but I - you know, what does this have to do with me? I'm not racist - or might feel attacked by critics of white supremacy. What are you, calling me racist? And so anti-racism is really about what actions are you taking to address racism? Because it's not enough to say that you don't have bad feelings about people. This is not just about your individual prejudice or lack thereof. This is about what are we doing, regardless of our background - whether you're white, Black, indigenous, person of color, Asian, LatinX - what are we doing about the system of white supremacy? And if you're not doing anything about it, then you're helping to maintain it. And I can't think of anything more racist than doing nothing or actively helping to maintain a system of oppression. So anti-racism is really about action. It's not even, for me, as I write in the book, mainly about an identity. It's not about calling - "I am an anti-racist." Nothing wrong with embracing that if that's a political project that's valuable to you. But even then, the label is not enough and it's what are we doing on a daily basis? What are we doing as a community? Anti-Racism is also not something you can do by yourself. Racism is a collective problem, and so it requires collective organizing. And so that's a lot of anti-racism work too - identifying allies and others who share the value of addressing and redressing racism and working together to transform our neighborhoods, institutions and communities.
JANAE CUMMINGS: I think our audience is largely in a community of, I think, considerable performative wokeness. You hear a lot of talk about colorblindness. You see a general contentment to be non-racist instead of anti-racist. For people who might recognize this in themselves and accept that and also of those they care about, are there ways to turn things around and kind of push toward a racial literacy?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Something I tweeted about some months ago - it had to do with this difference between calling yourself a non-racist versus an anti-racist. And one of the things I wrote is that, if you see yourself as an antiracist, that means you actually are going to be asking folks to hold you accountable. A real commitment to anti-racism means that you're not looking for excuses to say you're not racist. You're looking for opportunities to hold yourself accountable for addressing not only racism as a system of power, but racism as something that you have been socialized into. Many white liberals who see themselves as well-meaning seem to have this idea that they've been magically exempt from the racist society in which we've all been socialized, and that doesn't make sense on any kind of logical, psychological, sociological level. It's nonsense. And so instead of looking for opportunities to say that you're exempt, an anti-racist commitment looks for opportunities to be held accountable. And so in terms of turning things around, one of the first things, you know, particularly white liberals or progressives might do is just that - is to ask particularly people of color and Black folks, indigenous folks, how can I be held accountable? How can I help? If you are someone who considers yourself an ally, making it clear to Black folks and people of color that you want to be called out. And it's hard...
JANAE CUMMINGS: It's a hard thing to do.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: ...Because this is something - no one actually wants this, right?
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: We don't naturally want to have our egos challenged. We naturally want to feel like we're good people. You want to be congratulated. And, you know, I've also - because I'm an academic and often have colleagues who are much older than I am and, you know, people who've been in the civil war - maybe they marched - you know, everyone's like "I marched with King" - you know, OK. But you - whatever - people were involved - right? - in anti-racism. And sometimes there can be the idea that, "oh, well, you know, I did X, Y, Z in the past, therefore I have nothing to be held accountable for now." But all real folks who are down for the anti-racist struggle know that it doesn't end. It's ongoing work, and so there's no amount of anti-racist work you could've done that means that you now can't be held accountable. Because whether we're talking about implicit bias or we're talking about the inherent power dynamics involved with the ongoing structure of white supremacy, there's stuff for folks to be held accountable for. And it's not just white folks, Black folks and people of color thinking about the impact of internalized oppression and what it means to decolonize from that or challenge that - that's ongoing work. We are not exempt from that. No matter how woke you might be, there tends to be - you mentioned performative wokeness, you know - but there's a lot of finger-pointing that can happen. Like, everyone's like, "look at Kanye," you know? Sure. But you can't really understand the discourse and gaslighting and confusion of someone like Kanye West unless you've thought about your own experience of coming to awareness about systemic racism and thinking about what your turning points were. Now, some people never turn.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Some people never - like, Kanye West might never have a different view. Some folks are lost, unfortunately. But anyone who's actually ever had an awakening around power and politics and justice had to go from not knowing to knowing. And also the continued work of deepening your knowledge - right? - it doesn't end.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: And so I think because all of this brings up uncomfortable feelings - these are painful realities, whether we're talking about the past or the present. This is heavy, painful, traumatic, violent stuff. No matter what your background is, we're not programmed or socialized to want to confront it and to confront ourselves. And so I think it requires folks to not be narcissistic. Because if you're an extreme narcissist, you're not going to look at yourself and you're not going to want anyone else to look at you either. You're just going to be very invested in your performance as a good person who's right. You're just right. And having reflexivity, having humility, having the capacity to think about where you need to grow, I think, is central to anti-racist work in any kind of anti-oppression work.
JANAE CUMMINGS: One thing I really appreciate about your book is that you interrogate your own path to conscious thinking. And it spoke to me because I've been on that same journey. Can you talk to us about your experience of waking up?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Yeah. Yeah. It's something that I write about throughout the book, and it's ongoing. Like, I learn things every day and I'm like, oh, all right. So, yeah, I didn't grow up reading Black feminist thought and I didn't actually grow up hearing about race and racism in my household. My mother did not share a lot of her own experiences around race until I got older and actually started to study these topics. I think she was trying to protect me. We've talked a lot about that - her decision. She was a young, single mom and she wanted to create an environment where I thought and believed I could do anything. And for her, I think that meant creating a household where there weren't limiting beliefs, where I didn't feel oppressed. Maybe that was important for her to have an environment where I felt empowered. And so she didn't talk - we were not a political household. It wasn't just not talking about race, we were not talking about class, we were not talking about any axis of domination. And it wasn't until, you know, I got to college really that this began to shift for me. I actually started college with the intention of working in the field of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology. I was doing that kind of research before I even started college. I was - my mom worked at a university hospital and arranged an internship for me, so for several summers that's what I was doing. I was working in the lab of a biologist who was a woman. And so it was my first exposure to academia, to seeing a woman with a PhD, and thinking about, oh, OK, I could do something related to research. But it was not an interest in sociology that got me there. And it just so happened I took a sociology course to fulfill a requirement first year of college, and that professor - his name is Dr. Ira Silver, a self-described white Jewish guy. I write about him in my book because he changed my life, like many of my educators. And in that course that I took with him, we learned about power, we learned about class, we learned about its intersections with race. It was so eye-opening for me and it was the beginning of my journey. So this was back in, like, 2000, 2001. And I've been on that path ever since - really interested in not just power and domination, but resistance also, transformation also. How do people who are from marginalized backgrounds resist? What does expanding our margin of agency look like? You know, one of the things that racists tend to say - and also sexists and patriarchs and folks - right? - that if you start to address racism or you address sexism, that you're playing the victim and all that. And it's ridiculous because what people who do organizing and any kind of activism know is that the first step towards reclaiming power is to realize what the system of domination is. That consciousness raising is actually a huge part of organizing, and that's why racists and sexists and patriarchs don't want folks to do it. Because to maintain the status quo, folks have to not question the status quo. As soon as you begin to question it and understand that we do have power to bring about some of the changes we like to see - that is the sort of primal condition of possibility for change. For me, that's been an ongoing interest in my work is, of course, power and domination, but power is not just about domination. It's about how we resist, how we transform our societies, how we transform ourselves, and particularly how we can do this together through organizing and collective work.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR McFERRIN’S “DEGREES OF LIGHT”)
AARON CAIN: Crystal Fleming in conversation with Janae Cummings. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Crystal Fleming is professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and author of the new book How to Be Less Stupid About Race.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Have you received pushback, particularly from academe, for your work?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: For which part of it?
JANAE CUMMINGS: Oh, all the critical race part of it. I mean, I think all of these interrogations that - you're going beyond really what higher education would like, I think, when you're talking about race, when you're talking about power and white supremacy. So I'm wondering if, as you're expanding your focus, if you've had educators, if you've had colleagues who are like, you know, that's not really important, why are you doing this?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Well, I'll say this. When I began to reorient some of my interests and move away from some of the paradigms and perspectives that were emphasized when I was in graduate school, I really had sort of a crisis where I understood, if I was going to remain in academia, I would need a whole new set of mentors. I would need support from other scholars who shared some of my values, who shared my interests in these areas of inquiry, whether it was critical race theory, intersectionality and systemic race and racism. So I knew I needed help, and I've been incredibly fortunate because I discovered pretty early on, as a junior scholar, something called the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. I believe that Indiana University is a member of this consortium. And essentially it was something that was started by a woman of color, Kerry Ann Rockquemore, sociologist. She quit her tenure job and started this organization, which is now the largest of its kind in the United States - probably in the world, to be frank - because they connect scholars, particularly from marginalized backgrounds, to all kinds of mentorship and resources that really demystify the academy and help you, you know, thrive in your career, not just your publishing, but as a whole person. So that was completely transformative for me. So at the same time that I was realizing, wait, like, I'm going to need some new mentors and help and all this, then the NCFDD helped me develop a strategy for finding folks, right? How am I going to get a new network? And I did. And so whatever pushback or resistance inevitably comes from doing this kind of work, I had a strategy in place, I had powerful allies in place because I didn't have to invent the wheel. I didn't create critical race theory.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Right.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: I didn't create, you know, Black feminist thought. These things already existed. So that meant there were allies. There were scholars who were using these and producing work in these areas, and so I simply had to connect with them. I say simply, it's not easy, but I had to connect with them. I can't do this alone.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Right.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: I have to have a community both in and outside of academia. So I have to say - you know, I went through tenure last year at Stony Brook University. And I am not the scholar now that I was when I went for my interview eight years ago.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: There's a huge difference. I showed up at my interview - I was like, you know, I'm writing about race in France. There was no white supremacy. There was no critical lens on race in the United States. So I wouldn't have been able to get tenure without having a community of scholars embrace the broadening of my work and my lens, and I certainly found that at Stony Brook, I found it internationally, really. That's the reason why I'm still in the academy. I'm not committed to the academy above all else, I'm committed to my work, wherever that takes me. When I was junior, I was quite ambivalent for some time. Like, am I even going to stay in this field? And it was contingent upon finding support. If I didn't find it, I would find it elsewhere. Maybe not in the academy, but elsewhere. But I've so far been very, very fortunate. I mean, even my presence here in Bloomington is because there was a scholar, Dr. Terri Francis, who, you know, so generously, along with other colleagues, saw value in my work and brought me to discuss my newest book. And so that's an example of the kind of support that sustains my work.
JANAE CUMMINGS: You mentioned studying race in France. What drew you to that subject?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: My Haitian godmother. I grew up - I'm from Tennessee originally, but grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And my family - church people. And so at my church, got a chance to meet a woman from Haiti, we called her Mother Hannah. And for whatever reason, Mother Hannah tried to teach kids at church French. You know, it was important to her. She's passed now, but she came from a generation of Haitians who really emphasized French and not Creole. In any case, I'm a Black girl from Tennessee, I don't know about no French. But so she would try to teach it and my mom was into it, so I would spend weekends sometimes with Mother Hannah and going over a little French phrases, also learning about her Haitian culture - you know, eating plantains and rice and beans and learning French. But I didn't really know the language, but it was my exposure. And then when I went to high school, I had an opportunity to choose a language. I chose French because I had exposure to it. I was really bad at it. I never thought that I would stick with it. It was too hard, I told myself. And when I went to college, it was time to choose where you were going to go for junior year abroad. And I had never left the country before. This was my sophomore year. I went to Wellesley College. There was an organization for Black women and they would organize lunches with faculty. So we had a lunch with the faculty member in the Department of Africana Studies. His name is Selwyn Cudjoe. He's a well-known scholar who does work on Caribbean literature. And he asked everyone around the table - there were probably like eight Black girls are on the table – “where are you going for your junior year abroad?” And people's like, “oh, I'm going to Italy,” “I'm going to Spain,” “I'm going to Cuba,” “I'm doing…” you know, and it was my turn and I was like, “I think I'm going to Manchester.”
JANAE CUMMINGS: England?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Yeah. And why was - you know, he's like, “why?” I was like…well, you know, I was a scholarship kid and I had gone to the International Studies Office, whatever, and it was a program that they had. It was English-speaking, so I thought I could do that. It just didn't even occur to me that I could learn a foreign language, really. And Dr. Cudjoe was like, “I think that you should get another language. Why English? Why go to the UK and just speak English?” So he's like, “do you know another language?” And I was like, “I studied French, but I'm really bad at it.” And he said, “well, do you want to get better at it?” And I said, “yeah.” And he was like, “well, I'll help you.” And he did. He reached out to the French department. They gave me a scholarship which was necessary for me to take, like, summer courses - like, remedial French summer courses - really, advanced French to get to the level you needed to participate in the study abroad program. And so I did that. So it started with my Haitian godmother, Then the encouragement of a Black faculty member where my self-doubt just said, “no, I can't do this.” And I went. I went in a French university in the south of France in Aix-en-Provence. This was in 2003, I want to say. So this is before - your listeners may know or remember - 2005, there were riots in France, and it was because two young boys of color were killed in - fleeing police. There were all kinds of interpretations of why they were being chased, but race and xenophobia being among the principal reasons. So there were riots, but this was before the riots. So the riots opened up conversations around race that had been long suppressed. And so when I was in France before all this happened, I raised my hand in one of our sociology classes, and it was taught by, of course, a white French guy - this was a sociology of youth class. And in my broken French, I was like, “are there any connections between what we're studying and race?” And the white professor was like, “race - that's an American problem.” And I was pretty embarrassed. I was like, oh, OK, I'll put my hand down. And then after class, a Black girl - another student pulled me aside and was like, “we do have that kind of problem here.” And she was like, hanging out with me and, you know - and so her family pretty much adopted me. And so through that experience of learning about - this woman and her family were from Cameroon - that opened up for me a lot of questions that I wanted to continue exploring, and that's why I decided to apply to graduate school and continue my interest in race and identity in the French context. And that's what I did.
JANAE CUMMINGS: I think what's interesting about France is that Americans think it's not a racist society. We see all of these examples, particularly of Black people for the last 100 years going to France - expats in France and Paris. And I always thought there was this view like, oh, if things got really bad, Paris would accept me.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Yeah. Have you been?
JANAE CUMMINGS: I have not been to Paris.
JANAE CUMMINGS: OK. OK. Paris might accept you. I mean, there is still a large expat community of African Americans and I got to know them pretty well when I lived in Paris. And I saw the difference in how Black Americans get perceived and treated compared to Black French people...
JANAE CUMMINGS: Right.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: ...Or people from former French colonies. But even there, there are limits. What I've written about in my book, Resurrecting Slavery, is African American privilege - you know, exceptional treatment - being treated as an exceptional Black because you're American. That only really happens outside of the United States. But I was speaking about this with another woman of color who had studied abroad in France, and she was saying she had a very violent experience of French racism because she lived with white French families. I actually was protected from experiencing certain forms of racist violence in France because I lived with other students. I lived on my own. This woman was telling me everything from being physically hit by her white French host family to being forced to eat separately from the family and eat worse food to hearing racist epithets used - I mean, the whole gamut. And, you know, she had to leave - you know, get out of the situation and went with another family that ended up being worse. So there are all kinds of variables that can influence how you're treated in France. But there are folks who go there, they don't even speak French.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: And simply because they're Black American - the French like to use African Americans to pretend that they're not racist.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Right.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: We have served that purpose for France.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Sure.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: And many Black Americans get beguiled by this - what really does feel like exceptional treatment. I have never felt this way myself, but some people have stated that they felt treated and seen as a human for the first time. This is actually something that W. E. B. Dubois wrote about - not in his experience with France, but actually in Germany. When he spent time studying in Germany, that he felt sort of treated as a human for the first time. And yet also, Dubois was very knowledgeable about the fact that modern racism and colonialism and transatlantic slave trade were born really through European practices. And so France helped establish global white supremacy, helped establish scientific racism - a lot of these ideas came from France and other European countries. And yet today there's enormous denial around race being salient at all. And there are folks - like, there's this Black woman activist named Rokaya Diallo, who is French and is just everyday - if you just Google her name, Rokaya Diallo, she is continually attacked by whites in France because her work brings attention to systemic racism. She's continually referred to as anti-white as an extremist simply because she uses terms like systemic racism, which really don't exist in the French educational system or really political discourse. So it's an extraordinarily racist society. But racism is global and there are different flavors. So the way I talk about it and write about - there are different flavors of racism, and we negotiate with those contexts and how they play out differently. And some people feel more comfortable over there than here and, you know, I get it.
JANAE CUMMINGS: One of your opening chapters is called "Listen to Black Women." And you will have certain people say, “well, of course I listen to Black women. I listen to Oprah. I do what Beyonce tells me,” but this runs far deeper than that. Can you talk about that?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Yeah. So the "Listen to Black Women" chapter is my attempt to demystify intersectionality and Black feminist thought and also talk about how I came to value Black feminism and being very clear, as a Black woman, I wasn't socialized to. It was not something that, you know, grew up in my household, talk about Angela Davis or something. This was not at all embraced. And in part, as I explain in that chapter, certainly it has to do with the fact that a lot of Black feminist thought and Black feminist organizing more broadly was produced by bisexual and lesbian and queer Black women. And folks who grew up in religious households like I did - they weren't spaces where you're, like, celebrating Black queer women or any kind of queerness. So that's another reason why this discourse has been excluded. So the "Listen to Black Women" chapter is about how I had to learn the value of listening to Black women. Even as a scholar who works on race and as a Black woman, it's not something that I was born with or socialized into. I had to learn it. I think what's, for me, interesting about my book is how people react to the tone. Because, as you know, Black women get tone-policed and so on and so forth, and maybe the one area where I did sort of think about it is who's going to publish my book? Who's going to - is there an audience? I didn't know, right? I didn't know. I didn't know if my tone was too much - too strident, too whatever to reach folks. My one sort of source of comfort, I guess you could say, was that I have built, over the years, a fairly large audience through my public writing and my tone in the book and in that public writing is pretty much the same.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: And so I had to believe, OK, well, there are some readers out there. And I wanted to write this book just emancipated from anyone else's expectations. And it's also kind of the approach I bring to my teaching - I'm aware of all the stereotypes. I teach about them.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: But when I enter into teaching or into my pedagogical mode, I'm not thinking about it. Because if I think about it, it's not going to come out the way I want it to come out. It's not going to come out in my voice with my power of standing and my authority. And I think, for me, that's also sort of a basic Black feminist practice, right? Like, how can I do my work aware of all of these power dynamics, but also aware of my power? And I can't do that if I'm giving too much concern to these, you know, stereotypes and expectations that are designed to silence us.
JANAE CUMMINGS: You talked about wondering if there was an audience for your book. Who were you writing it for?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Myself, to start with. Myself. You know, it was like - I wrote the book relatively quickly, it can look like on paper. But I had been writing about these things for years through blogging, through social media. And I do it for me. I'm grateful for - people often thank me for my public writing. And as a writer, it's just such an honor to have people directly share with me how my writing impacts them. And that's meaningful to me, for sure. But first it's for me. And I think that's the only reason why the writing is of value to anyone else, because it's about - all right, what's important to me? What do I want to say? And then you were trying to write a book, trying to get it published - OK, it's not a blog, so it's about, you know, does it resonate with anyone else too? And that's where different stars aligned, finding a literary agent who was super enthusiastic in terms of working with me and already got my politics and valued my voice and then having his assistance with finding the perfect fit for this book. And Beacon Press is just a dream to work with. They've published the work of so many public intellectuals and others - everyone from James Baldwin to Octavia Butler to Bell Hooks to Cornel West, you know, and so on. And, you know, with it being an independent press - and also my editorial team is extraordinary. All women of color and different backgrounds - south Asian, Black, LatinX - different generations. Publishing, like many other industries - it's extraordinarily white and male. So to have that kind of editorial support was extraordinary.
JANAE CUMMINGS: I think in relation to my question, I think there are people - because I had - I was carrying your book around about a week ago, you know, reading it and was at coffee shop and someone - a white person walked up to me and was like, “oh, is that for me?”
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Oh, yes.
JANAE CUMMINGS: And...
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Yeah.
JANAE CUMMINGS: ...And I said, “well, thus far I think it's for everybody.”
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
JANAE CUMMINGS: But - and so that's that was more where my question was going.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: But...
JANAE CUMMINGS: Like, if you had that in mind when you wrote it.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: ...Yeah. So - yeah. So to finish answering, in writing it for myself - and I think any artist or writer probably has to some degree this experience too, where you only get to universalism through the particular. You really can only reach others through being very grounded in your truth. And so, yes, first it was for me, but the intention is for it to be for readers of all backgrounds. And it's true, though, when people see the title, How to Be less Stupid About Race - like, I was signing books at Barnes & Noble and there was a Black staff person who were - looking at the title, they were like, “oh, I know who that's for.”
JANAE CUMMINGS: Right.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: And that's nothing wrong with that either - for folks to sort of think, “well, yeah, white folks have a lot to learn,” because it's true. One of the - the first epigraph of the book in the first chapter is a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. where he's talking about how, you know, white folks think they have nothing to learn when it comes to race and many other things, and they do. And so there is an explicit engagement with white racial ignorance. But as we were discussing earlier, I also address my own learning process. And therefore, that's also a way of opening up a conversation about internalized oppression - about the role of people of color and Black folks also and unwittingly reproducing racial ignorance because we've all been racialized in a systemically oppressive society. We've been racialized and socialized in it. And so it's a book for white folks, for Black folks, for people of color. I think it's written in a way that, no matter what your background is, you'll be able to apply it to your life and also make some connections to what you've experienced - at least I hope so.
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AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest is Crystal Fleming, author of How to Be Less Stupid About Race. Dr. Fleming was recently on the IU Bloomington campus to give a lecture for the Black Film Center Archive. While she was here, she spoke with Janae Cummings.
JANAE CUMMINGS: I am curious about wokeness. Now, I hate what's become of the word woke in the last couple of years. It's almost kind of irritating to hear. But when we are talking to Dr. Francis of the Black Film Center Archive, she mentioned almost in passing the liberation of education. And it got me thinking about wokeness as something of an emotional roller coaster, right? There's a joy and pain of your own liberation, there's a reward of teaching, there's a labor of teaching.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Yes.
JANAE CUMMINGS: And then after you've been taught, you're teaching others and maybe inviting trauma back on yourself in doing so.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Yes. Yeah.
JANAE CUMMINGS: What do you think about that?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: It's - yeah, it's all very complicated. Woke is a - I think it's a funny word. It's a useful at times word.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: It can be irritating. But I think it also speaks to another way of acknowledging consciousness-raising and the aspiration to understand power and challenge it. And I think the aspirational aspect is generative. What is problematic is all the performative wokeness where people are sort of just trying to show that they've already gotten it figured out - and aren't I such a great liberal, progressive, whatever - and, you know, sort of losing that humility and acknowledgement of the ongoing work. So when I talk about being woke, I also talk about awakening because awakening is ongoing.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: And also that being woke is not enough. It's not just about your ideas. That's why the final chapter of my book is how do we translate our awareness into action? Because at the end of the day, to go back to where we started, it's not enough to think of yourself as a good person or a non-racist. You actually have to translate those values into action, and that's ongoing. And I'm so glad that you mentioned the emotional labor that's involved, because all of this activism, consciousness-raising - it also is traumatic. It can be traumatic, particularly if you are Black or a person of color. This is not just theory for you, this is your life and this is a way in which you are systemically exposed to forms of violence. So it's not just abstract or it's not academic, it's your life. So I think acknowledging the emotional work and how it's different depending on your positionality is very important. I talk about what's termed vicarious trauma. If you are an activist, if you're an educator, if you're, you know, working on these issues, other people are then also sharing their trauma. And so we have to be - at least my approach is to be very intentional and committed and how I'm thinking about taking care of myself - not just self-care, but community care and being very vigilant around that.
JANAE CUMMINGS: One thing a person once said to me when speaking about wokeness - it was an argument that it is not possible for white people to be woke because they were never asleep in the first place. What are your thoughts on that?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Is that the idea that, you know, some folks talk about ignorance - right? - and that's implying that there's no intentionality around it. Is that what you're - the person was sort of suggesting?
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah, I think so. And - yeah, kind of suggesting that and simply that we speak of that performative wokeness or the woke white person and, like, I think this person was kind of saying that's not possible. It is possible for people of color to be awakened - to be conscious, but perhaps not people who form the basis of the system we live in.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: I think, as an educator, I would have to disagree.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah. Yeah.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: I see it all the time. I see all the time students of all backgrounds, including white students, walk into my classroom and they don't know the history of this country. They don't know the sociological and psychological work on race and racism. And then they start to know. I see - I have students in my office every week talking about the connections that they're making between what they're learning in the classroom and how their racist family members behave or what's happening on the job. So I see it happening. Now, does that mean that we're going to see a complete, you know, transformation of white supremacy and its end? Again, you know, knowledge is not enough, but it is necessary. It's a necessary precursor. And so I think if you work with young people in particular - not to get all (singing) “I believe the children are the future” - but there's a lot of reasons where we can see that - like, research on millennials show that the prevalence of racist ideas amongst them is quite high...
JANAE CUMMINGS: Right.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: ...And not significantly different from prior generations.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Sure.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Nevertheless, I think if you do any kind of educational work, you see folks of all backgrounds, including white folks, do have the capacity to go from not knowing to knowing and engage in anti-racist work. Some of my favorite anti-racists are white folks.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Now, I mean, I have a special place in my heart for Black folks and people of color doing this work because we are disadvantaged by the system.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Well, your first educator, Professor Silver.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Yeah. White educator. And I learn a ton from people of color doing this work, but there are white anti-racists who are part of the struggle. Jane Elliott is one of my favorites. I write about her in the book. She's in her 80s now. She's been at it for decades, doing, you know, all kinds of anti-racist education. She became well known just quickly because of this blue-eyed, brown-eyed experiment she did following the assassination of Martin Luther King. In Iowa, she split her white classroom into kids with brown eyes and blue eyes to teach them about prejudice and power, and she's been doing that kind of work all over the world to raise consciousness. And she - now listen, people like to say, “I don't see color,” or, “I'm woke” - she's been doing this work for decades and she admits that she's still having to confront her own biases. She still has to confront her complicity with or - at least her positionality within white supremacy, and she's actually been doing the work. So I don't want to hear from someone who has not actually been doing the work that they don't see color. No, you don't admit that you have implicit and explicit biases. That's not the same thing as not having them, because people who do the work, they admit it and, again, want to be held accountable.
JANAE CUMMINGS: We live in this cauldron of white supremacy. It's a framework that is poisoned from root to crown. How do we motivate ourselves to keep going? Where is the light at the end of the tunnel for people who are trying to get into this work, trying to make things better in their communities?
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Great question. You know, I react a lot to some simplistic ideas the folks have. Like, as soon as they start learning about racism and oppression, it's like, “OK, well, we can end it.” You know, “we can end racism in our lifetimes.” No, actually, you can't. So I kind of start there, which might not seem hopeful, but stick with me because I do think there is, nevertheless, a way to have hope without being naive and without thinking we can create a utopia in, like, 15 years or something. And for me, the hope comes in seeing transformation, which I do see, and anyone who does organizing work or educational work - we're kind of in the business of transformations. So that's one thing. But for me especially, it's insane that we're part of a very long struggle. And celebrating the areas of impact that we're able to make, focusing on what you can actually do in your lifetime, but also realizing that we pass the baton from generation to generation, right? We are living in the imagined possibilities of people who came before us. And if we don't do that work now, then we won't be able to create new possibilities for those who come after us. So it's, in the one hand, focusing on - what can I do in my profession, in my community and with my community - again, not alone, but in community with others? But also seeing that, listen, humans have been on this planet for, you know, hundreds of thousands of years. And you could be discouraged by that because you're like, well, this is where we are after hundreds of thousands of years. But at the same time, my ancestors could not vote. My ancestors were chattel. I'm not chattel. That was at one time an impossibility for people to believe in. So I'm not Pollyanna. I'm not someone who believes in utopias. But I do really believe in the power of transformation, of working together for systemic change, and I think that it's important to be in community because that's also where we sustain our hope.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR McFERRIN’S “BLIND AESTHETICS”)
JANAE CUMMINGS: Dr. Fleming, it has been my great pleasure to speak to you today.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: Thank you.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Thank you for joining us.
CRYSTAL FLEMING: My pleasure, it's been wonderful.
AARON CAIN: Crystal Fleming, professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and author of the new book How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy and the Racial Divide. She's been speaking with Janae Cummings. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.
MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website: wfiu.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)
Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.