Crystal Marie Fleming Talks with Roger

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In Rise Up!: How You Can Join the Fight Against White Supremacy, sociology professor and author of the adult book How to Be Less Stupid About Race (Beacon) Crystal Marie Fleming talks to teens about the history and impact of white supremacy, and how to go about fighting back.

Roger Sutton: So, Crystal, bringing the critical race theory right to the teens, huh?

Crystal Marie Fleming: It has certainly become a very politicized lightning rod of an issue in the last twelve months — in ways that maybe I should have been able to predict, but I didn’t see coming.

RS: It has. Why do you think that’s happened?

CMF: Last year, especially in the publishing industry, everyone saw an outpouring of interest in antiracism books, after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the largest protests in U.S. history (according to the New York Times), there was so much public interest in finding educational resources to resist racism and white supremacy. We saw all these books flying off the shelves. And then we saw a backlash pretty quickly. The Trump administration issued an executive order that the African American Policy Forum has called the “equity gag order.” It attempted to ban federal funding for not just antiracist education, but also educational workshops around sexism and sex discrimination. That was overturned when the Biden administration came in this year. But what we’ve seen is that same conservative backlash to antiracism education, to education around sexism and gender equality — we’re seeing that now playing out, not just from state to state, but from school board to school board. It’s a very clear and calculated and well-funded backlash to antiracist education in a way that centers white grievance around addressing and acknowledging white supremacy and systemic racism.

RS: I guess I’m cynical. To me it also seems that the right is using this as a bogeyman. It’s such a scary-sounding term, “critical race theory.” It’s something for them to rally around. I mean, the racism is still there, for sure, but it’s such an easy thing to get white people upset about.

CMF: You’re absolutely right that the term is being treated as a bogeyman. The public debate — if you want to call it that — around the country, and in the bills pushed by Republicans, actually has very little to do with critical race theory itself, which is a very specialized interdisciplinary body of research in education that comes out of the civil rights movement. It first emerged in law schools among civil rights lawyers who were grappling with how to address the persistence of racism and white supremacy after our laws changed and began to present our society as “colorblind.” Over the last forty years that work, especially in law schools, was very specialized and very much concerned with legal doctrine and debate, which then moved into other academic fields. I’m a sociologist. There are sociologists and education scholars and philosophers and political scientists and all kinds of scholars who work in the area of critical race studies. But the term CRT has been appropriated by the right not to refer to that work, but to refer to anything to scare white people around race and racism. Mainly what it is is an attack on antiracist education and on any acknowledgement of systemic racism and white supremacy.

RS: I agree. What do you think your book can do to help?

CMF: I hope that it can — we’ll have to see. I’m an educator and a scholar, so I do believe in the power of education to awaken people to the way our society works, but also to encourage folks to make an active effort to create the society they wish to see. Rise Up! is a book that I hope will help young people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to better understand our history, and to also see themselves in the role of antiracist activists. A lot of the stories, historical and contemporary, that are told in the book are really about the work that people have done, coming together, oftentimes across racial and ethnic difference, to challenge white supremacy. This includes white people, white youth — a number of the stories and lessons that I try to teach and share in the book also feature the work of white antiracists, young people and adults, who throughout history and today have been challenging white supremacy. It’s a book that I hope will educate but also inspire, and help young folks not only understand the history we’re all living with, but also see how we can change things.

RS: Right. I don’t know how much you follow young adult literature, but the framework and the approach of your book is really unusual in a book for teenagers.

CMF: Tell me more.

RS: I’m trying to think of other books where we get a sustained argument like this one. In books for kids and teens, you might get “here are both sides of an issue.” Or “here is the history of an issue.” Or “here are ten different people collated together to talk about an issue in successive chapters.” But to have one person actually sustain an argument — I’m thinking of the Jason Reynolds adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi’s book [Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You], but that’s a very different book from this one.

CMF: I’m new to young adult literature — this is my first — and it has been quite a journey. It’s been great working with my editor at Henry Holt to bring this project to fruition; to think about how you communicate and convey a really, really complicated history, with really, really complicated ongoing consequences, to young people without demoralizing them. I approached the writing with a clarity of mind about what I wanted to share in terms of our history and ongoing realities of systemic racism and white supremacy. I don’t know that I viewed it as a sustained argument so much as having the purpose of the book be to help young folks understand how we got here. You can’t do that by presenting only one side of the story. Young people have to understand the history of racist ideas, even as they’re learning that those ideas are wrong. Learning, for example, about the scientists and intellectuals who crafted the ideology of white supremacy and the myths of white superiority. One of the lessons of the book is that those ideas are wrong. Racist ideas are not rooted in reality. But you have to actually excavate that history and share those racist ideas for young people (and people of any age) to make sense of them and to understand: this is where systemic racism comes from. This is what those ideas mean, what they have meant, and they are incorrect. I approach teaching that history not so much from the perspective of one-sidedness. You have to show many sides. If there’s a sustained argument in the book, it’s certain that the myths of racial superiority and inferiority are just that: myths. But they are myths with very serious and deadly consequences.

RS: I like the way you address the fact that race itself is a myth. We’re one race. But it’s not enough to just say, “Oh, we’re all one race, blah blah blah, there is no color, we all just need to get along.” That doesn’t work because people do perceive race.

CMF: Exactly. That’s one of the most complicated things I try to explain in the book. And honestly, it’s quite complicated for adults to understand what we mean by the social construction of race. The belief that racial difference is indicative of your biology and moral worth has a very recent history. It’s based on all kinds of misconceptions about the human species and who we are. It’s difficult getting people to understand that we don’t belong to biological races beyond the human race, but that the myth of racial ideology was institutionalized in our laws, it was integrated into our educational system, our policies, and has had — and continues to have — very real social, economic, and political effects. Civil rights advocates have known this and been talking about this for far longer than critical race theory and even modern antiracism education have existed. Something I point out in the book and I often share with audiences is that Martin Luther King Jr., who is frequently held up as someone who would disapprove of critical race theory or antiracist education more broadly — many of his ideas were very incisive critiques of white supremacy. One of the things he wrote and argued was that the ideology of white supremacy was embedded in every textbook and preached from every pulpit. It became a structured part of our culture. That is the historical truth that many people on the right, and even some who don’t identify as conservatives — many people don’t want to acknowledge that white supremacy and the myths of white superiority have been integrated and embedded in our culture, our laws, and our practices. And they still are, to a great extent. We have a lot of work to do, all of us, of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, wherever we are in terms of our class position, other aspects of our identity, and power and privilege. We all have a collective responsibility in learning about our past and also taking an active role in addressing the inequalities that we’re still living with.

RS: I was learning as I read your book. Obviously, learning facts I didn’t know, but also, you consistently bring in the experiences not just of African Americans, but of Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans. I was probably a third of the way through, and I’m thinking oh — hitting my head with my hand as I speak — oh, she’s talking about white supremacy. The problem is white supremacy. I’d been seeing it in my head as the oppression of Black people, the oppression of Latino people, etc. But in fact, we need to turn it around, because the problem is white supremacy.

CMF: Yes. I’m African American, but I would presume to think that it’s actually very, very important for white Americans to understand that the problem is white supremacy. The problem is not white people. The problem is the structure and the system of white supremacy that we’ve all been socialized into, that we’ve inherited, and that we’ve constructed over the course of centuries. You’re sharing your experience of reading these different stories centering on the experience of African Americans, but also Indigenous people and Latinx people and Asian Americans, and you’re seeing that system. That is what I was definitely trying to convey to the reader. But also at the beginning of the book, where I kind of lay out “What is white supremacy?” — I also address how Europeans have been a target of racist ideology within the system of white supremacy. This is difficult for people initially to grapple with. Particularly if you rewind the clock a hundred years, it was more common in American society for people to think of white people not as a homogeneous group, but as a group of different white races, with Jewish Americans and Italians and Irish and Polish people being deemed as inferior Europeans. This is also part of the ideology of white supremacy. Of course, we saw that play out in the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. It’s really important for young people and folks of all ages to understand white supremacy doesn’t just oppress people functionally defined as non-white, but it’s also about viewing and treating groups of Europeans as inferior to groups of Europeans that are viewed as superior, Aryans, etc. The goal of the book is not just to leave you with a lot of historical and sociological facts, but also an understanding of the system and structures we’re dealing with, so that we can work toward collective and systemic change.

RS: This year’s Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry just went to Rita Williams-Garcia’s book A Sitting in St. James.

CMF: Oh, yes, I read your interview.

RS: It’s so interesting, because Rita’s is a book about racism, and it is a book about white supremacy, but it’s a book about white people. There are Black characters. It’s set on a plantation. But she’s really interested in what makes the white people tick and how they fit into the system and how they perpetuate the system.

CMF: Absolutely. It’s so important to understand how white people fit into this. When people hear the word racism, or the topic of race is mentioned, it’s common, particularly for white people, to think we’re talking about someone else. That this is an issue that affects other people, if it affects them at all. No, absolutely not. Race and racism, because of our country’s history, have been embedded into the everyday lives of us all, even if we don’t recognize it. Books like A Sitting in St. James, or the field of whiteness studies more broadly, are really important for people to understand how racism affects white folks as well.

RS: You teach at Stony Brook, right? How do you see an awareness of racial issues with first-year students?

CMF: I’m biased, I guess, because I love teaching and I’m consistently impressed with the acumen of my students. Their insights about all kinds of things — racism, LGBTQ issues, class. My experience is that students come into the classroom very aware of inequality and contemporary issues. It’s maybe a generational difference — I guess I’m an elder millennial — but folks are coming in very connected to Instagram and TikTok, social media places where young people are talking about racism and antiracism in very complex ways, bringing in an intersectional lens. I have students every semester, of all backgrounds, who tell me how much they learn not just from what they’re reading or from my syllabus, but from what other students share of their own experiences. I’ve had African American students who express their appreciation for learning about the oppression of Indigenous people or learning about the impact of the model minority myth on Asian Americans. And vice versa. Lots of Asian American students come to my classroom already engaged in the work to address anti-Blackness in the Asian community. I learn a lot from my students. I dedicated my second book, How to Be Less Stupid About Race, to my students because I feel like it’s such a privilege to teach and learn with them. I’m really impressed. That’s not to say that everyone comes into the classroom with the same views. I have conservative students. I have students who remain very hostile to learning about racism, even though they’re taking a class about it. Students are not a monolith. I encourage them to really take risks and share perspectives that may not be popular, or to do that messy work of being inarticulate about what they’re trying to express in the space of our classroom as we think through these very complicated issues.

RS: You say at the end of Rise Up! that you’re hopeful, and it sounds like these students give you reason to be so.

CMF: Yes, and I have to give credit to an abolitionist educator and activist named Mariame Kaba, whose recent book just came out, We Do This ’Til We Free Us. I had the pleasure of meeting Mariame years ago when I wasn’t feeling hopeful. I was feeling very, very weighed down by our ongoing history of many forms of oppression — racial oppression, class inequality, climate change, the whole thing. One of the things she said to me was, “Crystal, you have to be an optimist in some way.” And I said, “Why?” She said, “Because you’re an educator. I know that when you’re teaching, when you’re working with your students, that at some point, in some way, that must give you some optimism.” And she was absolutely right. I’m a little bit like you; I am a cynic in some ways. I’m not hopeful every single moment of every day. I think anyone who pays attention to the problems of our world will grapple with difficult feelings, sometimes with hopelessness. But seeing the change that can happen as people become aware of these issues and take an active role in changing them, seeing the impact of the work that youth but also people of all ages are doing to improve the world that we inherited, that does fill me with hope. I think hope is so important, because if you don’t feel it’s possible to change things for the better in a constructive way, then that just reinforces the status quo. I bring that energy to my teaching, to my writing. I’m not a Pollyanna type of person. I do want to be realistic. But also to help people see: Yes, change is possible. This is hopefully a book that will educate, but also inspire young people to see themselves as change agents.


Sponsored by

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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