Demystifying Race, Online and in the Classroom

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Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming, associate professor of Sociology and Africana Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, is one of a new breed of public intellectuals who are harnessing the power of social media to share their research with a broader audience. 

crystal fleming

Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming in the classroom.

A thought leader and expert on global racism, Dr. Fleming first gained extensive media experience when completing her dissertation fieldwork in France, where she often appeared on international TV and radio to provide commentary on race and politics. More recently, her trenchant and provocative takes on the 2016 US elections made her something of a social media celebrity. Her personal Twitter account now boasts more than 33,000 followers; she often uses the platform to educate the public about the dynamics of systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States and abroad. Fleming has by-lines in publications like Vox, The Root, Everyday Feminism and Black Agenda Report; her public writing engages a broad range of scholarly, personal and controversial political topics.

Her media engagement and mastery of digital communication is built on a solid foundation of award-winning scholarship and print publications. A graduate of Wellesley College and Harvard University, Fleming is the author of two books, including Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France (Temple University Press 2017) and How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy and the Racial Dividecoming this fall from Beacon Press.  Her research on racial oppression has been recognized with competitive grants and funding, including the Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship. She is the author of numerous papers on racism, stigma, social movements and collective memory. Her current projects explore critical race theory and anti-blackness as well as the implications of mindfulness and meditation as tools for coping with or transcending oppression.

Since coming to Stony Brook in 2011, she has been committed to empowering individuals and communities with the conceptual tools needed to understand and challenge systemic racism.

We recently sat down with Fleming to take her pulse on race, activism and scholarship in the digital age.

Q: How does Twitter enhance your role as a scholar, and what if any difficulties does it present?

A: Amplifying my scholarship with social media was never my intention, but it happened organically. I joined Twitter in 2012 and, somewhat unexpectedly, built a large following over the course of many years. I also maintained a personal blog for some time, which also helped me connect with likeminded people. My personal Twitter account allows me to connect with lots of scholars, activists and ordinary folks across the world who share my academic and personal interests in anti-racism, political transformation, spirituality and personal growth. It can also be an effective tool for reaching beyond the Ivory Tower and sharing work in progress with the public. When finishing my first book, I sometimes tweeted sections of my chapters and received real-time feedback from people across the globe. I also integrated many of my Twitter threads into How to be Less Stupid About Race and the comments and interactions I received from tens of thousands of people definitely shaped my thinking about the book while it was being written.

Of course, like anything else, social media has its downsides. Faculty of color, in particular, have to be mindful of the challenges posed by targeted attacks and trolling—and academic institutions have to do a lot more to protect faculty from harassment. We have to be vigilant in protecting academic freedom, particularly in the present political climate. But overall, I think it’s important for politically conscious scholars to engage the public and social media is one of many ways that we can foster productive exchange with folks beyond academia.

Fleming's book

Fleming’s forthcoming book

Q: What is the core argument of the book you are working on, How to Be Less Stupid About Race?

A: How to Be Less Stupid About Race argues that living in a racist society socializes all of us to be racially ignorant, and we have to be proactive about acknowledging and addressing our own racial ignorance in order to challenge and dismantle racism. The book uses the framework of critical race theory to explore what white supremacist racism is, where it came from and what we all can do about it. It also combines insights about race and racism from a wide variety of disciplines with social commentary, personal memoir and humor, as you might guess from the title. I share a lot about my own process of confronting my racial ignorance and discuss what it was like for me, as an African-American woman, to learn about systemic racism.

The book includes quite a bit of political analysis that highlights the complicity of both major parties in perpetuating systemic racism. Some readers might find it surprising that I write about the role of former president Obama in maintaining white supremacy, but I think it is important to understand how white supremacist racism pervades politics on the left and the right—and minority politicians (as well was voters!) are not immune to these dynamics. One chapter explains how my own shifting views about racial politics broadly (and Obama specifically) as I began to wake up to the realities of white supremacy. Another chapter addresses Trump’s embrace of white supremacy–and his popularity with white voters despite (and because) of his racism.

Q: Do Stony Brook students show a strong interest in your courses’ subject matter? Which courses are the most popular and why?

A: My theory classes are required for sociology majors. My race/ethnicity class draws a wide range of students—some of them go on to conduct research on racism, which is very gratifying to see as an educator. Many students find the study of racial identity and inequality fascinating, but it’s a difficult and violent topic that can provoke uncomfortable feelings regardless of your background. I try to teach my students to become more comfortable with that discomfort. Racism is not something that any of us should feel comfortable with—and confronting oppression is discomfiting, but necessary, work.

Q: Regarding Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, why did you write about racism in France when we have such overt race problems in America?

A: It’s important to understand that racism is not limited to one nation. Modern racist ideology and white supremacy were developed by Europeans and then disseminated globally. I came to study French racism because of my interest in the French language and I’m really appreciative of those in my life who encouraged me to study a foreign language, including my Haitian godmother who began teaching me French when I was young as well as my professors at Wellesley who encouraged me to overcome my own self-doubt and commit myself to learning French. Eventually, I became fluent and the French language has really been a passport for me in terms of helping me understand the experiences of people of color across the globe.

When I traveled to France for the first time as a college student and studied abroad at the Université de Provence, I raised my hand in a sociology class one day and asked about issues of race in France. An older white French professor was very dismissive and said, ‘we don’t have that kind of problem here.’ I was embarrassed and surprised, but afterwards a black French student pulled me aside and said: “We do have that kind of problem here.” Through my friendship with her and the rest of her family, I learned about the intersections of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in France and decided I wanted to come back one day to conduct research on the dynamics of French racism.

Crystal Fleming

Crystal Fleming

Q: What is your take on the Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter issue? How do we as a society make the issue less polarizing and bring the groups together?

A: Well, Black Lives Matter is a human rights movement created by three black women (Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrise Cullors) designed to bring attention to the fact that people socially defined as ‘black’ are vulnerable to techniques of state violence and dehumanization ranging from surveillance and racial profiling to deadly policing, mass incarceration and a range of disparities that reduce the well-being and life chances of black people. The sad reality is that “Blue Lives Matter” is a phrase that’s typically deployed to silence, trivialize and otherwise undermine black protest while deflecting criticism of police violence. As many others have already pointed out, our society is already set up in a way that values the lives of police officers— they are heavily armed, provided wide discretion to exercise deadly force and rarely punished for shocking acts of brutality, harassment and discrimination. Decades of research have already demonstrated that systemic racism and white supremacist bias pervades our police forces. This is a dangerous and deadly state of affairs. There is even evidence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis working in tandem with and/or infiltrating police departments.

Racism as well as the suppression of the working class and poor are also central to the history of policing in the United States, as seen in the history of slave patrols. And it’s not just white officers who are complicit with white supremacist racism — even officers of color are involved in participating in biased policing and systemic violence targeting other people of color, as seen in the case of the city of Baltimore where officers of varied backgrounds have been involved in corruption and unfair targeting of the local population. Baltimore officers were actually instructed to plant toy guns at crime scenes to frame victims of police violence as perpetrators of violence.  I don’t think our primary concern, as citizens, should be to make this issue “less polarizing.” Racist policing is inherently a polarizing issue; it should be something that everyone of conscience is willing to face and organize to eradicate, regardless of our ethnic or racial background.

Q: What advice would you give both whites and blacks on turning problems into solutions? What will it take to not just get along but to celebrate one another as races beyond individual relationships?

A: One piece of advice I have is to think beyond black and white. Asians are the fastest-growing minority in the country. Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in the nation and many people are multiracial and multiethnic. As to whether we can “all just get along” — I think it’s a common question, but I think it’s asked from the perspective of those who have not spent much time studying the history of human politics and oppression. I am not sure why some people think it should or would be easy to end racism if we haven’t yet brought gender oppression, class oppression or ethnocentrism to an end. Although the history of modern racism is relatively new, human beings have been hierarchically ranking, dominating and exploiting each other for thousands of years. Are we aware of any society that created lasting peace and eradicated violence? That said, there is a lot of progress that could be made. One thing that could help, although it is not by any means a ‘solution’, is for people to live less segregated lives. White people, in particular, live in a state of self-imposed isolation from the rest of the population and white-enforced segregation helps maintain white supremacy. In the United States, 75% of whites have no non-white friends. Whites’ lack of meaningful relationships with people of color partly explains why so many white U.S. citizens are in denial (or indifferent) about the social, economic and political realities of white supremacy.


Dr. Fleming lectures on “Killing Them Softly: Anti-Blackness and the Legacies of Slavery in France.”

Q: What are your long-term academic goals?

As I move into the tenured stage of my career, I’m leveraging my platform and expertise to help demystify and disseminate critical race theory and the vibrant body of research on white supremacy for the wider public. I’m passionate about helping people understand the deep and complex problems of systemic racism and intersectional oppression so that we can more effectively mobilize and organize for progressive transformation. I’m also committed to challenging what I call the respectability politics of white supremacy within the academy. Many professors tend to see themselves as progressive and anti-racist, but I think we have a long way to go in fully admitting just how deeply racism and other forms of systemic bias are embedded within our educational institutions, disciplines and professions.

Q: Growing up, what were your biggest influences? Please talk about your childhood and your awareness of race, gender and inequality.

I talk about a lot of this in my book, but I didn’t know much about race or racial inequality as a young person. These were not matters that were discussed in my home and I actually had to wait until college to learn about systemic inequalities of any kind. That’s one of the ironies of our society — we can grow up in the midst of great disparities and injustice and yet not know about these things. Of course, people of color tend to know more about racism than whites (because people of color experience racism) but even minorities sometimes struggle with how much (and whether) to tell their children about racial oppression. I think my mother tried very hard to shield me from racial prejudice — she wanted me to believe that the sky was the limit for me, and I think in this respect she was successful. My mother was my biggest influence growing up. She encouraged my intellectual and personal development and worked hard to provide opportunities for me above and beyond anything she experienced in her own childhood. My other influences were spiritual; I grew up attending church every week and learning about the power of prayer and meditation.

Q: Are you intense away from the classroom, the lecture hall and Twitter? What do you do to lighten things up and keep yourself from getting too agitated with the slow pace of social change?

A: It’s true that my work can be very intense (slavery and racism aren’t light topics, to say the least) but I can also be a very silly person. I laugh a lot and crack a lot of jokes. I also make sure to prioritize self-care and holistic well-being—this is really important for those of us who not only study oppression but experience it, too. I recently made a commitment to exercise every day and started a hashtag on Twitter (#DailyFitness18) to build a community of folks who want to nurture their physical health on a daily basis.

Just the other day, I gave a lecture in D.C. and someone came up to me afterwards and said they began exercising with a friend as a result of the hashtag!  That was pretty exciting. So, taking care of myself and protecting my joy and health and connecting with others are all things that are very important to me. I’m not going to lie: the slow pace of social change can be challenging to come to terms with—but I’m blessed to have a very generous and caring support system of loved ones, mentors and friends who encourage and inspire me. The history of human oppression is long and daunting, but so is the history of overcoming oppression and creating new opportunities and positive transformations. We have to remain hopeful and optimistic about the many things we all can do to not only grow personally but also work collectively with others to change and uplift our communities for the better.

—Glenn Jochum

 

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