How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide By Crystal M. Fleming
Boston, MA; Beacon Press, 2018, 230 pp., $23.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Anastasia Higginbotham
For the last six months, I have been on a book tour for a children’s picture book I wrote and illustrated about whiteness and abolishing white supremacy. I always read the book the same way, but my talks before and after are completely different on account of all of the different points of entry to any discussion of racism—its causes and its solutions.
Take adult audiences: With the exception of spaces held by a majority of Black adults, I could never assume a shared understanding about what racism is or even a consensus that it exists. Though I am rarely challenged in spaces with a majority of white adults, I don’t dare take the silence in those rooms as agreement or alignment with Black Liberation. I focus on the ones nodding, with flushed faces and soft eyes. They are getting—or, at least, feeling—something. I cannot guess at the rest. Children’s audiences tend to be different. At a library event in Sonoma County with a class of second graders where almost all of the children were Brown, fluent in Spanish, and studying English, I wondered how they’d make sense of a book about whiteness. Their teacher later reported that during the art activity, she overheard students asking each other, “Are we white?” “I don’t know—are you?” “Am I?”
At the Henry Ford Academy of Creative Studies High School in Detroit, which has a majority African American student population, the aspect of my book that drew the most curiosity was that a “Caucasian” person cared. I noted their use of “Caucasian” to replace my use of the word “white” and sensed, in the careful way students used it with me, that it was a more respectful alternative to a word they, fairly, associated with ignorance, cruelty, and indifference to the lives of Black people. I wonder how we will ever get on the same page when we have never read, let alone lived, the same story?
Dr. Crystal M. Fleming wondered likewise and wrote a book for these times. How To Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide speaks into the chasms that persist between those who experience racism and anti- Blackness in a bodily, generational, encompassing way (as many Black people do) and those who may not know a single freaking thing about it (as my target audience of young white children and many of their adults do not).
Fleming, who identifies as a queer, bisexual, Black woman, begins with the “The Origins of Racial Stupidity”—her own. “Despite being a child of the 1960s and ’70s, and living through the civil rights and Black Power eras,” writes Fleming, “Mom never spoke to me about discrimination or desegregation or anything related to oppression, really—at least, not until I began formally studying these matters in graduate school.” This was a choice on her mother’s part to shield her daughter from the damaging effects of negative stereotyping in childhood. “I had no fucking idea that we in the United States live in a racist (and sexist and classist) society until I was a full-grown adult.” Her own process of becoming less stupid about race makes Fleming an ideal guide for those of us on that path, especially those of us cursing a blue streak along that path. Today, Fleming is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies and Associate Faculty in Gender and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. She earned her Ph.D. and master’s at Harvard and her first book explored white supremacy in France.
She calls race “a fundamentally stupid idea” and “inherently ridiculous,” as do I, even in the presence of children as young as two and three years old— which is the age when kids of every race and skin tone have been observed expressing the racist bias that has already invaded their soft, small bodies. This perpetuation of racial stupidity across centuries involves “the misrepresentation, minimization, denial, and justification of racial domination.” It’s no accident that we grow up deluded into believing that kindness and hope will someday change the world. Our ignorance and magical thinking serve to keep oppressive structures in place.
“Much of the racial stupidity we encounter in everyday life derives from the fact that people think of racism as individual prejudice rather than a broader system and structure of power,” writes Fleming. While we are all immersed in stereotypes about social groups, “we do not all occupy the same position in the racial order.”
Case in point: Fleming’s own experience of being shielded from racist injustice in childhood bears a lot in common with a white child raised with no education in the catastrophe of systemic racism—yet the different manifestation of that ignorance is everything. When you’re Black and your mom protected you from knowing too much too soon, you go along not realizing the ways that white supremacy is impacting you. In the author’s case, she came to see that white supremacy propped her up as a model minority, exceptional, better than, separate—devastatingly so, as this severed her from her own intuition, authority, community, and ancestry.
When you’re white and don’t know what that means in terms of a personal, cultural, and national identity built on the lie of liberty and justice for all, you go along unaware of the innumerable ways you’ve been weaponized to advance white supremacy. “The costs of taking a superficial approach to addressing racism are quite high,” writes Fleming, “—and fall squarely on the shoulders of people of color.”
How we feel about racism is practically irrelevant. We can ignore it, deny it, despise it, defend it—none of this makes any difference in the lives of the people directly impacted. But until we—all of us—activate ourselves to expose and reckon with white supremacy where it’s rooted in our minds and bodies, in our intimate relationships, in what we read and who we listen to, and in the spaces where we bank, work, pray, earn degrees, and do yoga, this vile machine of destruction, theft, and incarceration will keep purring along, 100 percent by design. Our ignorance didn’t create this system, but its maintenance does depend on it.
This is the kind of book I want to download directly into my brain, to cure my own ignorance about how white supremacy is ingrained into every facet of American life. Fleming’s research and analysis tracks how racist injustice is maintained in media, education, and our deeply racist political system, among conservatives and liberals alike.
I’d like to take a quiz on how Fleming’s Gaslighting Fallacy of White Supremacy differs from her Whites-Only Fallacy and her Black Supremacy Unicorn Fallacy. And I want to memorize whole paragraphs like this one, so I never forget how strong the conditioning is to fail to see our complicity:
Americans have been socialized to look on the bright side despite centuries of colonial and racial violence, torture, and the oppression of minorities. Our problem is not and has never been overreacting to racial terror. Our problem is the hegemony of under-reaction, denial, minimization. Ours is a society that has always socialized white folks to live in the midst of racial oppression but go on with their lives like normal. At every turn, those who oppose white supremacy have been met with denial, violence, “race card” accusations, or magnificent claims about progress. It seems that in the minds of many white liberals, we should all be celebrating the fact that most of us are not physically in chains. White supremacy wants you to look at four hundred years of uninterrupted racial terror and conclude “Things aren’t so bad.”
Her chapter called “Listen to Black Women” aligns with my own process of becoming less stupid about race, as my activism was remade in every way by internalizing and crediting the voices of Black women. She highlights the “intersectional sensibility” of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, whose leadership “explicitly brings the problems of antiblackness and state violence into dialogue with the marginalization of queer lives and trans lives.” This “sophistication and complexity” draws together the “radical coalitions” that will shift the culture. The chapter “Interracial Love 101” emphasizes the “continuous commitment to unlearn” that is vital to our building actual intimacy across racial bounds. “What we need, quite desperately,” writes Fleming, “is the willingness to cultivate revolutionary love, grounded in knowledge, compassion, courage, and collective action.” Two grueling chapters on Obama and Trump offer plenty of incentive to shed illusions about our current terrible mess and how far we are from getting through it.
In the “Fake Racial News” chapter, Fleming holds mainstream media to the fire: “When it comes to the fine art of not giving a fuck about black people and other people of color, the New York Times really is in a league of its own.” This claim, as with all the others, is backed up with research and egregious examples of this newspaper and other widely respected news sources, including the New Yorker, “providing a platform for white nationalists and presenting white supremacy as ‘just another side.’” Each example offers searing proof of just how far white supremacy, and only white supremacy, has progressed in this country. The only way we will halt its momentum is by catching it in the act—and that means knowing its ways: where it lives (in us) and how it moves (relentlessly). This is something we haven’t tried before as a collective. Drop all defensiveness, abandon hope, and as DeRay Mckesson says: “Watch whiteness work.” Two more things we haven’t yet tried en masse, which Fleming also mentions throughout the book: the value of a mindfulness, meditative, and spiritual practice to heal trauma, prevent burnout, and keep the mind-spirit-body connection flowing, and the urgency to get this information to young people so they grow up wiser and in touch with their own power, responsibility, and collective potential.
Among other things, that means bursting white kids’ bubbles, quick—the one that so many adults who benefit from whiteness like to believe gradually dissolves as grown-up realities (such as Blackness and the truth about Thanksgiving) can’t be kept out any longer.
Every time a white parent laments that a book like mine will end their child’s innocence (the way a book like Fleming’s will end theirs), I remind them that they, and we, and I, and you were all born into a system that has set up white children to be anything but innocent. At best, white kids can expect to become accidental oppressors, enriched even as they are de-souled.
So long as we offer white children no choice but to advance white supremacy actively or passively, we leave the entire burden of navigating, dismantling, and staying alive within white supremacy on the shoulders of Black and Brown children. That right there is white supremacy at work. Or rather, that is white supremacy pouring itself a pitcher of martinis at 5 pm, after another successful century of work.
We cannot afford to be that stupid. In fact, we never could.
Anastasia Higginbotham is the creator of the Ordinary Terrible Things series of children’s books, which includes Divorce Is the Worst and Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness.