Book Review: HOW TO BE LESS STUPID ABOUT RACE by Crystal M. Fleming
A bit of background. I met my first person of color at the age of 17, my freshman year of college in 1965. She was a classmate from Philadelphia. I also had my first experience of blatant racism that same year, as my cousin and I boarded in the home of an Irish cop whose opinions of the African Americans he was supposed to protect and serve were appalling.
And I knew they were appalling, even though I’d never had any real education in racism. The trouble was, I was a child of the ‘50s, where children were to be seen and not heard and criticizing one’s elders was as beyond the realm of possibility as flying. That kind of relationship dynamic isn’t as universal as it used to be, but it still exists; and it’s going to be one of the hardest obstacles to putting Dr. Fleming’s ideas in process.
I pre-ordered a copy of Dr. Fleming’s book after reading a review of it on Black Agenda Report. I wasn’t disappointed. It didn’t hurt that, like me, she belatedly came to understand just how pervasive racism—and its attendants sexism, ageism, classism, genderism, and ableism—is in our modern world. And for basically the same reason, in that she, too, grew up insulated from the reality in which just shy of 15% of the country’s population lives.
Note that I didn’t limit the field of view to the US, although that’s Dr. Fleming’s focus. That’s important because racism isn’t a geographical but a cultural problem. It exists everywhere, for the simple reason a majority holding all the power will inevitably deny power to the minorities in its sphere.
“‘Race’,” says Dr. Fleming in her introduction, “is a fundamentally stupid idea that refers to the belief in visible, permanent, hierarchical differences between human groups defined in terms of biology, physical appearance, or ancestry.” Studies show over and over there are no actual differences among human beings, yet the idea that one’s complexion or other characteristic provides innate superiority persists. Of all the -isms, though, racism is the most pervasive.
“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.”
Dr. Fleming goes on to support her statement with enough information only someone determined to hide behind “colorblindness” and consider the job done could ignore. Which isn’t to say they won’t, since confirmation bias is as hard to eradicate as athlete’s foot.
“One of the sad ironies of oppression is that it’s completely possible to grow up in a society ravaged by multiple forms of domination and not know that your society is ravaged by multiple forms of domination, especially when our educational system manufactures feel-good histories and progress narratives.”
Now that I’ve learned more of the real history of the United States, I can see exactly what she means. And I studied American history fifty years ago. The Holocaust was basically “The Nazis killed six million Jews.” The early labor movement was “people went on strike and eventually won better working conditions.” Even women’s suffrage was “woman protested until they won the vote.” There was no mention of the six million other people who died in the death camps—the Serbs and Poles and Rom and the disabled. The name “Haymarket” never came up. And I didn’t learn the true depth of the suffrage struggle until quite recently.
As for any discussion of Jim Crow and lynching and all the other horrors visited on African Americans, not just in the South but everywhere, it was a subject never deemed appropriate for the tender young minds of high school students when I walked among them. From what I’ve heard while observing the ongoing effort to privatize education, and the watering down of subject matter that goes with it, that’s likely gotten worse rather than better. This book is valuable, along with a number of others written in the last decade or so, in filling in the huge gaps.
But Dr. Fleming’s power-packed little book isn’t just an analysis of rampant racism. It also calls upon every one of us to look deep into our soul and locate the racism many of us have absorbed all unconsciously. Then, she says, have the courage to confront it wherever it appears, whenever it appears. It will not be easy. To assist, her final chapter outlines ten steps we can all take to begin breaking through the wall of denial that racism and its colluding systems of domination aren’t going away until we kill them. And that’s going to happen one person at a time.
Read this book. Even if you’re positive you haven’t a microgram of racism in your entire body, read this book. Then brace yourself to have the courage to address the problem when it arises, whether it be blatant or subtle.