“I don’t just want that people to realize that white people are complicit in white supremacy – I want you to question what whiteness means. I want you to learn about the history of whiteness.”
Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming is Associate Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies and Associate Faculty in the Department of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. She is an author, cultural critic and educator committed to empowering people with the conceptual tools needed to understand, confront and challenge white supremacy and intersectional oppression.
Dr. Fleming has conducted research on racism and anti-racism in multiple national contexts and collaborated on empirical projects in the United States, France, Brazil and Israel. She holds a Ph.D. and a masters degree in Sociology from Harvard University and graduated with honors in Sociology and French from Wellesley College. Her scholarship appears in journals such as The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity,Ethnic and Racial Studies, Poetics, Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race and Mindfulness.
Her new book, How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy and the Racial Divide, combines memoir, critical race theory, social commentary and satire to debunk common misconceptions about racism. The book was published by Beacon Press in September 2018 and is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Indiebound and wherever books are sold.
Her first book Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France (Temple University Press, 2017) uses critical race theory to significantly advance scholarship on racism in France and Europe. Building on her award-winning dissertation, the book marshals ethnographic data, archival research and in-depth interviews with French activists and descendants of slaves to examine how commemorations of enslavement and abolition both challenge and reproduce the racial order.
A public intellectual known for her frank talk and insouciant humor, Dr. Fleming has been featured in a range of media, including Newsweek, ESPN/The Undefeated, The Boston Globe, ABC, PBS and C-SPAN’s Washington Journal and Book TV among others.
Her provocative writing and speaking engage a broad range of scholarly and personal topics, from racism and white supremacy to politics, spirituality, feminism, (bi)sexuality and philosophy. Her essays and op-eds can be found in popular venues like Vox, The Root, Everyday Feminism, Black Agenda Report, Black Perspectives and Huffington Post. Her commentary on racism and politics is frequently cited in outlets such as The Nation, Hip Hop Wired, The New Republic, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Blavity, USA Today, BET and Buzzfeed. She is represented by by Outspoken Agency for keynote requests and by literary agent Michael Bourret.
Dr. Fleming is a powerful speaker and workshop facilitator as well as a bold and influential voice on Twitter with over 40,000 followers and millions of readers.
Kim Crayton: Hello everyone, and welcome to today’s episode of the #CauseAScene Podcast. I’m so excited! You guys don’t know how freaking excited I am. I reached out to this—I had to go back to my [Twitter] DMs—because I reached out to this individual March 14th, 2019, and she’s been so freakin’ busy [both laugh] that I’m just getting this. And I thought maybe I was gonna have to reschedule because my Internet went out at the house, but it came on an hour before. That was divine intervention. I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Crystal Fleming. Dr. Fleming, could you please introduce yourself to the audience?
Dr. Crystal Fleming: Sure. So, I’m Crystal. I am a professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Stony Brook University, and I’m also a writer, social and cultural critic, and I’m an antiracist, and I’ve been writing about and doing research on antiracism for, gosh, at least 15 years now. My work has dealt with racism in multiple countries. So, my first book was about racism and the legacies of slavery in France. My second book, it’s about racial stupidity in the United States. And I’d say the common thread through many of my projects has to do with examining white supremacy, and as I said, sort of especially from a global perspective which I think is often lacking.
Kim: Thank you! [laughs]
Dr. Fleming: Yeah, so that’s who I am, that’s what I do.
Kim: Alright, so I always start this with two questions and you know listeners, I am so jived right now, ’cause I got a Black woman to talk about being antiracist with y’all white asses so we ’bout to get into this. So I always start with two questions: why is it important to cause a scene? And how are you causing a scene?
Dr. Fleming: Why is it important to cause a scene? Well, especially when it has to do with systemic racism and white supremacy, if we don’t find ways to stand up and disrupt that system, then it will continue to persist unchallenged, so it is extremely important to cause a scene in terms of challenging, dismantling—I often talk about wig snatching white supremacy in my work—but also, you know, addressing not just in the abstract, but, like in specific social situations and specific institutions in which we work or move about in our lives to disrupt and cause a scene for the cause of justice. I think if that hadn’t been done by many people throughout history then I would still be chattel. Quite literally. So there’s that.
Kim: Yes! I talk about that all the time. I was like, people, like, go back, go back to what? [laughs]
Dr. Fleming: Right. Right.
Kim: What? The good ol’ days when you’ve wanted me to be a slave? I don’t think so. [Laughs]
Dr. Fleming: Yeah, I mean, there’s so much to say about the racism and sexism of nostalgia of that sort: the good old days when we were chattel and didn’t have the right to vote, you know, weren’t counted as actual humans, so…
How do I cause a scene? [Laughs] I think that has shifted over time, and it’s organic, it kinda depends on what I’m doin’ and where I’m doin’ it. But I’d say in my academic life, in my academic world, I suppose I cause a scene by writing and saying things that are considered controversial by, I’d say, you know… [sighs] I don’t know how to… seen as controversial by people who don’t take racism seriously, I think.
I quite literally go to different academic events and conferences, and I will talk about the racism and other forms of oppression that I have experienced that might be happening in the space where I am speaking. I call people out, I call myself out. Of course, it’s always easier to call out other people than yourself, but in my work, I try to reflect on my own ongoing learning. And yeah, I mean, I think sometimes over the last few years, I’ve caused a scene on social media. [Laughs] So, the different things I’ve written—on Twitter in particular—that cause controversy—sometimes intended, sometimes not intended—sometimes it’s not clear to me what’s going to be provocative ahead of time, you know; I can’t predict how people going to react, but…
Yeah, I think I cause a scene through my writing, my research, and my speaking, and also my pedagogy; all of this for me has to do with teaching in different ways, whether I’m teaching in the classroom or I’m teaching my colleagues, [laughs] or I’m teaching ordinary people, right? Just how to understand what systemic racism and white supremacy are and to begin to think concretely about what we can do to challenge them.
Kim: OK, so I am smilin’ on the inside because I’ve been… I’m new to this. I can just be honest with you. I love—and I starred in your book, and you’re like, “And although this may be surprising, I had no fuckin’ idea when I was in the United States that it was racist, sexist, classist society until I was a full grown adult.”
I am from Atlanta, Georgia—and I also lived in Chicago, which is also very racist—and it wasn’t until I started studying this that I’m like, “Oh, my god. I’ve been gaslit my whole damn life. [laughs] What the hell is this?”
Dr. Fleming: Mhm.
Kim: Because you know something’s wrong, but you can’t—no one’s talkin’ about it; as you said—no one’s talkin’ about it. Everybody’s like, “You can do it.” My mom had me in so many white spaces growin’ up. I was “the only” all the time. Knew I felt that they didn’t want me there. But no one would overtly say, “We don’t want you here.” So they do these other little things that have me questioning who I was.
And just—how you just open—I love that you open with the quote and just the introduction: “It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that white people in America believe that they have little to learn.” People, that was Martin Luther King Jr. While y’all always want to quote, “Oh, we want to talk about ‘I Have a Dream.’ We want to just keep him in 1963. We don’t wanna talk about the fact when he really realized that white liberals and white progressives were the biggest challenge to any movement forward, we don’t wanna talk about that.” And so I just—and also I’m an educator—and so there’s so many things that I was just readin’, like, “Yes! Yes!” about your background.
I was a special needs—I was in high school, Title I school—special needs teacher. And everybody was just like, “Oh, pity my students.” But the gifted students, everybody… I was like looking at these dumb—I was like, “Y’all cannot think yourselves out of a box. Do you really think this is…” I would tell, “This is a artificial environment. They’ve taught you how to pass tests. That’s all you know how to do.” I remember when the valedictorian—she was one of my sweetheart—she got valedictorian. Everybody was going around, “Oh, congratulations!” I whispered in her ear, I’m like, “This is great, but you realize you’re at the top of the bottom, right? You’ve never competed with the world.”
Dr. Fleming: Mmm, mmm.
Kim: [Laughs] Because that was my role in that space. And I didn’t realize that it was this stuff because I didn’t have a name to it.
Dr. Fleming: Right. Right.
Kim: And now that I have a name to it, and I’m getting paid to go into spaces, and as I—again as you say—when I do a talk, my third slide is usually a content warning: I’ve been brought here to make white people uncomfortable, and I’m very good at my job. [Both laugh]
And I didn’t—I got to the antiracist thing kind of backwards because I’ve been in tech. When I transitioned out of education, I moved into tech and was like, “Somethin’s not right here.” People are talking about inclusion and diversity, and I’m coming from a business strategist place.
Dr. Fleming: Right.
Kim: And I’m like, “Y’all talk… summin ain’t right here. We ain’t havin’ the conversations we need to have because you think inclusion and diversity is about quotas and about people. It is about the fact that all of our—all systems, all these algorithms, everything is rooted in white supremacy. And if we can’t have that conversation, we’re never going to do any better. And we’re gonna continue to globally harm customers and clients. That is no longer acceptable.”
Dr. Fleming: Right.
Kim: And so I… that’s why—I know my audience can tell I’m excited—this is why I’m so excited, ’cause I’m like I’m talking—so I’ve talked to a lot of people, but you’re, the fact that you’re a Black woman, the fact that you’re an educator, the fact that you’re talkin’ about antiracism, there’s so many intersections here. I’m just like, “Ooooh.” [Dr. Fleming laughs] So I’m gonna let you talk because you actually didn’t say the complete title of your book. And I want people to know exactly what this book is.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah, so the book is “How to be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide.” It came out last year in hardback, the paperback just came out a couple months ago.
Kim: Yeah, so tell us how you came up with this title, ’cause I just loved it.
Dr. Fleming: I mean, to be honest, it was pretty organic. So, I came up with the idea for the book in the aftermath of the 2016 election, the presidential election. And I mean, and it’s… here’s the thing—and politics occupy a pretty big part of the book—so there’s a chapter on racial stupidity in the Obama era and some of my own political changes that happened during his presidency. And then, of course, there’s a chapter on Trump and how did we get here as a country.
And part of what I argue is that we have been here. [Kim claps] We have been in the belly of white supremacy from the start. Not that Trump is a normal president in the way that many people think about that, but in terms of his embrace of white supremacy, that has been the norm. It’s just taken different shapes in different eras.
And even Obama, I argue—and this is where, again, I cause the scene—because even Obama, in his own way, embraced certain aspects of white supremacy. And I think we have to be honest about not only Barack Obama, but how Black people and people of color can also become complicit with these systems that systematically destroy us.
Kim: I constantly talk about we all were raised and taught in the same systems. So people of color, Black people, we all have some level of internalized white supremacy and anti-Blackness that we need to—when you’re talkin’ about doing this self-examination, that’s the work that we have to do.
Dr. Fleming: Absolutely.
Kim: That’s the work we have to do. We see it in our community with colorism. We see when we’re talking about poor people. We see it when we see a gang, boys walkin’ down the street with their pants down. We see it when we adultify our Black girls. We do it ourselves. And there’s the caveat: we do it ourselves because the system is designed for us to use that as a distraction, so we don’t deal with the other stuff.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah, that’s internalized opression. Absolutely. So I was already, during Obama’s two terms, I was… I guess I was—a lot of things happened, right? We had Black Lives Matter. We had Ferguson. We had more attention in the public sphere to issues of race than maybe in a generation. And all of that kind of compounded by social media, the incessant videos of Black people being harassed—harassed to murdered…
Kim: Yes, exactly.
Dr. Fleming: …the whole range. And because I was so deeply involved in social media, especially Twitter, I was being exposed to just so much ignorance, so much racial an racist ignorance. And it was overwhelming.
So in the aftermath of the election, I knew I wanted to write some kind of book that would kind of be a primer to issues of racism, but that also would be written not in a way that would placate the readers—especially I did not want to placate white readers. I wanted to keep it real, and so for me, even though I have come to realize that “stupidity” for some people is a triggering word. There’s some people who feel that the word “stupidity” is ableist, for example. And it’s one of things I try to do in my book and my talks when I use the term “racial stupidity” is to be very clear about how I’m using that word. And of course, nevertheless, there’s some people who still would disagree with how I’m using it.
But I’m using it not to suggest that there are certain people who are exempt from these forces, or there just some people who are racially stupid and others who are not; no, I’m talking about the ways in which social forces, and the things that we’re exposed to in our socialization, our education and miseducation, our social interactions, and just the broad system of white supremacy, how it programs us—and especially white people—but it programs all of us exposed to it to really misunderstand the world in which we live and to distort it in ways that reinforce the racial status quo, that reinforce white power.
And you mentioned Martin Luther King earlier—I definitely mention him in my book in the beginning—but there’s another quote where he also addressed racial stupidity, and in fact, I just wanna—as an aside—point out that critiques of white racial stupidity have a very long history in the Black intellectual and political tradition. So, Martin Luther King Jr., one of the things he said was, “That there’s nothing in the world more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
- E. B. Du Bois, in his work, also was very critical of racial stupidity. He—I think anyone who is a racialized minority in this country, who becomes politically conscious, you can’t help but see the ways in which white people in particular, go about in our society proclaiming themselves to be authorities on knowledge. Authorities in politics. Moral authorities. And yet they are proclaiming that authority while engaging in some of the most ignorant and stupid forms of behavior. And it’s not because they don’t have the capacity to do better, it’s because of how power corrupts. It’s because of how people decide that they don’t want to know the truth. They want power. They want power and dominance. And so if they need to, come up with an ideology that is incoherent and doesn’t really make sense as long as it gets the job done and protects white supremacy, that’s OK.
Kim: And this is where I see… I tell… people… [laughs] people try to challenge me on this. I’m happy. I am so happy that this president is president. I’m just gonna let y’all know. Because I couldn’t have this platform if he were not there. It took that reality show to become president for white people to say, “Oh, shit. This is… What? What’s happenin’ here?”
We’ve been sayin’ it. We’ve been sayin’ it, but our lived experiences were never enough. We have to provide proof, you know, “What do you mean by that?” We gotta come with documents and stuff.
Dr. Fleming: Mhm.
Kim: But I mean, just for them to see it themselves. So there’s some things that I say that are very controversial, particularly—and I say them because I am in the tech space with a whole bunch of privileged white dudes who only are there because they had a friend, they had a family member, they got access to capital, they barely have college degrees, but they think they know how the world functions.
So I say some very… have to—again, you should understand this—because as a educator, I’m damn good at classroom management. That is, if you cannot manage your classroom—not going to use the word “control”—if you cannot manage your classroom. Nothing gets done. ‘Cause what happens is that one student is gonna test you to see where the line is, and if you don’t draw that line, not only will they push it even further the next time, but the people who need to be safe no longer feel safe because this fool is actin’ crazy.
Dr. Fleming: Right.
Kim: So this is where I draw some lines—and you may disagree, not agree with me—this works for me in this particularly privileged ass space: Silicon Valley folx and all these people. So I say, based on what I know, all white—because I give them a definition—racism is race prejudice plus a system of oppression. So everybody doesn’t have access to—can pull those levers. So, because it’s white supremacy, all white people are racist by design; you ain’t got no choice in it, it is how you were educated, which means you cannot be trusted by default. You have to have—for me to trust—you have to have consistent demonstrated antiracist behaviors.
Dr. Fleming: Mmm.
Kim: And even in that I know because you are racist by design, you will fuck up. [Dr. Fleming laughs]
So I have to still… and so this is what I need them to understand, even with your friends, even with your Black—’cause they’ll say, “Well, I’m married to a Black…” but that does not exempt all the years that you’ve been indoctrinated in this mess. What I’ve learned personally is in this space, the people who are the staunchest supporters of my work have done something to harm a Black or brown person in their lives before they get it to realize they’re complicit. And that is a problem that I have to be harmed for you to understand that you’re a problem.
Dr. Fleming: Hmm.
Kim: So I draw that line hard in the sand and I’m…
Dr. Fleming: And how do these audiences react? Do they get it?
Kim: Yeah, so there’s a spectrum. So in the #CauseAScene community—I again take that as a classroom, so on Twitter, that’s the classroom—so this is how—and I have a strategy. One of my rules is “intention without strategy is chaos.”
If people go in this stuff and just be engagin’ wit everybody, you’re gonna get burnt out, you’re gonna have your feelings hurt. I ain’t got time for all that. So some if I’m doing somethin’, if someone engages with me, first I go look at their profile.
Dr. Fleming: Profile.
Kim: Are they anti-Semitic? Are they Nazis? Are they all that stuff?
Dr. Fleming: [Laughs] Yeah. Then yeah, if they’re a Nazi, then it doesn’t matter.
Dr. Fleming: [Laughs] Yeah. Then yeah, if they’re a Nazi, then it doesn’t matter.
Kim: You’re not wastin’ my time. OK, that’s not even a part of my strategy. So you can have your argument over there. I’m gonna block you. And then then I need to see OK, are they even in tech? Or if you’re not in tech, why am I even having a conversation?
Dr. Fleming: Right.
Kim: Because this is not I’m trying to change how tech functions. So then what I look at, and then I’ll say—and they get so mad—because then I’ll see, OK, so they’re in tech and the people who are following me, they need to see this over and over again because they have short memories. They need to see this happening over and over again. So what I’ll do is comment retweet. They’ll say something. I comment retweet, and I’ll put something up there. My audience, my community knows. And there again, the spectrum. When I do that, it’s time for you to engage. This is your work to do.
So now you need to respond to this person and they’re gonna keep respondin’ to me. But I’m not going to respond to them because it’s not about you. I can’t scale talkin’ to you. I have the scale talkin’ to the people. So what I do is continue to comment retweet, and at some point—I tell people this all the time—given enough pressure and enough time something racist will come out.
Dr. Fleming: [Laughs] Yup.
Kim: Either I get the angry Black woman trope.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah.
Kim: I get the, I’m being…
Dr. Fleming: It’s all very predictable.
Kim: Yes, exactly! And I can usually tell between how they first engage, how long it’s gonna take. And what that does is, so I have the people who know, who get it, who get it, who like, “Kim, I cannot continue to harm people. I’m doing the work.” Then you have people who are just new to this because they all of a sudden, in 2016, you’re like, “There’s racism? What? I didn’t…” Yup. So they’re taking a little longer, and what they need to see is this whole thing.
Dr. Fleming: Right.
Kim: So what a recent engagement was, I was doin’ it, and this guy literally said—’cause I was so… I do another podcast, I started this on Sunday. So I do my regular podcast on Wednesdays. I do a “How to be Antiracist” podcast with Dr. [Ibram X.] Kendi’s book on Sunday. So it’s a book club. I read it, and I give them homework assignments. So I was announcin’ it, and this dude comes below and says, “This will never work. All we need to do is…”—basically it was a breeding program—”We need to, we’re just gonna have people to have mixed babies.”
And I said, “OK, so this dude’s answer is breeding.” Oh, he did not like this, and he just kept goin’ and goin’. And I kept comment retweeting, comment… So the people who are in the community who’ve been there awhile, they’re responding to him, ’cause they’re challenging him. They’re bringing, because they’re bringing resources that I’ve shared with them because there’re new people coming every—that’s another thing about Twitter: you don’t know who’s there. So it’s like it’s always an education. So we’re droppin’ articles. They know what their job is, so they’re doin’ that work.
So this one woman finally says, “Hey, dude, do you realize that she’s not responding to you at all? That this is for us?” And this she says, “I’m new to this community, and I disagree with how she did things until I saw this. Now I understand why she does what she does, the way she does it. And you, sir, have convinced me that this works, what she’s doing.” And I was like, “Thank you.” And I was done.
Dr. Fleming: So they did the work for you. You didn’t have to do. Yeah.
Kim: They, my, this community knows if you’re not willing to make yourself uncomfortable so I can be comfortable, I have absolutely no use for you. I could care less about my Twitter following numbers because that means absolutely nothing. ‘Cause the majority—I got over 7000—I got maybe 100 people who will engage. The rest of ’em are parasites. And I tell ’em that all the time. You’re absolutely worthless to me. You’re vampires. All you do is suck information from Black people, Black women, and you try to use it and repurpose it for yourself. Because whiteness is not original. It always steals and it never does as well as we do.
So I’m just like boom, boom, boom. So when I speak at—I just spoke at a conference—and it was a keynote, and the room was not full, and so the organizer was so upset—it was in Milwaukee. I was like, “Why are you upset? When you put my name on the thing, you should know that people have made a calculated thought, if they know anything about my work, if they’re gonna show up or not…
Dr. Fleming: Right.
Kim: …’cause they know what’s coming. And then I record everything—I usually record everything live on Twitter—so it scales that way. I could care less who’s in this room.
Dr. Fleming: Mmm.
Kim: Because I need to scale this stuff because it’s just me. And people get—you have these people lockstep—so then you have the—and I get on white women so bad; oh, I get on white women so bad, white feminism—but the ones who—I’m not even gonna say get it ’cause that’s the wrong word—the ones who have learned how to engage, they go. And one young lady’s like, “I know how to gather my white friends. I know how to gather my white people.” And that’s how we get this work done, that’s how we scale it.
So I never want them to say that they’re the experts. This is not your lived experience. Everything you’ve learned about racism, you’ve learned from a person who has a direct impact from racism. So never own this. All you’re doing, again, is stealin’ some stuff, and if you’re gonna use it to benefit us all, that’s fine.
And the reason I stay optimistic in the space that I’m in is because tech touches everything. And once tech gets this right, all other industries are gonna have to change. And tech has to get this right ’cause there’s a risk management issue. They’re causing… the economics. It’s all about economics at this point. So you gonna have to figure this out. And so, yeah, there’re people who I’ll go to—somebody’s sent me something—I go, I’m like, “Oh, they already blocked me. I don’t even who know this is.” [Laughs]
Dr. Fleming: Isn’t that somethin’ when you don’t even know who it is and they’ve done already blocked you. ‘Cause they knew who you were.
Kim: Yes, but also as an educator though, I can use that as a teachable moment. Because what happens is you’ll have someone—I’ll post something; I’m sure you have the same thing.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah.
Kim: Somebody comes in, wants to walk in with their little white self and say whatever they want to say. They get challenged, they get fragile, they get their little feelin’s hurt. And I’m like, “This ain’t about your feelin’s. If you have feelin’s issues, you’re gonna need to go talk to therapy. That ain’t about my issue.” And then the next few engagements, “Oh, you’re so mean. Why are you so hostile?” I have a shirt that says—I have #CauseAScene merchandise—one of the new shirt says, “Fuck Civility.” I’m not tryin’—I don’t care about your feelin’s. And then it’s so funny because how I end it is they have blocked me and I’ll say—and I’ll screenshot it—I’ll say, “Job well done, everybody.” [Both laugh] So it’s a teachable moment.
Dr. Fleming: Mission accomplished.
Kim: Yeah, it’s a teachable moment because it shows that, again, they throw rocks and then they hide.
Dr. Fleming: Mmm… mhm.
Kim: You know, it’s the whole stupidity thing, and it’s like, “I’m not dealing with y’all. Y’all are so ignorant. Y’all don’t even know your own history, let alone trying to understand ours.” [Laughs]
Dr. Fleming: Yeah, I mean, I recently—a little bit of a different thing, but related—I had to take a cab ride, a long cab ride, and the driver turned—you know, first he’s this white man in his sixties or somethin’—and he starts talkin’ and he wants to know what I do, and I stay very vague, “You know, I’m a sociologist.” [Kim laughs]
Anyway, he starts talkin’ about little small talk, and he seems very pleasant. And we have different things in common, we like the same parts of New York City and the same kinds of food. And then the conversation turns to politics, and it turns out that he is—he’s not just a Trump supporter—he’s a hard core evangelical. And I’m like, “How can a Christian support Donald Trump? There’s nothing Christian about him.” And he takes offense. He’s like, “No, no, he’s… what do you mean?” And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” [Both laugh] And he’s like, “Well, Israel. It’s his stance on Israel.” And I was like, “That’s it? That’s all?”
Kim: But, that has nothing to do with… it’s like, “What?!” [Both laugh]
Dr. Fleming: I said, “What’s that got to do with bein’…” Anyway, so these are his politics, anti-immigrant, the whole nine yards, right? And I just started chattin’ with him and I tell him, I’m like, “You know what? I’m opposed to everything you’ve described. I’m very against Donald Trump. But I’ma be honest with you, you rewind 20 years, even 15 years, I held beliefs that were more conservative than the ones that I have now.”
Dr. Fleming: I said, “I had to learn a lot about our country’s history of immigration before I began to question it.” And I just started droppin’ different facts with him. I’m like, “Do you know what happened in 1790?” And he’s like, “What do you mean?” I was like, “Well, 1790, we’re just about 16, 14 years or so from the founding of the country, from the War of Independence. And it’s still a new country, lots of undocumented people, lots of… Big problem: what are we gonna do with these undocumented people not paying taxes?” And I said, “Do you know what our country’s leadership decided to do in 1790 to deal with these undocumented people?” And he doesn’t know. And I said, “Well, they decided to give them a pathway to citizenship. There’s just one catch. They had to be white. And they couldn’t even just be white people. They had to be white men. This is the naturalization law of 1790, explicitly white supremacist.”
He doesn’t know anything about it. This dude, 20 minutes earlier, had told me that his girlfriend is Chinese American. I think he was happy to tell me he’s in this interracial relationship. And I said, “OK. You’re dating a Chinese woman. Do you know what happened in 1882?” [Kim laughs] “No, no. What happened in 1882?” “Well 1882, that’s the Chinese Exclusion Act. It’s the only immigration law we’ve ever had that explicitly named a racial group that was no longer allowed to come to the country.” I said, “That persisted for decades. It wasn’t just a one off thing.”
And so I just go through and I’m pointin’ out to him and I’m like, “Let’s talk about the Native Americans.” And he’s like, “Oh yeah, that was wrong. That was genocide.” I said, “Yeah, it was genocide. It still is.”
Dr. Fleming: “And these borders you’re tryin’ to protect? The entire state of Texas was Mexico.” [Kim laughs] And we started to—and he I can’t say that he had some major transformation, but by the end of it, he was thanking me—and he said, “I have to study our history.” I said, “Yes.” I said, “We all do.” But he was able to acknowledge that.
To go back to what you were bringin’ up before, how you frame white supremacy and racism and whether you tell people that all whites are racist or whether you tell them that they’re all complicit in it, or some combination of the two. I think what’s most important is for people to have an understanding of racism that’s systemic and that’s grounded in an analysis of power. And for me—and listen, I totally respect that different people have different styles of a similar message, and different people need to hear different things.
Dr. Fleming: I find it more useful in my work for people themselves to recognize, “Oh wait, shit. I’m racist.” Or, “Oh, of course.” I’m gonna teach you that according to systemic—the meaning of systemic racism—only white people can occupy that position. Now, for the white person receiving that, I want them to be able to narrate themselves in that relationship and then they realize, “Oh, that means I am complicit. Oh, OK.” Because as you know, one of the main forms of racial stupidity that white people perpetuate is the notion that racism is just about your feelings or whether you’re a nice person or a bad person…
Kim: Mhm. [Laughs]
Dr. Fleming: …or whether you’re prejudiced. And racism is not prejudice. It’s related, but it’s not that; it’s a system of power that was by design set up to favor people defined as white. And there’s so much wrapped up in it. I mean, you have to teach people to even understand that race is not essentially real…
Dr. Fleming: …that it was an idea that was constructed at a specific point in history, that that’s related to capitalism…
Dr. Fleming: …that that’s related to colonialism, so that—I don’t just want people to realize, “Oh,” that white people are complicit in white supremacy—I want you to question what whiteness means. I want you to learn about the history of whiteness.
Kim: And that’s when… the reason I also deliberately—because white folx don’t like to be grouped. [Laughs]
Dr. Fleming: Exactly. They just want to be an individual.
Kim: Yeah, but we’re always grouped together. No one asks me what kind of Black I am, right?
Dr. Fleming: Exactly.
Kim: And so I have gotten to, what I do is—because I want to erase as much of that outside conversation that they will try to throw at you—so if there’s Blackness, then there’s whiteness. And so that’s what I’m gonna talk about: I’m talkin’ about Blackness, which is a group, and whiteness, which is a group. And that’s how we’re gonna do that until we can talk about individuals as an individual. ‘Cause it gets really—and another reason I do it that way—and I told—that’s why I like havin’ these different conversations—’cause even when we’re reading the Kendi book [“How to be an Antiracist”], there’s some things that I challenge. And I talk about why I challenge ’em.
Dr. Fleming: So I haven’t read the book, so you’ll have to tell me what you mean.
Kim: Oh, so he talks—he says that Black people can be racist. I don’t…
Dr. Fleming: Oh no, that’s not true.
Kim: Yeah, see, I don’t believe that Black people can be racist.
Dr. Fleming: No Black, but Black people can…
Kim: They can promote racist ideas.
Dr. Fleming: Exactly, but they don’t have the…
Kim: The power.
Dr. Fleming: …institutional power. They don’t have the power to institutionalize their bias.
Kim: Yes, exactly.
Dr. Fleming: So that’s kind of surprising, because I really liked the book “Stamped from the Beginning.”
Kim: Yes, yes. And so, I was I was strugglin’ with that—’cause I let my community know I was strugglin’ with that—and it took me to reading chapter three to say, “OK, this is why I have the challenge with this,” because we can be… we can hate white people, we can do whatever, but we do not have the power to do anything about that in a systematic level.
Dr. Fleming: I did not know—I mean, I told you haven’t read the book—I did not know he really out there sayin’ that Black people can be racist. That is so violent.
Kim: It’s a sentence.
Dr. Fleming: No, but that sentence has so much violence against it because—I mean, so much violence in it—because that is literally what white supremacists and ordinary white racists say.
Dr. Fleming: They will use their fucked up idea of what racism means, which is not correct, to say that antiracists are actually racist.
Kim: So it’s a reverse racism.
Dr. Fleming: Exactly, to say, “Oh, that’s reverse racism.” And that is so dangerous, that’s the kind of logic that leads to things like the FBI using the term “Black identity extremist” while not actually taking white supremacy seriously. So maybe I’d have to read the book to have a better understanding of what he means by that.
Kim: And so that’s why I like having—I forgot where I was going with this—but that’s why I like having these conversations, because one of the reasons I have this strong, this stance, is because my audience is face-to-face white people when I come into… when I’m workin’ as a business consultant or whatever. I need to, again as a teacher, to draw a strong line, because if I don’t, they will challenge me, and I can never get anything done. That’s one.
And another thing is, I recognize—tell me how you do this—because I recognize that I am educating the oppressor while I’m also being oppressed and I have to actually process my trauma after—while workin’ with them. So that’s another reason I draw very clear lines, and so for me, and this is why I don’t—and I tell people this all the time—this is why I don’t, my clients are not people of color, particularly Black people. Because I can’t, I don’t have the bandwidth to process my oppression, process their oppression, and get anything done. I just can’t do it.
So I leave that to some other folx. So I’m just gonna deal with—because I can separate myself from whiteness. [Laughs] I can just go in like, boom, boom, boom. “This is what you’re doin’ wrong. This is why it’s wrong. And this is what we need to do.” I can separate that, and I can go home and go to sleep. [Laughs] If I’m dealin’ with the trauma of other Black people all day, I cannot—I’ve tried it—it is just too much for me. This is why I can no longer look at videos. I do not watch movies like “Boyz n the Hood.” Anything that could be looked like real, I cannot do it. If I’m watchin’ something, it’s an escapism because this work is it. These strategies help me to be able to sustain this work and not pop white folx in the face every time I see ’em.
Dr. Fleming: I hear you.
Kim: So how do you—because this is… I mean, I can… it’s my work because I stumbled into it. You chose to do this. [Laughs]
Dr. Fleming: I did, I did.
Kim: And you’ve been doin’ it for 15 years! [Laughs]
Dr. Fleming: I did choose to do it. Sometimes I wonder about that choice, but now I’m deep in it. So I can’t do what you described insofar as drawing those strong boundaries and separating—like I just focus on white people—because my students—I teach at a majority minority university, first of all—so our students are incredibly diverse.
And even the Black students, they’re gonna have a big range in their ethnic identities and backgrounds. And so, I really approach my writing, my work, and my pedagogy from a perspective that on the one, I blend two things that seem to be in contradiction, but for me, they—well, maybe they are in contradiction. [Kim laughs] But that’s kinda the thing about also being a woman. I can acknowledge paradoxes, and coexistence.
Dr. Fleming: So on the one hand, yes, I will—when I’m talking about systemic racism and power relations—we’re going to draw a boundary between the dominator group and the dominated. We’re going to be clear about who benefits from white supremacy. So there’s that boundary, or I think you could think of it as a distinction.
On the other hand—and I totally hear you about the different kinds of emotional labor and trauma that’s involved in addressing these issues with Black folx and people of color versus addressing white folx—but on the other hand, part of what I find myself doing in my work as well is—and I don’t want to sound corny—but it’s actually kind of a cornerstone of my worldview and my spirituality, because it’s much as I’m unapologetically a Black queer, bisexual woman with the politics that I have, I also am very attuned to a kind of universalism.
So by that I mean—and it is kind of living in the midst of a paradox, because I draw these identities and boundaries all the time in my work and my personal life, right? I’m very clear about that. But at the same time, if—and it’s also not just like philosophy and spirituality, it’s like also my work as a sociologist—for me, there’s something about the need to recognize that all of my identities… there’s something about who I am that supersedes all of that. If that makes sense.
Dr. Fleming: So when I interact with you, or when I’m interacting with my students, I’m gonna see the social constructions, I’m gonna see our different positionalities because of the reality of the power relations within which we live, but I’m also trying to stay alive to your beingness and my beingness beyond all this bullshit.
Kim: Mhm, mhm, yeah.
Dr. Fleming: And I’m—without pretending that in this world you can ever actually be beyond it, if you if you follow me, ’cause I’m not saying like some kumbaya, we all bleed red. I’m not saying that, but I’m saying that for me to do this work in a way that doesn’t leave me overly depleted—although I’m often depleted—taking intentional breaks from this topic is part of how I address my health—mental, physical, spiritual, health. But I do feel like I can’t live within those boundaries all the time. Do you know what I mean? I just can’t. I can’t interact with white people as though they are really white. Because I know you rewind the clock 100 years, yo ass wasn’t even white.
Kim: Exactly. Exactly.
Dr. Fleming: Your ass—like literally you were not. I mean, now you might have been considered white when it came to citizenship.
Dr. Fleming: But there were other ways in which your whiteness was being questioned. Because it was in a period of time when it was being actively constructed.
Kim: The definition of what was white changed.
Dr. Fleming: It was more fluid at that time. So I really have a problem with so-called white antiracists who want to cleave to their whiteness as though it’s really real. Yes, it’s politically and socially real. Yes. You have been socialized as white. You’re socially recognized as white. But if you have not really—I don’t mean in a superficial way—but if on a deep level you have not gotten in touch with your humanity or your beingness beyond this bullshit idea of race and the invention of whiteness, then you are not—that’s just really sad—you are not fully living your humanity.
Kim: That’s it. That’s it. And that’s…
Dr. Fleming: But it’s so subtle because— I’m not saying what a lot of white people say which they wanna evade their social and political whiteness, right? They wanna be like, I’m not white or I’m not like them. No, you are. But that can’t be all of who you are.
Dr. Fleming: …or I’m not like them. No, you are. But that can’t be all of who you are.
Kim: Exactly! That’s not the totality of who you are.
Dr. Fleming: It should not be. [Laughs] It should not be.
Kim: Yeah, and I’m loving this conversation because I’m loving the juxtaposition because what it does help the white audience who’s listening: we are not a monolith. [Laughs]
Dr. Fleming: Right.
Kim: We do this work effectively where we are, and we do it differently. And I wrote down here, “Black women.” So although I don’t… my client or my customer or whatever are not Black people, I tell people I do not speak for Black women, but I speak on behalf of Black women. So this is another reason I’ve detached myself from all—you can’t fire me, the sponsors for my podcast are people from the community that give me $100 a month. So it is like PBS, because I don’t want a Microsoft or Amazon sayin’, “You can’t do that episode.”
Because when I speak, if there’re Black women in that audience, I have told this white audience what it was like to write a email to yo sensitive ass, and how much energy that takes, to even come up to you to say, “Hey, you screwed that up,” because now it’s about your feelin’s. And now you wanna cry. If I have not hit you, why the hell you cryin’? It is not my responsibility to have to deal with your emotions anymore. We’re no longer your mammies. Get off our teats. [Dr. Fleming laughs] So when I finish talking, I got Black women coming up, they crying and hugging…
Dr. Fleming: Yes!
Kim: …because you’re sayin’ what they can’t say.
Dr. Fleming: Black women and girls who come up to me sometimes crying, sometimes not crying, but just so enthusiastic; I think when you center yourself in your own analysis, that’s so powerful. That’s so powerful.
Kim: And that’s why I take this approach because I’m coming—I’m in a space that is tech bros to the hilt who don’t respect anybody—and if I come in showing any kind—and it’s not about me being fake, because I tell people I was like this at two years old; white supremacy just told me this wasn’t how I was supposed to be. I had to get back to this. And so I’m that person who’s like, [imitating a smack] “Cut that shit out. We ain’t doin’ that here. This is what, if you wanna be here, this is what you gonna be.”
So I was at a event this weekend, and it was a group of women of color talking, and these two white dudes were on the outside. And he said somethin’ to one of the women of color and she came over and she’s like, “Oh, they feel underrepresented.” I looked at him. I was like, “I don’t give a fuck.” [Dr. Fleming laughs] Because right there, he said… he’s like, “I’m joking.” That’s not funny. What you’ve just done was, first of all…
Dr. Fleming: It’s violent.
Kim: Exactly, you’ve interrupted, and because this woman woman of color knows that that’s usually her role, she now interjects herself and puts herself in a position to protect your whiteness. Dude, if you don’t have the balls to come over and come into this conversation, then you need to be on the outskirts because every conversation in tech is about you.
Dr. Fleming: Mmm.
Kim: So I come in the room and I turn myself up on 10. Because I recognize that I have the privilege to do that so that other Black women don’t have to do what I have to do. So that you know when we come in the room if you… like, have another conversation. Dude just walked—we havin’ a talk—he just walks up and start talkin’ to somebody else. I said, “Excuse you. Were you invited into this conversation?” Civility is optional for white people, and it’s expected behavior of people of color.
Dr. Fleming: Mhm.
Kim: And I’m not doin’ it anymore. And what I’m gon’ do is be the walkin’, talkin’ example and model for other people to say, “Well, shit, if she ain’t doing it…”
Dr. Fleming: Right.
Kim: That’s right. You ain’t gotta be as loud as me. You ain’t gotta do it like I do, but you can figure out a way to tell them, “No, I’m not takin’ this anymore.”
Dr. Fleming: Yes, and that’s where things get tricky though, right? And I imagine you do this in your—well, I don’t know that you do this in your work so much because your clients are white people—but a lot of times I’ll give talks, and you’ve seen my book, and I have to say I think for an academic, my way of writing about these issues is a little more… I’ll just say it’s unusual compared to most academics.
Kim: You’re right, this is very much a layperson book.
Dr. Fleming: Well, it’s kinda in between, right? I’m givin’ a lot of history, a lot of sociology, but there’re parts of the book that read academic, but then I also bring in my own vernacular; I will drop an F bomb.
Kim: Mhm, yes.
Dr. Fleming: I wanted to write the book I wanted to read, and I wanted to have the full range of my voices. But having said that…
Kim: But before you go on, because what it reminds me, what you just said, is that puttin’ yourself in that. Because one sentence that I’ve been wantin’ to talk about, is the one statement, you said that you recognize that you, with the path that you were on, could be the same as Kanye, Ben Carson, and Amorosa.
Dr. Fleming: [Laughs] Oh yeah. When I was younger, I was—you mentioned the gifted program—I was tracked into that in second grade, and so I was always the exceptional, and it wasn’t clear to me that we lived in a society with systemic racism, sexism, all of that.
Kim: So I brought that up, because that’s to me when I get out of this book. It’s the human—you connect the academic with, “I am a human and this is my experience.” And so it’s not abstract.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah, I tried that to bring it down to Earth. The thing that can get tricky—you work for yourself. I am a tenured academic, and so as much as I do want folx to feel—particularly Black folx and people of color—to feel empowered by what I read and what I write and speak. At the same time, I have folx who come up to me after my talks or even in my classes, and they’re like, “How can I address white supremacy on my job or in this other class I’m taking?” And it’s not so simple.
I have family who work in different fields, work in finance and other things. And there are ways of going about it, right? But it’s… I think one of the major take homes that I try to pass on in my teaching about systemic racism is that you can’t address this stuff on your own—and this goes for white folx, but it especially goes for Black folx and people of color—that if you are—and you are, whether you realize it or not—if you are dealing with different aspects of systemic racism on your job or in your community, in your neighborhood, to address it is not gonna be about what you do is an individual only. It’s gonna have to involve a strategy. It’s gonna have to involve building allies. It’s gonna have to be something beyond yourself.
Kim: A coalition, yes.
Dr. Fleming: A coalition. So a lot of the work is figuring out who’s your coalition. What are the resources that can support you and sometimes—well, very often those resources are gonna be difficult to identify. They may not even exist yet. You might have to be a part of creating the resources to address the gaps that you have experienced.
Kim: And you what you’re just communicated is exactly what #CauseAScene is about. It started because I got sick of people in tech talkin’ about inclusion, and when they screw it up, people like me get harmed. And so my friend and I, at the end of 2017, I was like, “You know what? I have nothing to lose, I just wanna be disruptive.” And we was like, “Yeah.” She’s like, “Cause a scene!” We were like, “Oh my god, #CauseAScene!” And that’s what happened.
So when I was lookin’ at goin’—these conferences—I’m like, “Y’all don’t know how to do conferences. Let me show you how to do conferences.” So I did conferences for a while. So that’s how the podcast started. Right now there’s—I’ll be launching next year—called the Alliance, because we can’t have—it’s called the Alliance Antiracist Tech Agenda—because we can’t have these conversations on Twitter. We need a place where we can have these conversations so we can coalesce.
Also, another thing that I’m launching is #CauseAScene Jobs, because people keep sendin’ me jobs, but I’m not sharin’ that. These people trust me. I don’t know anything about your organization. You’re gonna have to get a #CauseAScene organizational certification. I need to know that you’re safe place for me to send them to. And if you can’t prove that to me, they know I’m not doin’ that. And so that’s what I’m talkin’ about. I’m creating my own thing.
So another reason why my audience is white people, just honestly, because I only deal with leadership, because culture has to come from the top down. All these people pushin’ it from the bottom are stressin’ themselves out. If you’re CEO—I was watching something with, and I think it was the Eagles. Was it the Eagles? One of the football teams, they have an autism agenda they’re supporting. They’re put in a special room for autistic fans who come, and I’m just listenin’, I’m listenin’ ’cause I know it’s comin’ up sooner or later. And he, the president of this football team, has a brother who is autistic. And I was like, “That’s how that happened, in no time,” because he decided that it was close to him, the culture changed.
Dr. Fleming: Right.
Kim: It’s not about, “Oh, how we do it?” No. You make the cultural change when it’s something important to you. You talkin’ about—let’s talk about our AI. You still recruitin’ and actin’ like we’re making widgets. We’re not making widgets. You don’t give somebody a manual and they make—everybody’s widget has to be the same because it has to be a universal that goes into 1000 things. This is an information economy. You need your employees’ knowledge. If they don’t feel safe enough to tell you anything because every time they open their mouth, somebody says something smart to them, they get these little things little cuts on their heart. You know, you can’t say…
Then they gonna take they information with them, and you gain absolutely nothin’ in a information economy—in a knowledge economy—from them. You get no tacit knowledge from them and you can’t scale that. That is that is what makes you competitive. That is what helps you to differentiate in this global economy. That’s how I get ’em. I gotta get your attention, but this is why.
So I have four guiding principles. Everything I do in #CauseAScene is seen through this lens. Tech is not neutral, intention without strategy is chaos, lack of inclusion is a risk management issue, and we have to prioritize the most vulnerable. Because if you go to the people who are closest to the issue, they have the solutions.
Dr. Fleming: Have you talked to Ruha Benjamin yet? Or have you heard of her?
Kim: Ha-ha, so funny. [In a singsong voice] I’m glad you mentioned her. [In a normal voice] I just got invited to today to go to Harvard to—I’ve been tryin’ to get her on the podcast forever—but I’ll be in Harvard November 2nd.
Dr. Fleming: ‘Cause the series that they’re having…
Kim: She’s keynoting, exactly. And so I’ll be interviewing her while I’m there.
Dr. Fleming: Perfect! OK, great.
Kim: Yes, yes, yes. So exactly. I’m getting these—because this is the work that needs to be done in this space. Oh, my god. This has been amazing.
Dr. Fleming: It has been. Thank you so much for havin’ me.
Kim: Any final words you like to share?
Dr. Fleming: I mean, sure. I don’t know if your audience will agree—and I don’t think you will—but I’ll just throw it out there because I think it’s worth thinkin’ about, because you mentioned earlier that you’re pretty optimistic about tech and its ability to to deal with these issues.
Kim: Oh, not yet. They’re not there yet. [Both laugh]
Dr. Fleming: I hear you, but I have to be honest. I’m not optimistic about tech. Partly—I read Shoshana Zuboff’s book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” That’s like this 800 page book. I read it this summer, and I’m teachin’ it in one of my classes. And it’s just, the pace at which these—whether it’s algorithmic technologies but also artificial intelligence—the pace at which they are progressing… I think—was it Google just a month ago?—announced that its—what is it, quantum computing? And now it is advancing at a rate that’s exponentially beyond even Moore’s law.
Dr. Fleming: So because white supremacy, patriarchy, and all of that is so deeply embedded in every aspect of our society, including tech, and because tech is advancing at such a mind boggling rate, the technologically driven aspect of racism, white supremacy, is moving so fast we can’t even imagine some of the problems we’re going to have just a few years from now. Especially because it’s so much about the bottom line and making white billionaires richer. So I think—of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s not significant work that can’t be done. You are part of this incredibly important work we need—I mean, you talk about scale—we need you scaled at the rate of quantum computing. [Kim laughs] OK? And so it’s so urgent that people support the kind of change and transformation that you are a part of bringing about because this is not shits and giggles. This is not…
Dr. Fleming: …”Oh, we can twiddle our thumbs.” It’s gonnato take some of these companies 5 to 10 years to institute policies that we needed 40 years ago. So again, just final words in terms of the urgency. Way beyond even what you think—people listening—you think you understand? No, you don’t understand. It is so important. We need this change yesterday.
Kim: And so I don’t disagree with you at all. I totally agree with everything you say. And why I remain optimistic is because I could give a fuck about a Facebook, a Amazon or whatever. There’re thousands of smaller companies who are feelin’ it right now, and who I can touch the leadership, and they’re like, “No, I don’t want that as my legacy.”
Dr. Fleming: Yeah.
Kim: So that’s the coalition I’m building.
Dr. Fleming: Yeah, and we have to make change in the margins and in the areas where we can. We can’t necessarily change the whole goddamn thing.
Kim: Exactly. Everybody always wants to focus on the Googles. And Google and them, they are already down that road. And it’s gon’ come to them at some point, this is gonna be a risk management issue that they ain’t gonna be able to handle. [Dr. Fleming laughs] And in that time, I’m working with these groups that you know—and let’s come on, let’s keep—’cause you got people in in these companies who like, “I’m gonna fuck up your coldbase if you keep doing this.” So there’s some sabotage goin’—there’s a whole buncha stuff going on.
And so now people are starting… ’cause the reason I’m optimistic is because people told Facebook years ago that allowing—and Twitter—that all languages, all speech is not equal and you need to stop doin’ that. You’re only in a position of privilege that you think that’s possible. 10, 15 years later, they’re feeling the impact of that. Nobody wants to be the next Facebook or Twitter on this.
Dr. Fleming: Right, right.
Kim: And so that’s why… that’s the only reason I get to do this work, ’cause normally they would—like again, before Trump, nobody wanted to hear this. [Laughs]
Dr. Fleming: And now people realize there’s a problem. Yes.
Kim: Because now it’s—and I’ll end with this, ’cause people know I say this all the time—white supremacy is the parasite that’s now eatin’ on its host.
Dr. Fleming: Oh yes. That’s a good place to end because it’s very, very true. Kim, thank you much for havin’ me.
Kim: Thank you. Thank you so much. You have a wonderful day.
Dr. Crystal Fleming
Listen to more great #causeascene podcasts
Originally posted on August 19, 2018 I will begin this post as I begin each talk, with a list of my credentials because there’s always
There are many reasons that businesses succeed or fail but in an Information Age economy, one looms bright. The reason organizations like Amazon and Walmart