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Racial Ignorance touches All, auther says

On February 26, 2019

By Tiffeny Gripper and Crystal Green / VN STAFF WRITERS

Racial ignorance abounds and we’re all impacted by it, according to a New York scholar and author who spoke Feb. 18 at Detroit Mercy.

“Living in a racist society means we are all exposed to racial ignorance,” said Fleming, associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at SUNY-Stony Brook. “And one of the greatest sources of racial ignorance is keeping the knowledge of people of color out of our educational curriculum and spaces of power.”

Fleming discussed her book “How to Be Less Stupid About Race” as part of Detroit Mercy’s Black History Month celebration.

The book breaks downs misconceptions of race through her own experiences and an analysis of systemic racism in the United States.

Fleming spoke about how she sectioned her book into two parts.

Part one offers that living in a racist society exposes us all to racial ignorance.

This includes all races; no one is exempt, Fleming said.

But the experiences with racism that people of color have had in their lives means that the level of racial ignorance differs across the board from white people, she said.

She spotlighted several examples of racial ignorance in the news cycle, including the blackface controversies involving Gucci and the Virginia governor.

Fleming said that as a country we’ve made it through a lot.

“We (in the U.S.) are 400 years past the arrival of enslaved Africans in Jamestown, 154 years after the abolishment of slavery and about 55 years after African Americans received civil rights,” she said.

Yet, so much still needs to be done, she added.

This raises a question, she said: “How in 2019 do we still live in a society where the color of your skin dictates the opportunities you’re given?”

Fleming’s answer is quite simple: Most people have no idea of the definition of race and racism.

She said that the racist system of oppression in America is the system of white supremacy – a system that says whites are more valuable than blacks. 

White supremacy, as Fleming defined it, is “the social, political and economic dominance of people that are called white.”  

Fleming pointed out that you can go through all of your formal education – college, medical school or law school – and never be required to study race and racism. 

You can become a politician, attorney, doctor or professional and know nothing about race or racism, she said.

Since many are unaware of what these words mean, it is difficult as a society to fight against a system you don’t understand yourself, she said.

Fleming hit the audience with all this knowledge in just the first 20 minutes.

Once she laid down what is essentially her thesis, she took the time to break down the historical aspect of fighting against racism. 

Fleming analyzed a few of Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches that aren’t as well known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

She quoted him as saying, “It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

The second part of Fleming’s book addresses fallacies surrounding race.

She explored three distinct fallacies: prejudice, KKK and political.

The prejudice fallacy is the idea that racism is just how people feel, she said. Prejudice plus power equals racism, according to Fleming.

The second fallacy is that racism is just the KKK. In actuality, racism goes hand in hand with white supremacy, she said.

Fleming presented a graph on her PowerPoint showing the generational wealth gap between the races to illustrate the power that “white” people have and how this power allows the idea of white supremacy to be pushed.

The third fallacy is political, she said – the belief that only one side is racist.

Fleming again quoted MLK.

“We must face the fact that we have been betrayed by both the Democratic and Republican parties,” King said.

Fleming also argued that no matter who you are, your own life experiences are not enough to teach you what you need to know.

Fleming projected an image of Kanye West in a MAGA hat to support her argument. 

The audience laughed. 

West, a well known hip hop artist, went on TMZ and said that slavery was a choice.

Fleming made the point that even people of color are not exempt from being racially ignorant. 

Fleming admitted to having been racially ignorant herself at one point in time.

Her family never discussed race or racism. 

Although she was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, her mother never shared her experiences of desegregation and racism with Fleming while growing up. 

Fleming actually learned about racism from her sociology professor, Ira Silva, while trying to fulfill a requirement for her biochemistry major. 

Fleming felt she had a privileged upbringing, and that she did not understand when she was experiencing racism because she did not have a lens to understand it. 

Painting herself and Kanye West as two of a kind, she said, “We can be in bubbles, in a deeply unequal society, and the few of us that make it mask the many who don’t.” 

The bubble she referred to is the bubble of denial about our history.  

Fleming listed ways to fight racism.

She offered a four-step action plan:

  • Remedy your own racial ignorance.
  • Organize for collective action.
  • Document and condemn racist harm.
  • Embrace the discomfort of disrupting racism.

As Fleming was ending, she mentioned that this should be a fight everyone is interested in because if you’ve ever felt like an outsider, you understand what it’s like to be marginalized.

“Nobody was born woke,” said Fleming. “Even your learning has to be ongoing because race is so complicated.”

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