Dr. Crystal Fleming is an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at SUNY Stony Brook. She is the author of Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France and How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy and the Racial Divide. While receiving her PhD in sociology from Harvard University, Dr. Fleming was a Mellon Mays Graduate Fellow as well as a 2007 SSRC Dissertation Proposal Development Fellow in the field Rethinking Europe.
Can you briefly discuss your sociological interests?
Some of the basic interests I had when I began to study sociology as an undergraduate are still at the core of all that I do. I was interested in questions of domination, power, and forms of resistance. I went to college with the intention of being a biology major and happened to take a sociology course as a requirement. It was the first time that I studied systemic racism. That catalyzed a series of empirical investigations, thanks to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. I began to critically explore issues of power and race that are the nexus of my interests: How do people who are racialized minorities understand themselves in relation to history and society?
After writing Resurrecting Slavery, an academic book on collective memory in France, how did you come to write How to Be Less Stupid About Race?
It was surprising that I ended up wanting to do something like How to Be Less Stupid About Race. However, there were a number of factors that made it inevitable. Critical race theory (CRT) was not a core component of my education. That changed after teaching at Stony Brook University. Charles Mills, a CRT philosopher, delivered a lecture that was revelatory for me in terms of understanding the insights of CRT around knowledge production and structural racism. I began to enact the aspect of CRT that’s about politics and activism.
I became passionate about writing for the public. Initially, that took the form of a blog about my scholarship, personal matters, and politics. Later, I began to write on Twitter. Through these experimental modes of writing for the public, I learned how to write for a wider audience. That’s one of the weaknesses of academia. Academics are not generally trained to write accessibly. The lack of accessibility of our knowledge production is a problem that I became passionate about challenging while I was a junior scholar.
How were you able to do public scholarship as a junior scholar?
The role of excellent mentoring showed me that there’s always been a model of public scholarship. One of my intellectual influencers is W. E. B. Du Bois. One of the things that is powerful about Du Bois’s oeuvre is that he was able to write in different modes: scholarly, personal, fiction, nonfiction, poetry. So, some of my present-day mentors, as well as my intellectual heroes, are folks who challenge the norm of what academics can do.
How was writing How to Be Less Stupid About Race different than your academic writing?
I used to say, “I took a long time to write my first book Resurrecting Slavery.” With How to Be Less Stupid About Race I was able to write the manuscript quickly. But the truth is, it took me years to write that book as well. A lot of the thinking I did in order to get the clarity to write the book began in 2012, and I sat down to write in 2016. It also felt risky in a way that my first book didn’t. My first book was a requirement for tenure, whereas writing a book for the public felt like I was challenging a norm.
Why did you choose to include personal anecdotes?
The book is about how being in a racist society socializes all of us to absorb idiotic ideas about race. It was natural for me to talk about myself in relation to those dynamics. In what ways do we belong to dominant and non-dominant groups? Do these relations of power shape our knowledge production? It is important for the reader to have a writer who’s not just pointing at society’s problems. I wanted to model some of the reflexive considerations that are needed by everyone in society. If we’re going to challenge systemic racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, class oppression, homophobia, and transphobia we need to reflect on our socialization and consider why it is that we have problematic views, and then understand what we can do about it.
How has DPDF’s focus on interdisciplinarity influenced your academic path?
DPDF’s role in supporting interdisciplinarity has been a lifesaver because I was not satisfied with my disciplinary education. I needed to go beyond sociology. But what sometimes is lacking is an opportunity, especially for young scholars, to learn what incorporating interdisciplinary perspectives looks like. With DPDF, students from different disciplines were able to meet and discuss our proposals. For example, it was helpful for me to see the kinds of questions a geographer or a historian asks and to learn from an interdisciplinary community that works with different types of literatures and methodologies. Even now, I’m very intellectually curious and turn to a variety of fields as I explore my scholarly interests. Currently, I’m coediting an interdisciplinary volume on mindfulness and minority communities with two psychologists
You were a Mellon Mays Graduate Fellow. What advice do you have for PhD students from underrepresented groups?
Know that your presence, knowledge and scholarship are all very much needed. It’s important to understand that issues of social justice, power, and domination are active within academia. There are all kinds of ways that those of us who are first-generation academics, racial minorities, women, queer, from a working-class background, or disabled have to beat odds to successfully obtain a PhD and work within the academy. It’s important for scholars to be honest with students about the challenges and help them strategize about how they’re going to respond. Odds can be overcome, but it requires a great deal of support.
How do you think that social media has influenced what it means to be a scholar in the twenty-first century?
I think social media has an important relationship to the work of scholars from underrepresented backgrounds, because it is a space where academics from underrepresented communities can find support and challenge some of the orthodoxy in our fields. In sociology every year, a list is circulated of the top sociologists on Twitter. And every year, black women are considerably overrepresented in the top 10. I think that reflects that those of us from non-dominant backgrounds tend to want to move beyond academia in our impact because we understand and experience the intersections of oppression. But social media is not without its risks—our minority status and visibility can also render us uniquely vulnerable to political attacks. Here, too, mentorship and professional support are of the utmost importance. I’ve learned a lot about being intentional with social media from Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.