In 2018, Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming used historical analysis and social critique to discuss racism and white supremacy in her incisive book, How To Be Less Stupid About Race. In her newest book, Rise Up!: How to Join the Fight Against White Supremacy, Dr. Fleming takes on similar issues, but this time younger readers are given a primer on the history of white supremacy, how racism seeps into the media in often quiet and insidious ways, and how becoming better educated about race is a process of both learning and unlearning. In addition to diving into the historical atrocities waged against people of color throughout the nation’s history, Rise Up! also poses thoughtful questions to young readers, asking them to consider how their present-day realities are reflections of centuries of social inequity and how they can meaningfully join the fight against injustice.
Rise Up! comes not just after the largest protest movement in U.S. history, but also in the midst of ongoing conversations about the role of anti-racism in education. While this backlash has been presented as a debate against critical race theory—a theoretical legal framework that is actually taught in graduate and law schools, not K-12 classrooms—it actually seeks to undermine anti-racist educational approaches that would provide students with a fuller and more accurate portrait of American history and how racism continues to shape American life. Rise Up! proves to be an incredibly helpful resource for younger readers trying to understand that complicated portrait.
Prism sat down with Fleming to discuss Rise Up! and its call to action, the experience of writing for younger readers, and how the the book can help dismantle common misperceptions around anti-racist education.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tamar Sarai Davis: What initially inspired you to write Rise Up!?
Dr. Crystal Fleming: When I went on the book tour for How To Be Less Stupid About Race, I spent a lot of time going to colleges and universities [and] speaking with community organizations, and lots of parents and educators had questions [like]: “What do we share with kids or young people? What’s age appropriate? What kind of resources could you suggest for the classroom for younger people?” So that is something that was percolating for me, knowing that we have a lot of work to do obviously to help adults better understand racism and anti-racism, but adults also have a huge role to play in helping to educate young folks. I did want to figure out how I could contribute to that and was very pleased when Henry Holt came to us and had the desire for me to write something that would be for younger people about anti-racism and white supremacy.
Then everything happened with 2020 and it was very difficult book to finish in the middle of this ongoing pandemic and with the murder of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Aubery and George Floyd and so many others. It gave more urgency to this project and I was very grateful to Henry Holt and my editor because they were able to extend the timeline for me. We were aiming to have the book out last year, [but] I listened to my own inner guidance and realized that I needed more time, not only for my own self care but also because so much has happened—the insurrection on Jan. 6, the backlash to anti-racist education, [and] COVID-19. If I had turned in the book in early 2020, I wouldn’t have been able to address all of these things.
Davis: You very sensitively and comprehensively fit in a lot of historical information throughout Rise Up! Did you have any primary aims or goals that you set for yourself that served as guideposts as you organized the book?
Fleming: I wanted every chapter to help young readers draw connections between present-day issues and the past, but also to imagine how they could be a part of changing the future in a productive way [by providing] opportunities to address present-day issues [such as] immigration, xenophobia, racism, health disparities, and COVID-19. I wanted young people to be able to draw these historical, temporal connections so that they’re situating what they’re experiencing and observing now in an unvarnished history of how we got here.
But as an educator, I also feel it’s essential to really unveil histories of resistance, histories of solidarity, histories of activism. I wanted that to be an organizing theme in every chapter—to address historical examples of anti-racism and resistance and present-day movements and efforts to dismantle white supremacy so young leaders could see [that] not only has change been happening in the past, but the resistance it’s still happening now and there are organizations and efforts and initiatives that they can be a part of.
Davis: What particular considerations did you have to make when writing about race for young people vs. adult readers?
Fleming: In the last chapter of How To Be Less Stupid About Race, I leave the reader with concrete steps that they can take towards getting involved in anti-racism and challenging white supremacy, but I wouldn’t say that my tone throughout the book was particularly hopeful. I got into the politics of hope and the inevitable despair that one might feel when confronting the harsh realities of racism and related forms of oppression. I also cited and drew from the work of Mariame Kaba who is a very influential abolitionist.
But with Rise Up!, I thought it was even more important to lead with imagining beyond our present-day circumstances and this reality that [young people] are change agents. It’s a delicate, tenuous balance because when we confront these harsh realities, it can feel very overwhelming. So I wanted to say at the beginning of the book that what we’re going to confront is very upsetting, but I also want [young readers] to feel inspired by the work of those who have come before us [and] accomplished forms of resistance that people said were impossible.
I think it’s even more important for young people to really tap into those feelings of empowerment, inspiration, and hope. It’s important for adults, but adults, I think—or I hope—have the capacity and the responsibility to sit with some of the more demoralizing aspects of oppression and to really hold space for that complexity. Young people do as well but I think we first need to build up their capacity to see themselves really effecting change in the world, and there’s plenty of time to sit with sort of more complex questions about hope and despair. I really want to not oversimplify, but I do want to lead with hope and inspiration, even as we confront the difficult realities.
Davis: I think that message around hope and the possibility of change is a marked difference between your writing for older readers versus younger ones. I also appreciated how you teased out the fact that young people of different racial backgrounds might approach this information differently and how their personal histories have shaped their understanding of race and what they will take away from the book. That acknowledgement was really refreshing.
Fleming: Thank you for mentioning that part. Early on in Rise Up! I try to address the different histories and perspectives that young people bring to the text depending on their identity, their heritage, and their personal experiences. But I also think it’s important not to oversimplify [that]. We can’t assume that every Black young person has the same experience of racism—they don’t! We can’t even assume people who are being targeted by racism, experienced or even recognize it in the same way—we don’t!
Something that I write about in Rise Up! and also in How To Be Less Stupid About Race is what it was like for my family members. My mom raised me and despite the fact that we’re all from Tennessee and my parents lived through desegregation, and before that my grandparents lived through Jim Crow, no one talked about these issues in our household growing up. My mother tried to create a protective bubble. It was really when I got older and started taking classes, and then started talking about these issues with my family that the older adults in my life—my auntie and my mom and others—started to share more of their experiences. So I try to hold space for that complexity—there’s a wide range of perspectives that Black youth and youth of color and white youth bring to the text. There are some white kids who grew up in households where their guardians are actively involved in anti-racist movements and other kinds of activism.
Davis: Oftentimes the approach to discussing race with young people is to not discuss it at all. There’s an idea that kids are too young for these issues even while that idea ignores the fact that for many young people, their lives are already deeply informed by racist systems and institutions. What are some other common misconceptions made when talking about race with young people? How does Rise Up! challenge those misconceptions?
Fleming: One of the major misconceptions that we see right now is [related to] the attacks on what is supposedly critical race theory, but really is an attack on anti-racist education: If young people are taught about the wrongs that have been done throughout our country’s history, that will lead them to be filled with hatred, that it will lead to terrible social divisions, or that white youth will not be able to learn these histories without being overridden with guilt. All of that is simply untrue.
Towards the end of the book, I tell the story of a young white teenage girl who was from Cooperstown, New York. As a high school student, she went to a summer program outside of where she lived and [met] Indigenous youth, among other types of people. She became friends with a diverse group of people and through this interracial, interethnic friendship she was questioned and challenged about her school back in Cooperstown. “Do they have Native American mascots on their teams?” one of her Indigenous friends asked, and she realized that yes, they did—they had a racist mascot for their team. With that knowledge, she decided to do something about it. She went back to her school, which was vastly majority white, went to the school board, got her white friends involved, and they got rid of the racist mascots in her entire school district. So that’s an example of how confronting racism, past and present, can be and should be a part of building a better society and that can and should be done in a way that builds solidarity across our differences.
One of the things I tried to weave throughout Rise Up! is an acknowledgement of racism and settler colonialism and forms of oppression, but also these very important stories of resistance, solidarity, and organizing to fight racism [which] often included people of a variety of backgrounds. I think that we can tell these stories in a way that empowers you to see that in every society in the world there’s inequality and there’s injustice, but we’ve also always had people fighting and working together for positive change. That is the call to action that I tried to integrate into the book. It’s just one of many examples of why I believe we have a responsibility to provide these kinds of resources to young people and to know that they can confront these histories and ongoing injustice in a way that builds solidarity and empathy across differences.
Davis: You mentioned critical race theory and how the recent backlash around it is really an attack on anti-racist education, broadly. How should we be discussing critical race theory in ways that are more true to its origins and purpose? In what ways do you see it being misrepresented even by people on the left?
Fleming: I read an article yesterday, I think it was in Forbes, and the title was something like, “What critical race theory really is and what you need to know about it.” I was shocked that this article never once mentioned the words law, legal, or anything related to legal studies or legal theory. Critical race theory literally comes out of the work of civil rights lawyers and legal scholars and it was about trying to confront white supremacy in the so-called “post civil rights era.” How do you challenge or even identify systemic and institutional racism in a context where our laws are increasingly being labeled or understood as colorblind or race neutral? It’s just an empirical fact that even after the massive changes that were wrought through civil rights legislation of the 1960s, we still are living with institutional systemic racism and white supremacy, so critical race legal scholars of late ‘70s, and early ‘80s were trying to grapple with this by looking at anti discrimination law, but also by challenging just some of the premises of the idea that we live in a race neutral society when we have all kinds of evidence that we don’t. So [in thinking about] the remedies that can be sought through the law to address this, one of the precepts of critical race scholarship is that scholarship is not enough, we need to be involved in anti racist activism. That’s one of the major principles of critical race theory.
I love critical race theory, I write about it in How To Be Less Stupid About Race. Even though a lot of the work is indeed in legal theory, part of what’s happened over the last 40 years or so is that critical race scholarship [has] broadened into philosophy, sociology, and the field of education—there’s a lot of great work that has been happening in education research that’s about transforming curriculum and creating empowering learning environments for youth of color and Black youth. So I really appreciate how critical race theory gave me a better understanding of history, as well as the persistence of white supremacy in the post civil rights era. It was very clarifying and inspired much of my desire to write How To Be Less Stupid About Race because the problem with critical race theory is that it is so academic. If you pick up the major reader that many people might know, Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed a Movement, edited by many people including Kimberlé Crenshaw, it’s literally legal scholarship that can be very challenging to grapple with. So critical race theory in and of itself cannot be taught in K-12 education because it’s legal scholarship. Having a way to help people understand how the law has traditionally been used to maintain white supremacy and how activism has been so crucial to making the gains we have been able to make, of course that is a perspective that is important and valuable and can be taught in many ways but it’s not the legalese of critical race theory.
The reality is that at every point in our country’s history people who have stood up to challenge white supremacy—whether it’s in education and the media, or in communities—have been labeled as hateful or divisive and it’s simply not true. I’m thinking of the work of Ida B. Wells [and how] she used her platform in a way that explicitly challenged white supremacy and of course sexism against Black women and she was attacked for that.
One of the greatest resources around this whole issue is the work of the African American Policy Forum that Kimberlé Crenshaw founded, and they provide lots of resources about what they call the equity gag order. This is the term they use for the executive order that was created by the Trump administration last year that attempted to ban diversity trainings and trainings about sexism and inequality. The African American Policy Forum shows that it is censorship and in line with how white supremacists have responded to civil rights organizers and educators for generations.
So in that respect it’s not new, but it is very dangerous. That gag order is now being implemented in various ways in legislatures and in school boards and there’s a backlash to the anti-racist consciousness raising that we saw happening last year in 2020 with the largest protest movement in United States history. We’re not where we were when Ida B. Wells, over 100 years ago, was being persecuted for her work, but we are in a very polarized society and we are going to be dealing with this backlash.
I think the more we can do to help educate people about misinformation, whether it’s about critical race theory or about civil rights and human rights activism organizing more broadly, I think the more we can continue to build a critical mass of people who believe in the value of not just anti-racist solidarity, but human solidarity beyond our differences and the eradication of hierarchies of worth and value that continue to create so much injustice.
Davis: For students who may be living in major sites of this backlash against anti-racist education, do you have recommendations for how adults can help support them? Are there additional tools or resources that these young people can use to engage with these ideas amongst one another even if their surrounding environments are not conducive to or nurturing of those conversations?
Fleming: That’s a big question. Well, there’s work that adults can do with the youth who are in your life right now, but there’s also work that can be done more collectively. So if, for example, to go back to the nationwide backlash to anti-racist education that we’re seeing, one of the most important things to do is to just show up locally—to be informed about what’s happening in school boards, to advocate for anti racist education, and to protest efforts to censor the teaching of history and really work in solidarity with educators and community leaders who are challenging that backlash.
I think for young people in your own life, books like Rise Up! can be really great conversation starters. Throughout Rise Up! there are opportunities for the reader to pause and reflect on some questions. If you’re going to read it with your child or your nibling, sit with the questions they may have and acknowledge when you might not have the answer.
That is also something I talked to other professors about because unfortunately most don’t have expertise in the study of race and racism—courses on these topics are generally not required in higher education, to say nothing of K-12. I do a lot of work with colleagues who are trying to learn more and integrate resources into their classes, but also [who are] themselves trying to learn. One of the things I counsel them to get used to is being honest that you are also learning and that if you are reading a book like Rise Up! with a young person that you can let them know “I’m also learning about these issues, let’s learn together,” or “This question you have, I might not have the answer to but I’m going to look into it. Let’s look into it together” and have it be an ongoing conversation.
Obviously, one book is [just] one book but this should be ongoing learning and an acknowledgement that we’re all on a journey of discovery. Hopefully adults can really be partners and supportive to young people who are on this journey as well.