White Supremacy is a You problem (if you are white)

“Me and White Supremacy”, by Layla F. Saad (Saad, 2020) is a 28 day exercise in educating yourself on white supremacy and the role it plays in your life. Through 28 chapters of theory, examples, and writing prompts, it creates a framework for self reflection; helping a reader come to terms with white privilege and their continuing role in maintaining and benefiting from white supremacy. It is a book explicitly intended for a white, or white-passing, audience and it promises that audience that through reflective journaling they will grow into an ability to make positive change in the world and “be better ancestors”. Saad keeps chapters short and snappy, with many examples as aids for the journaling portion. However, her focus on her audience’s internal state causes her to ignore white supremacy as a structural and political system.

Saad kicks off her book by signaling to the reader over and over again that they are neither alone nor under attack. The endorsement from Robin DiAngelo, a white antiracist educator, is followed by a comforting and inspiring introduction to the author and a user guide to the book which drives home the importance of “the work” and signals to the reader that they are ready to do it and that it is for them. It promises that “white supremacy is a racist ideology” and that you can overthrow that ideology by recognizing it in yourself. Additionally, the “three things you will need to do this work” are undoubtedly written to be comforting and familiar to the “spiritual white women” who were this projects original target audience.

Saad does a spectacular job throughout the book of choosing topics and prompts that push a reader towards practices of good allyship. To be an ally, one must understand the damage racism does to people of color (week 2), as well as all the different ways that one can be racist (week 1), get in the way (week 3), or fail to help (week 4). She also illustrates each week and chapter with extensive and incredibly useful examples of what each concept covered looks like in real life. These examples are especially powerful when they are taken from her life.
All that being said, Saad’s focus on the reader’s personal growth and self-awareness leaves neither time, nor philosophical space, for the greater issue of white supremacy as a political and economic system of oppression. This failure means that she leaves the reader without many of the tools to deconstruct it. In particular, she does not craft any argument for the exis- tence of white supremacy, which may leave readers unable to convince others of its continuing existence.

This book is written for those who hope to be on the path of allyship. As a person who is trying to be an ally I have often been asked why I care, more often than not in a very roundabout way. “Me and White Supremacy” suggests that the reason is to be “a good ancestor”, an answer many of the unconvinced will find unconvincing. A linked, but more fulfilling answer is that white supremacy is a global evil that must not be allowed to continue. To give that answer, however, one must be able to show, as Mills does very effectively, that global white supremacy exists (Mills, 1997). In day 1 of Saad’s book she does ask the related question “How do we know White Privilege is real?” The answer she gives is that her mother told her. It is certainly not necessary to devote hundreds of pages to proving the existence of the Racial Contract, Mills already did that, but the book would have been greatly strengthened by having day 1, and maybe even week 1, actually cover the existence and effects of global white supremacy.

An alternative to a new day 1 prompt would be references to further resources to help the reader fill in gaps. This is a more general problem through the book. Over 28, quite short, chapters the book contains 58 references, nowhere near enough to help a reader answer questions left at the end of a day’s reading and while each chapter’s brevity is in most ways a benefit to the book’s goals it does make it likely that the reader will have questions.

That being said, even with further resources, a reader is likely to be left with questions because the dismantling of White Supremacy is neither simple nor straightforward work. It is filled with tension between competing aims and priorities. The book in no way addresses these tensions. A particular example is this pair of facts: White saviorism is a form of white supremacy and it is the job of white people to dismantle white supremacy. While this tension is handily resolved through the concept of allyship many other problems of praxis are not so easily resolved, and to leave them unaddressed in such an action oriented work is an oversight. Continuing on the theme of praxis, the book contains almost nothing about how to combat racism outside of your own mind. It advises us not to be silent (day 4), to call out (or in) racism in our friends, family, and leaders (day 23-25) on their racist behaviors, and many times how not to be bad allies, but it completely ignores politics and policy. White supremacy will not end when people stop behaving in racist ways. It will end when the political, power system is brought down. Although battling racist thought and behavior is one step towards that goal, it is only one step, and it is also a move to innocence(Tuck & Yang, 2012). I don’t know if to make the book longer or replace some suggested chapter titles to fix the issue might be “Me and the Police State”, “Me and Colonial Capitalism”, or “Me and Schooling”. Possibly equally effective would have been to simply include a disclaimer from time to time reminding the reader that internal work is only the first step.

All in all, “Me and White Supremacy” is a powerful tool for self-education and reflection.

Its modular design of short, relatively stand-alone chapters also make it a great teaching tool allowing it to be easily mixed and remixed into curriculum and other readings. Especially as a book that started out as a series of posts it is a shame that it does not provide more citations, links, and other external resources. Additionally, Saad’s assertion that white supremacy is primarily personal and secondarily global and systemic sends a hopeful, but incorrect, message that education and self-reflection are all we need to fix it.

References

Mills, C. W. (1997). The racial contract. Cornell University Press.

Saad, L. F. (2020). Me and white supremacy: Combat racism, change the world, and become a good ancestor. Sourcebooks, Inc.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigene- ity, education & society, 1(1).

“How to Be Less Stupid About Race” a critical book review

One of my classes, “Philosophies” with Dr. Powell, had me write my first book report since high school this week and given that I have been too busy to write anything else I figured I would share that. I am proud that I wrote it given how out of practice I am but a bit disappointed in how rusty I feel writing anything.

“How To Be Less Stupid About Race” is a funny, personal, and powerful book that both explains critical race theory(CRT) and chronicles the author’s personal journey from relative ignorance about global white supremacy to a deep understanding of it’s role in shaping society. Its early chapters, while dry, act as a crash course in modern critical race theory, drawing heavily on the work of Mill’s and his “epistemology of ignorance”(Mills, 1997). Explaining in brief the history of global white supremacy and how it simultaneously perpetuates and camouflages itself. The book then spends five chapters explaining the author’s growth out of that epistemology while living through the Obama era and the beginning of the Trump presidency. Finally, the book explains 10 approaches to “Becoming Racially Literate”. Throughout, the book uses humor and personality as sugar to help the anti-racist medicine go down.

Dr. Fleming[1] uses humor to numb the pain of having the racial blindfold ripped off and she does rip it off effectively. The summary of CRT gets the reader up to speed on what is currently understood and what Fleming believes and her personal stories act as a framework for how to be convinced of CRT’s veracity. All in all, this makes the book supremely well pitched at a certain population: Those who, like the villains in “Get Out”, would have voted for Obama a third time(Jeffries, 2018) but who are at least a little aware that white supremacy is a problem and are interested in educating themselves about it.

Fleming explains clearly and with purpose that she herself fell into that category of person in 2008. She had been raised in “an environment that insulated me from the realities of racism” and spent her education in environments that “downplayed racial oppression or focused on conceptually vague ’cultural elements’ of race rather than systemic racism.” Her growth and realizations through the Obama era give the liberal but ignorant reader a script for realizing that systemic racism exists and white supremacy continues. First through examination of Obama’s policy as one of continued American imperialism and then the story of Trayvon Martin and finally through a re-examination of Obama’s whole political career. When Fleming says that Obama is “a highly strategic, ruthlessly ambitious Uncle Tom” we know as readers that this is coming from someone who loved him not so long ago. She is telling us, that she thought this racism thing was over too. That she thought Obama was going to fix everything. That she recently stood where the reader stands now.

Much of the rest of the book focuses on wig-snatching white supremacy. Walking through counterarguments from the left to the central thesis, that white supremacy continues to be a dominant force in this country, without too explicitly naming these arguments, sparing the reader some of the shame stemming of being more directly disabused. Fleming lets us know that Trump’s election was no aberration in an otherwise post-racial world and that no amount of miscegenation will solve the white supremacist structures of power in our society. Finally, she sets out 10, doable if not easy steps, one can take, after finishing her book, to increase one’s racial literacy (or decrease one’s racial stupidity).

As potent and clear as the writing is, the book is not without its weaknesses. The book begins with its densest and most technical chapters and while being “less stupid” may strongly motivate the target audience, it also likely limits that audience, offending those who don’t feel stupid about race before reading the book. Finally, the book focuses heavily on the damage white supremacy inflicts on African Americans, and particularly African American women, while barely mentioning the harms perpetrated by white supremacy against non-whites both in the US and abroad.

It was a mistake to start this book with two chapters (the introduction and chapter 1) full of definitions, lists of misconceptions, and philosophical name dropping as if daring the reader to give up. In academic writing this structure is a strength. We often write with the idea that the reader may only make it through the abstract or introduction and if they are to read all of what we have written we hope to quickly arm them with the concepts and definitions necessary to understand what follows. However, I think most people would be better served by starting at chapter 3 “On Racial Stupidity in the Obama Era”. In 2008, after Obama’s election only half of Americans felt that there was “‘a lot’ or ‘some’ discrimination against blacks”(Valentino & Brader, 2011). The journey Dr. Fleming takes from “Obamania” to “critic of Barack, the Democrats, and US racism” is an incredible framing device for helping us understand how we continue to be stupid about race in the 21st century. It also serves as a spectacular introduction to Dr. Fleming as a person. Giving us a window into her background, optimism, liberal bona fides, and academic expertise.

Another strength of chapter 3 is that it shows, multiple times, that white supremacy is global and imperialist and that it has global effects. President Obama’s policy of drone strikes was enabled by the same ideas that enabled French colonialism, the subject of Dr. Fleming’s thesis work. Yet, the rest of the book seems to pay little more than lip-service to this idea. This is in important failure in a few ways. The first is that American Colonialism is a foreign policy issue, an easier space in which to convince people to change their mind. Whether convincing a liberal nimby, or a conservative, discussions about our behavior “over there” are ones that are much easier to start and to be productive about. More importantly, the issues of global white supremacy, global colonialism, and capitalism intersect and a more fully intersectional approach opens up important avenues of argument and thought. These are also areas in which Fleming is not short on expertise. It would have been fascinating to have her compare and contrast the legacies of black slavery in the US and French colonial slavery around the world. While it is possible that this expansion of topic would have lightened the focus on white supremacy as a problem here in the United States it is more likely that it would have provided American readers with an additional unflattering mirror – another angle from which to view our problems.

The final chapter of the book is titled “Becoming Racially Literate”. The title tells the reader that if they have made it this far in the book, they are no longer stupid about race, just unread. This, combined with the title of the book, tells a strong story about the books intended audience: people who feel stupid about race and want to fix that. On the one hand, it is clear that Fleming knows this is her audience and has written a book for precisely this group. On the other, it is likely that the title and framing has excluded potential readers. Outside of the academic environment at Tufts, I know few people who are willing to admit to knowing too little about race and many who would find the accusation of being stupid about race offensive, or at the very least off putting. It is difficult to know how many americans would have been willing to read this book with a slightly different title and framing but I imagine the number is not insignificant. In many ways this book is pop-science and if there is one thing we have learned from the attempts at public science education during the Covid-19 pandemic it is that calling the uneducated stupid is not a terribly effective way to get them to learn or change their behavior. While no change to title or structure could get Tucker Carlson to read this book, it is possible that a different title would have made this an easier sell for people like my parents.

In all, “How To Be Less Stupid About Race” left me with hope that progress can be made in dismantling global white supremacy. I hope to get many friends and family members to read this book and start them on the path to racial literacy.

References

Jeffries, J. L. (2018). Jordan peele (dir.), get out [motion picture] blumhouse productions,

2017. running time, 1 h 44 min. Springer.

Mills, C. W. (1997). The racial contract. Cornell University Press.

Valentino, N. A., & Brader, T. (2011). The sword’s other edge: Perceptions of discrimination and racial policy opinion after obama. Public Opinion Quarterly, 75(2), 201–226.


[1] I guess I’m nasty