Fighting racism requires tough talks, Diversity Retreat speakers say


Crystal Fleming, a sociologist and expert on white supremacy, began her keynote at Pitt’s fourth annual Diversity Retreat on June 25 with a small icebreaker, where she had the audience introduce themselves.

“Hi, I’m an anti-racist badass. What’s your name?” she instructed the more than 350 participants to say.

This was all to get the audience to realize that they needed to be tough to change racist ideologies and white supremacist structures.

“You’re going to have to rock some boats,” said Fleming, an associate professor of sociology at Stony Brook University. “You’re going to have conversations that many people don’t want to have. You’re going to have to bring up bad news to your institution, so not only will you need to be a badass on your own, more importantly, you’ll have to work in community, an anti-racist community, with others because when we’re dealing with systemic problems, we can’t really address them unless we do so collectively.”

Fleming was one of the many speakers who called for the participants to strategize and form communities to combat at racism and various forms of inequity in academia and U.S. society. The end goal, she said, was to promote more inclusive and equitable spaces.

The retreat, hosted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, featured a keynote from Fleming who used material from her book: “How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy” and an afternoon plenary from Leigh Patel, the inaugural associate dean of equity and justice at the School of Education.

In between the two presentations from Fleming and Patel, participants broke off into several hands-on workshops and panels with topics that expanded beyond white supremacy to community engagement, mental health, religious diversity, better accommodation for people with disabilities and more. 

Pitt staff members led these workshops, which encouraged participants to think about ways to transform colleges and universities into more inclusive spaces for people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community and people struggling with disabilities.

Colleges not immune to white supremacy

Crystal Fleming takes questions from the crowd

Fleming repeatedly told attendees that it was important for them to step out of their comfort zones — even their comfort with phrases such as “diversity and inclusion.”

“And the truth is that, all too often, ‘diversity and inclusion’ operates as a kind of slogan that covers up the stuff you don’t want to talk about,” Fleming said. “So, I know for sure that if we’re having an event like this, it’s because this institution screwed up. It’s also because people worked hard to do something about those problems. 

“But we can’t pretend that we’re just here because we’re so good at diversity and inclusion. No, our communities are not inclusive. They’re not inclusive enough. When we get caught up in the slogans ... we are missing the history of white supremacist racism upon which our entire nation is built, including our educational institutions.”

Fleming used examples of recent racist scandals at colleges and universities, including when Native Americans had the police called on them as they were attending a campus tour, and white students taking a photo in charcoal facemasks with the caption “black lives matter.”

Using other examples of white people calling the police on black people for frivolous reasons, she pointed out that there is an issue where “too many white people feel completely at ease policing space and signaling that nonwhite people do not belong.”

“This is not something that just happens at a barbecue,” she said referencing the infamous “Barbecue Becky” viral meme and video. “This is something that happens at college campuses. White supremacy is when a white student at Yale calls the police on an African-American graduate student for sleeping in her own dorm.

“This happened not 50 years ago, (but) just a year ago. White supremacy is Native American students going on a college tour and a white parent saying ‘these guys look weird, and they don’t belong here.’ And the police didn’t say ‘that’s racist,’ they went and got the Native American students and escorted them off campus. That’s white supremacy.”

U.S. educational institutes have been “built in a white supremacist context,” she said as she pointed out a scandal with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page, which had photos of two men — one dressed in blackface and the other in Ku Klux Klan regalia. It was unclear which person, or if either, was Northam.

Not only was there a normalized culture of racism on college campuses in the past, she said, it was often celebrated.

However, these were obvious examples of white supremacy in action, Fleming said, adding there are far more hidden, insidious forms of it that have shaped the structures of U.S. society to disenfranchise people of color and other minority groups.

White supremacy, Fleming said, is a system of power, and is the “social, political and economic dominance of people socially defined as ‘white.’ ” Who has been considered “white” has evolved over the decades as it initially involved only white Anglo-Saxons, she said. It was later extended to European immigrants such as the Irish, the Polish and more.

“For centuries, white supremacy was the law of the land, it was celebrated, it was validated,” Fleming said.

She then illustrated that white supremacy is perpetuated by white people who, on average, disproportionately have more household wealth; more representation in higher ed administration; and hold elected government positions when compared to women and other ethnic groups.

And much of this dominance was achieved through legislation such as the Homestead Act and the GI Bill, Fleming said.

However, institutions of higher education, she said, are held back on diversity efforts by several things: “Inadequate diversity hiring and retention efforts; a glacial pace for even modest change; overwhelmingly white administrative leadership and governance; and white control of resources and gatekeeping.”

Fleming ended her keynote with suggestions on how institutions can create an “anti-racist climate change:”

  1. Provide opportunities for students, faculty and staff to learn the history of racial oppression

  2. Validate and learn from people of color

  3. Embrace the discomfort of disrupting racism

  4. Shift resources to members of racially marginalized groups

Inclusions means transformation

Leigh Patel talks to the crowd

After the first round of panels, Patel presented her plenary called “Decolonizing Educational Research,” which touched on and expanded upon many topics Fleming presented in her keynote.

“Primarily what I want to do is convey the point that if we are going to engage in activities of inclusion, we have to be engaged in transformation,” Patel said. “That means we have to know how history is manifesting in the present.”

White supremacy, Patel argued, was built upon the idea of “whiteness as property.” This is an idea that Cheryl Harris, a professor in civil rights and civil liberties at the UCLA School of Law, explored in a paper, Patel said.

And through this concept of “property” from white settler colonialism, came the transatlantic slave trade, land theft from indigenous peoples, cultural eradication and other forms of subjugation.

“Property itself is a violent concept,” Patel said.

From these actions grew institutions, including some Ivy League schools, built on stolen labor on stolen land, Patel said, and racist capitalism through slavery, housing policies and more. All of this led to a society that perpetuates white supremacy today.

Patel later challenged attendees to start having some difficult conversations in their departments to help promote equity.

“We have to ask the question of what is in the way of equity?” Patel said. “What would equity actually look like? What would justice look like? Because if you in your respective units are not having those conversations and actually starting arguments about what justice would look like, I think you’re not doing the work.”

Donovan Harrell is a reporter for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


  • A large crowd turned out for Pitt's fourth annual Diversity Retreat on June 25 at Alumni Hall. (Monica Maschak/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Chaz Kellem, head of PittServes, listens intently during one of the Diversity Retreat sessions. (Monica Maschak/University of Pittsburgh)
  • In addition to the two keynote speakers, the Diversity Retreat included several smaller break-out sessions. (Monica Maschak/University of Pittsburgh)
  • The speakers gave participants much to talk about during the all-day Diversity Retreat. (Monica Maschak/University of Pittsburgh)