Episode 62: “Honest Talk about Race and Racism” featuring Michael R. Fisher Jr.

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 62: “Honest Talk about Race and Racism” featuring Michael R. Fisher Jr.

How can your congregation initiate conversations about race? And how can pastors prepare themselves for this important work? In this episode Michael R. Fisher Jr. shares perspectives, questions, and resources that can help church leaders confront the challenging issues of structural racism and white privilege during these turbulent times.

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Leading Ideas Talks is also brought to you by free video study Moving Faith Communities to Fruitful Conversations about Race, a dialogue about race in America that may be used to help your church bring people together to talk about moving forward bravely and boldly in the name of Christ. The study is divided into four 15-minute videos which may be used in one or more sessions. Watch now at churchleadership.com/videos.

How can your congregation initiate conversations about race? And how can pastors prepare themselves for this important work? In this episode Michael R. Fisher Jr. shares perspectives, questions, and resources that can help church leaders confront the challenging issues of structural racism and white privilege during these turbulent times.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Dr. Michael R. Fisher, Jr. assistant professor of African-American studies at San Jose State University. Our focus for this podcast is addressing racism. Michael we’re excited that you are with us particularly doing these turbulent times in the United States around this very important topic. So welcome to our podcast.

Michael R. Fisher: Thank you so much. It’s good to be here.

Doug Powe: I want to begin this conversation with asking a question that I think we dance around often. Why is it so hard for the United States in general and congregations specifically to talk about racial issues?

Michael R. Fisher: Thanks for the question. So I think it depends on what you mean by “hard” and who we’re referring to when we talk about “generally” and “congregations” in particular. I think that many people of color and Black people in particular are not strangers to conversations on race and racial issues, namely racism. Because the terrain of race and its social implications on our lives is something that many of us have to navigate daily. That is to say that so many of us are constantly aware of how blackness our brownness — the very tone of our skin color — impacts how we are perceived by others in society and shapes us and our social existence in significant ways. So when you talk about why is it so hard, I think that for many communities of color this is a conversation that they actually have developed great facilitation with because we are faced with it daily. And I think that there is something a little bit different when we talk about it, and it’s a fundamentally different experience when we’re talking about most white people who are raised in the U.S. Here I find sociologist Robin D’Angelo, who identifies as a white woman, really helpful where she states in a book White Fragility that most white people in the United States are taught not to acknowledge themselves in racial terms. That is they are taught not to draw attention to their race or behave as if race matters. So for white people that she’s referring to, who can relate to this, talking about racial issues then can perhaps be a difficult task. Because it forces a direct confrontation with an issue that is supposed to go unacknowledged. And this can generate a certain level of emotional discomfort.

Doug Powe: I have a couple of questions related to what you were saying. And I appreciate the distinction that you’re making. Let me start with, there are some people who will say “I do not see color.” And that sort of plays off of what you’re just saying. “I don’t see color. God doesn’t see color.” So how do you help them to see that that response in many instances continues to promote the status quo. Because what you were indicating, if they don’t have to acknowledge race, then of course you can say “I don’t see color.” But at the end result of course that nothing changes.

Michael R. Fisher: Yes. So this is the infamous color blindness framework. So if we think about color blindness, right? “I don’t see color.” “I don’t see race.” I find Eduardo Bonilla-Silva — so I’m an educator I’ll say off the top. So I often will cite people who have been influential in my thinking — but I agree with him where he argues that the colorblind ideology allows white people in particular to shield themselves against criticisms for their complicity in the perpetuation of racial social systems in the U.S. That is to say that by saying one is colorblind, that is to put on an armor that race doesn’t matter. And so, therefore, because I don’t see race I am not a participant, an active participant, in the social structures that really disenfranchised people of color in the United States. And I think that that’s problematic on a number of levels. One, just factually, you can only not see color if you are in fact blind, if you lack the ability to see. I think that those of us who want to try to claim that we’re colorblind, I think one the U.S. history doesn’t actually reflect that, right? The very ugly history of race and racism. But then I think if we think about for people in our contemporary context what that means, for people who don’t see color, I would encourage them to begin to assess their friendship networks, right? So if all of their friends and colleagues and associates tend to be on one particular spectrum of the color hue then perhaps that is a suggestion, an indication, that in fact they do see color. If you live in an all-white residential neighborhood, for example, then perhaps you might want to be a little bit more reflective about what you mean when you say “you don’t see color.” Because if in fact color wasn’t a thing, then it would probably be the case that you’d have friendships and relationships from people across different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Doug Powe: Let me stay in that stream just a little bit. You often hear people say and, of course it’s sort of has become his own meme to a certain extent, you know “I have friends that are _____. “ And you fill in the blank. So I can hear someone responding in that way. But if I’m hearing you correctly, I think sometimes we use the word “friendship” and “relationship” sort of lightly. So you correct me if I’m wrong, it seems to me you’re trying to make a distinction between those individuals that are truly a part of our sort of inner network, that we really are connected with, versus individuals that may be “acquaintances,” might be the word I will use. Like I work with in a multicultural setting. Or if I have a family, there might be other people on my daughter or son’s soccer team. But I don’t know that I would really say that those people are truly our “friends” in the way that you’re saying.

Michael R Fisher: Yeah. I appreciate the follow up question. I think a couple of things. One, so evaluating one’s relationships is really in the context of what we’re talking about, colorblindness, it’s an indicator to see whether one actually is “color blind” or not. You know as far as to say that those who tend to argue that they don’t see color tend to hang with their same-minded groups, right? But that is not to say that if you do have, for example, if you are white and you have Black friends, that doesn’t mean at all that you don’t also have deeply embedded anti-Black beliefs and values. You can have Black friends, you can have people of color in your family, and hold still at the same time an anti-Black sentiment, right? That your even relationships with people of color do not shield you from your participation in racist structures and even holding racist views. And I think one of the things that’s really I’ve found in conversations around racial issues and racism in particular that I think should be named here is the different ways in which people view racism. And here again, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is helpful in my thinking where he talks about the fact that the fundamental difference between white people and Black people, for example, is that whites generally tend to understand racism in terms of personal prejudice whereas Blacks tend to understand racism as a system, as a structure. And so when we’re talking about issues of racism many white people, not all of course, will tend to say “I’m not racist because I have Black friends.” “I’m not racist because I have people of color in my family,” as if having those kind of connections shields them from their participation in racial — what Bonilla-Silva calls a racial social structure. And that’s just simply not the case. You can have Black friends. You can have people of color in your family and still yet participate in the structures of domination that disenfranchise and marginalized people of color.

Doug Powe: And I like the distinction playing off Silva’s work you just made. And it sort of plays into the next question that I want to ask you. Because what you’re pointing towards is in some ways individuals unconsciously are not aware of the ways that their biases are playing out or their racism is playing out. So the question that I want to pose is white privilege. The term white privilege has sort of come into fashion. Can you then from your understanding explain what is white privilege and how is it then that we can really become aware of its impact, which is sort of what I heard you sort of leading into in your your last description from Silva. ow can we help people to really understand it and to see it when it’s something that unconsciously they don’t think about it in a way that maybe someone any at the American community would think about.

Michael R Fisher: Yeah. So when I use the term “white privilege”, and I think that there are people who use it differently, when I use the term “white privilege,” I am referring to a system of advantages based on being perceived as white. So and that gets to this notion of “racialization.” This idea that people are racialized as being a member of one racial group or another. And so when I’m talking about the system of advantages based on being perceived as white, I’m really referring to white privilege as the systemic benefits afforded to white people that can’t similarly be enjoyed by people of color in the same kind of contexts. And something that’s taken for granted by white people. So for example, if we want to think about this structurally, we can take white and Black relationships with law enforcement as our kind of thought experiment. And we can pull from current events. So I’m sure you are very well aware, as we all are, that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. And in the West that pandemic has caused a kind of complete shutdown of businesses, of the economy, and the institution of stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the virus from person to person. And so what that meant was that people were asked, and in many cases ordered, to stay at home. And the whole point of the stay-at-home orders was to keep in mind people’s health to really prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. And so what you saw in response to that was people protesting these shutdowns. And so you often had individuals, and they tended to be what some would call “Trump Supporters,” fervent Trump supporters, people on the right that were protesting their freedoms, right? And so they would go to U.S. capitals with guns in hand, with weapons. They would yell and scream at police officers, right? In a threatening way, I mean at least from what we saw in terms of the video footage, if I were a police officer, I would feel threatened. And yet nothing happened to these protesters, right? In the midst of their protesting with weapons and screaming and yelling at these officers. And in some cases actually threatening people. They were allowed to in many cases just kind of protest without being encumbered by use of police force. Now we juxtapose that example with Black and brown people who are protesting and participating in uprisings across the country with regard to the Black Lives Matter movement, protesting racial injustice, right, white supremacy on every level of government and in society in the United States. And what do we see from the video footage and the news reports of these protesters? That they are often tear gassed, that they are accosted, that they are in many cases assaulted by law enforcement, both federal and local, simply for protesting their right to live, right? Protesting in the vein of Black freedom. And so you see here a very different reaction from law enforcement when it comes to addressing issues of Black life, namely Black people’s demands to not be killed at the hands of the police by simply existing and to really tear down structures of racism and white supremacy in the U.S. And juxtapose that with people, who are predominantly white, protesting stay-at-home orders that were geared to keep people healthy. This is, I think, really illustrative example of what I’m referring to as white privilege as a system. That you’ve got two different examples here of people who get two different responses from law enforcement. So when I talk about white privilege, I’m talking about looking at those systemic advantages that white people enjoy that they don’t really, many of them, don’t even think about.

Doug Powe: That example is helpful and it leads into my next question about the issue of police engagement in the African American community. And of course the issues around police engagement have been around for years. You know if you’re in an African American community this is nothing new. But what do you think was different about the George Floyd case in highlighting the issue? And to some extent Brianna Taylor, but I think even there the George Floyd case still was more primary than her case. What was different you think this time in that you had more white allies finally say “this is an issue”?

Michael R Fisher: I think for me it is a combination of things. I certainly think that the George Floyd murder you know occurred in a particular context, one in which Black and brown people and white people as well have been raising the challenges of Black death by the state, by local law enforcement, for simply existing. And so I think we can’t ignore the social context in which the George Floyd murder happened. But I think for me the thing that particularly makes the George Floyd murder felt so viscerally is that it was captured on film. For nearly nine minutes, people watch a police officer with his knee on a man’s neck as that man was pleading for his life. And we watched the cavalier disregard of the officers standing next to him doing nothing, right, as George Floyd pleaded for his life, as he cried out for his mother. I think being able to see that, to watch for nearly nine minutes a man whose life was snuffed out, who was posing no threat to the police officer. I think the ability to actually see that, to watch it, to play it back. I think at least for me that was something that really stuck with people who were able to see it and really allowed some people for the very first time to see the type of treatment that Black and brown people experience in the United States on a daily basis. And so being able to associate images, to see that image, and have that image really kind of be implanted in your memory bank. I think that for many people was just overwhelming. And for many that seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of being outraged. And so I think that being able to see that in the context of these constant protests over the murder of Black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement. And we know their names right. And at this point, their names become too long to enumerate, right? I think that for many people it caused an awakening that allowed them to see firsthand what the experience has been like for so many Black and brown people in the U.S.

Doug Powe: So let me shift gears just a little bit and bring it back to congregations. Given everything you just have discussed and I think laid out in very plain language, what is the first step a congregation can take? Given our current environment, given what you’ve just said regarding white privilege and racism to address the racial unrest that we’re experiencing in the United States currently? What is the role or maybe a first step a congregation can take?

Michael R Fisher: Yeah, I think so for a congregation to are thinking about this issue, right? Racism, white supremacy in the U.S. and the role of religion the role of people of faith. I think one of the first things that a congregation can collectively do is ask themselves a number of questions. Questions like “In what ways has our congregation explicitly combated racism and white supremacy in our local context?” “What actions has our congregation taken to address racial inequality in our community?” “How as a congregation have we used our congregation’s resources to support racial injustices or support racial justice initiatives?” And starting with those three questions, and if a congregation reflects on those questions and is unable to answer these questions explicitly, then perhaps the first step that needs to be taken is an interrogation as a collective body of why this is the case. If you find that your congregation has been silent on the issue of race, racism and white supremacy, then I think that there needs to be some conversations internally about “what does this mean for our congregation?” “What does this mean as a as a body of believers?” “How does this square with our faith commitments the things that we profess as a religious body, right?” One that believes in the Ministry of Christ as the central figure of the faith, if you’re a Christian congregation, “What does that mean then for how we are going to live out our faith?” and perhaps “What have we done or not done that has led to our inaction?” And then of course if you find yourself able to answer these questions in a positive, that you can identify initiatives and things that you have done, then perhaps it’s worth reflecting on “What can we do to increase our advocacy and our activism?” “Who can we partner with?” “Who are we in regular dialogue with to increase our witness as a congregation that stands for justice and stands unapologetically on the side of racial justice and on the side of making sure that our congregation unapologetically declares that Black lives matter?”

Doug Powe: That was very helpful. And the next question I have is connected to it. What is the role of the pastor in helping to lead a congregation to take this first step? So is there a particular role? Of course not everything should fall on pastor’s shoulder. But do you see a role the pastor can play particularly in congregations where they haven’t really thought about addressing this head on to help a congregation move in that direction?”

Michael R Fisher: Yes. I’m going to get to that question. But it just occurred to me with regards to my last comment, particularly the end where congregations are declaring black lives matter, I think one of the challenges that congregations should be prepared to address is oftentimes people see this mantra of Black Lives Matter and they read it in a particular type of way. So they read into it. They put for so many people, they put an “only” in front of the mantra. “Only Black Lives Matter.” Or they put it at the end. “Black Lives Matter Only”. And I think that to say that Black Lives Matter is not to say that these other groups, these other racial/ethnic groups don’t matter, right? But it is to say that we recognize that there is a particular issue that is happening, a particular problem or particular trauma and violence that is being disproportionately inflicted on one particular community, Black people. And so as a response we are lifting up our voice as a congregation to say that we believe that Black lives matter. This is not to the exclusion of other lives. But this is to say that Black lives matter and we are raising that issue. It’s like when a house is on fire. When the police come, when the firefighters come to put out the fire, no one says, “All houses matter. What about my house?” You’re addressing the problem at hand. And I think that similarly, we are addressing a particular issue of race and racism in the United States that requires attention to how Black lives have been assaulted in the United States. So then all that to say what they can a pastor who’s leading a congregation who believes and proclaims that Black lives matter, what can that person do? I think a number of things. I think the first thing that is important for that particular religious leader is that she or he think about and recognize his or her own level of preparedness to one have these type of conversations. And so that begins with introspection. That begins with interrogating one’s own biases, one’s complicity in the problem, one’s discomfort with addressing it and why. Because it is often difficult to lead or it can be difficult or challenging to lead a group to reflect in these type of ways. If one has not done the type of introspection and work themselves, right? So I think that for any pastor or religious leader who is looking to have or start, initiate, or advance these type of conversations with a congregation, you have to think about “what are the gaps that I have in my own vision?” “Who are the conversation partners, the people that I personally need to be in conversation with for my own edification?” And then work outward, right? Because I am an educator, I’m always going to begin with thinking about how people really approach this issue from their own perspective, right? From their own vantage point and the resources that they need. And so I think that for any congregation, no leader who wants to have these kind of conversations with their congregation beginning with that or beginning with that introspection is important. And then, as you think about how to broach the conversation with your membership, then it’s worth thinking about “OK, well who can I partner with on the congregational level, right?” So if you’re a white congregation or if you’re a congregation that is constituted of mainly white people, perhaps thinking about “what are some what other congregations locally that we might want to be in conversation with around issues of race and racism?” And so you know touching base with other congregations and having maybe a dialogue, a one-hour dialogue. And I would encourage any religious leader to make sure it’s time constrained, particularly in this COVID 19 time where our attention is often split in so many different directions. But to spark conversations with your congregation. Reach out to organizations that are doing racial justice work. Local community organizing organizations that you can reach out to to spark these types of conversations. You can start a book club on these types of issues. So I mentioned a number of different books or at least a number of different scholars. So Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book Racism Without Racists I think is a really good one. I mentioned Robin D’Angelo who is a sociologist. Her book on white fragility is a good book. Tim Wise, his book Colorblind, is a good one. Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge’s book on intersectionality is good. I think one of the things, and this is the final thing that I’ll end on, one of the things that’s important particularly for white communities that I have found when we talk about issues of race and racism is that they often approach it from “I don’t know what to do, right?” And I think that asking for help and guidance is important, right?” So being in conversation with folks, particularly communities of color, is really important. But I think the onus is on particularly white people to do the work themselves, right? To be cognizant of the ways in which often times asking Black people how to fix the problem of race and racism becomes burdensome, right? That you ask Black people to do the work when you can just as easily educate yourself by picking up some of the resources that I’ve named here, right? And so I think what I want to emphasize in this conversation in terms of what pastors and congregations to do can do is to be very intentional about doing the work on themselves and with themselves and so that means hopping on Google and searching terms like “white privilege” and seeing what people are saying. And it means getting educational resources and there are a plethora of resources that are available on the web to really begin to start to immerse someone who’s actually interested and making a difference on this topic. And so I would encourage any religious leader to really take the initiative to learn about how they can be more impactful on this issue.

Doug Powe: Michael. I appreciate tremendously what you have shared with us. And I think it will help congregations to take the first steps that you have outlined so well. So thank you again for taking the time to be a part of this podcast.

Michael R Fisher: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Dr. Matt Bloom about how clergy can thrive in ministry and cope with the many challenges to their well-being. Dr. Bloom is a research professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and Principal Investigator for the Well-Being at Work Program.

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About Author

Michael Fisher, Jr. has been named assistant professor of African American studies at San Jose State University. He previously served as visiting assistant professor of religion and society at Wesley Theological Seminary and was selected for the prestigious post of Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.