Monday, June 6, 2016

On Being Neutral

Some of you may be aware that I just returned from a European holiday. We visited six countries in 15 days - quite a trip! My friends and I explored several museums, but we had what I thought was our most interesting interaction with the docent at a small, out of the way place in Basel, Switzerland called The Jewish Museum. The museum is so small that we almost missed it, and I had a hard time finding its online presence as I sat to write this blog.

The Jewish Museum is not a Holocaust museum. Instead, it chronicles the lives of Jewish people who live in the area and shows their successes and their diversity. There were a few artifacts from that terrible time, of course, and as we viewed them our conversation turned to Switzerland's stance regarding Jews during WWII.  We explained to the docent (who spoke English and spent lots of time with us) that as American school children we'd all learned that Switzerland remained "neutral" during that war.

Our docent (who was German and commuted to Basel for work) gave us a wry smile and said (my paraphrase), "Yes, I guess you can say they were neutral. When the Jews fleeing other countries came to the Swiss border they were turned away, although the Swiss authorities certainly knew what would happen to them. If you call that neutral, they were neutral." She went on to note that Hitler had much money hidden in Swiss banks - "I guess that's being neutral, too," she added.

The purpose of this post is not to pass judgement or to make you hate Switzerland. So before you swear off Swiss cheese (which is actually produced in the U.S.), understand that my goal is to examine this concept of "neutrality" and to apply it to American race relations today (you knew I would get to that). Some of us, especially if we are white, may feel that we take a neutral stance on issues of racial justice. We have nothing against people of color in general. We may feel badly about racism as a general principle but be confused as to if and how it really exists and what we can or should do about it. 

Critical race scholar and psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum* proposed the following idea that I think applies well to the concept of neutrality. She said there are only three possible positions toward racism.  We are either:

1. Actively racist. I could mention some names here, but I'll stick to one we'll all agree on - the fictional Archie Bunker (although my students have no idea who he is). This is the person who makes racist comments, tells racists jokes, and fits people into neat little stereotypes based on racial background. Make no mistake, active racism is alive and well but is so politically incorrect that you'd be hard pressed to hear it expressed in mixed circles.

2. Passively racist.  This is the "neutral" category. I'm against racism (kind of, although I might argue that it no longer exists or that whites are the victims of racism, too), but I don't do or say anything to speak out against it. Maybe I'm confused (there are two sides to every story), maybe I'm uncomfortable, maybe I just want all this unpleasantness to go away. But, like the Swiss who turned Jews away at their borders, we can't do nothing to help and claim neutrality. Our paralyzed position is a form of passive racism. My Christian readers might relate this to the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:30 - "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters."

3. Actively anti-racist. Here's the one I want to be. People who are anti-racist think deeply about racial justice and do the best they can to show their opposition within their particular sphere of influence (again, from Tatum). This looks different for different folks - voting, writing, teaching, talking, not laughing at racist jokes, asking honest questions and trying to understand a perspective other than our own. 

When it comes to family arguments, neutrality may serve you well. Keeping your car in neutral may save your transmission stress. And when it comes to buying carpets, neutral is always best. But when we talk about injustice, past or present, neutrality is not the way.

*"Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" And Other Conversations About Race, Basic Books 2003.

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