Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Dangers of Neutrality

I’m going to be honest; I am starting to feel a decent amount of anxiety as I begin to write this bog post.  What if I say something wrong?  What if I offend someone?  Who am I to offer any sort of insight?  My task is to discuss what we as leaders can do to address issues around diversity here in our community.   

Across the nation as well as right here in Madison, WI, there is a high amount of tension surrounding the topic of race.  While the issues are not new, they have been brought to the forefront of our nation’s and community’s minds following the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tony Robinson and too many others.  The use of excessive force by law enforcement resulting in the deaths of African American men is a pattern that can no longer be ignored.  Furthermore, the racial disparities right here in Dane County brought to light by the 2013 Race to Equity Report can also not be ignored. 

These tragedies and disparities cannot be acceptable to us as a society.  First, this oppression and institutionalized racism violates people’s basic human rights.  In Dane County in 2011, 75% of black children compared with 5% of Non-Hispanic White children lived in poverty and in 2012 African American adults were arrested at a rate eight times higher than White adults (Race to Equity, 2013).  These disparities have come about from years of oppression and discrimination. 

Second, retaining the status quo hinders our community from actually thriving.  Madison has been rated as one of the best places to live in the nation but Wisconsin has been rated as the worst state for African American children.  This is not to say that Madison as a city is superior to the rest of Wisconsin; in fact, the disparities in Dane County are greater than those in the rest of the state (Race to Equity, 2013).  Our community is not actually thriving. 

So, what can we as leaders do in order to help address these issues in our communities?  This brings me back to the fears I presented in the beginning of this blog: What if I say something wrong?  What if I offend someone?  Who am I to offer insight? 

It is evident in our community that there is understandably a large amount of sadness, anger, fear, resentment, frustration and mistrust among a variety of people.  In light of this and the importance and intensity of these issues, fear creeps in and I often choose to be silent. 

On Monday April 13th I attended a conference here on campus hosted by the School of Social Work entitled, “Confronting Racial Injustice: Social Workers Moving Beyond Neutrality.”  Here, community leaders working to address these issues discussed the concept of neutrality and the ways in which being neutral perpetuates oppression. 

This was my main takeaway: my neutrality and complacency in keeping the status quo has perpetuated oppression.

As a social worker and a student, I have been aware of institutionalized racism, oppression, and discrimination.  However, in this I have been very neutral.  I have merely continued to do the work that I do, complete what needs to get done, and let those with more knowledge, skill and experience address these issues.  I have let the feelings of fear and being uncomfortable keep me from actually working against injustice.  However, in this stagnation, I have allowed oppression to continue, and I imagine that I am not alone in this.  How many of us choose a hands-off approach to avoid uncomfortableness? 

While there are many necessary steps to take and systems to change, from reforming our education system to addressing policing and incarceration issues, I believe that the first step for some of us is to move from a place of neutrality to action; to engage with people who are different from us, to have conversations, ask questions, and seek to understand other’s points of view.  I also believe that the primary action we must take is to listen.  It is only when we actually listen to others that we are able to gain understanding, and from understanding we are able to move towards trust and collaboration, and from trust and collaboration our community can begin to change.     

“Confronting Racial Injustice: Social Workers Moving Beyond Neutrality” (2015).  University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work

“Race to Equity” (2013).  Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.  Received from

Vetterkind, Riley (2015).  “MPD Employs Implicit Bias Training to Combat Racism in Force.”  The Badger Herald.  Retrieved from