If Liam Neeson was brave enough to admit murderous feelings for black men, then he should be brave enough to admit that he is — or was — racist.
Throughout February 2019, Black History Month, multiple high-profile white people defended themselves against accusations of racism by insisting they were not racist.
There was Liam Neeson, who, amidst the uproar after his admission that he wanted to kill a black man — any black man — to avenge his friend’s rape, denied that his rage was racially motivated: “If she had said an Irish, or a Scot, or a Brit, or a Lithuanian, I know it would have had the same effect.”
There was Mary Ann Lisanti, a Maryland state delegate, who apologised for referring to an area as a “n — — — district” by saying “I am sickened that a word that is not in my vocabulary came out of my mouth. It does not represent my belief system, my life’s work or what is in my heart.”
Then Republican representative Mark Meadows defended Trump, saying he can’t be racist because he has an African-American woman working in his administration, and expressing a desire for former President Barack Obama to go “home to Kenya” in 2012 by saying he “didn’t have a racist bone in his body”.
And don’t forget former Labour minister Angela Smith in the UK, after saying “it’s not just about being black, or a funny tinge” on BBC Politics Live, denied racist intent: “I’m very upset I misspoke so badly. It’s not what I am.”
The problem is, that it is who we are. As white people, we are conditioned from birth to see whiteness as a neutral default, and every other ethnicity or skin colour as an aberration. We unconsciously inherit our society’s racist worldview, steeped in colonialism and manifest in higher rates of poverty, poorer health outcomes, fewer economic and educational opportunities, and disproportionate rates of incarceration. To deny that you harbour racist prejudices is to demonstrate that you haven’t done the work to consciously rid yourself of them.
When we hear ‘racist’, we think of people wearing white hoods and swastikas, shouting malicious abuse.
But most racism is masked by good intentions. It’s implicit, unconscious, and unintentional. We didn’t stop being prejudiced when the civil rights movement stigmatised racism — we just became more afraid of being labeled a racist. And to deal with our shame and embarrassment, we deflect accusations without ever confronting what they actually mean.
Neeson and Smith’s apologies were disappointing because they missed a chance to spark a discussion about the ways in which our words and actions betray deep-seated prejudice. We need to talk about how, however well-intentioned we are, it doesn’t stop us being racist.
These four are racist. Arguably to differing degrees. But still racist. To deny this, to argue otherwise, to assert their inherent moral goodness and claim it was just a “slip”, is gaslighting. They blamed it on tiredness, compared the n-word to the f-word, said they worked it out with power-walking, claimed having a black supporter absolves you of racism. How frustrating, how tiring it must be to have the entire system and legions of powerful individuals against you, with real consequences on your life (and death), and for them — us — to deny that anything is amiss at all.
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Doubtful that you’re a racist? Horrified at the thought? Perhaps you should take Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, which measures how fast you can categorise negative words when they are followed by pictures of white and black faces. Non-black participants are faster at categorising the negative words when they follow photos of black faces. This map shows the average scores of countries in Europe. I got a ‘slight preference for white faces’.
There have been several studies that have shown the effect of this unconscious bias. One found that white people have more activity in their amygdala (a region in the brain associated with fear) when shown black faces than when they are shown white faces — even when they report no racist feelings.
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Once you start to examine your thoughts, attitudes and actions, you’re likely to find things you find uncomfortable. Shameful. Things that are at odds with your beliefs and your intentions. But just because you’re against prejudice doesn’t mean you’re free of it.
I’ll offer a few of my own experiences, so that it might prompt your own self-reflection.
When I was a teenager, around 2000, my family held a Tarantino-themed party. Four white men came in blackface, as Samuel L. Jackson. Their face-paint melted on the bouncy castle. We found it funny. look back on it with intense shame, but at the time, no one around me questioned it, and neither did I.
And if I’m honest, I am more scared of black men on the street at night than I am of white men. It’s not fair, it’s not rational, and I’m forever trying to fight with that impulse. But to deny that it exists at all is almost as bad as feeling it in the first place.
Racism is uncomfortable to confront. As white people, we’re terrified of being branded a racist. The stigma of being a racist, it seems, has spread faster than understanding of what racism actually is.
If it helps, realise that it’s not necessarily our fault that we’re racist. It doesn’t make us all bad people. Absorbing your society’s prejudices is not, after all, a conscious act. (Some racists are morally bad, of course, and sometimes it is people’s fault). But it is our responsibility to work on it, to “consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialisation,” in the words of anti-racist feminist activist bell hooks.
That means owning our words and actions, identifying the prejudices harboured within them, and admitting our biases, whether unconscious or conscious. We created racism; it’s our problem to solve.