The actor’s candid admission tells us a lot about racial bias. We should seize this moment to learn more
By John Barnes
Everyone seems to have had their say on the Liam Neeson’s “racist” interview, including me. I seem to be one of very few people defending him, and I’d like to explain why.
I have been accused of being an apologist for a racist, but let me start off by saying that I’m sure that Neeson is as unconsciously racially biased as the next person. Myself included. This is perfectly understandable when you consider the value and worth ascribed to different groups by our society. This is deeply ingrained in our history, literature, news reporting and beyond – whether it’s Muslim grooming gangs, Nigerian conmen or Jamaican drug dealers.
On first hearing the Neeson story I had the same reaction that most people seem to have had. I was appalled. Then, after listening to the whole interview and taking some time to reflect on how this story fits in with my views on race and racism, my interpretation changed.
I have spent the last few days on TV and radio trying to engage in meaningful conversation about the nuances of the situation, and I don’t feel that it has been particularly fruitful.
The way the media frames the discussion is very influential: “John Barnes commends Liam Neeson for saying he wanted to kill a black man”, vs “John Barnes commends Liam Neeson for amending his previously held racist views”. Of course the first of these headlines will attract more attention, but sensationalising complex topics like this hurts the discussion we need to be having about racial bias.
I take it as read that the idea of someone stalking the streets seeking out any “black bastard” to murder is inherently abhorrent and racist. However it seems that for most people, rather than this being a jumping-off point to start a conversation, it is where the conversation ends. He did say those things so there is no defence. Many are happy to ignore the fact he was admitting to a shameful, backward way of thinking, which he now knows is wrong. Unfortunately, this approach does nothing to address the conscious or unconscious bias that many, if not all of us, feel. By only condemning Neeson’s candid admission we lose an opportunity to explore the causes and effects of racial bias that are so pervasive today.
So Piers Morgan, for example, moved seamlessly from lambasting MSP Ross Greer for correctly identifying Winston Churchill as a “white supremacist, mass murderer”, to criticising me for my support of Neeson. To top it off he claims to know what black people think, declaring: “If you’re a black person in Britain, in America, anywhere in the world, this is about as offensive as it gets.”
Policing language and even legislating against certain behaviours will only go so far to address the pervasive problem of racial bias. To get at the root cause we must have open, honest and sometimes painful conversations. This must involve allowing people who have held biased views in the past to be heard without fear of recrimination – it’s surely a chance for all of us to learn.
After his initial interview Neeson gave a longer, more detailed interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, explaining that the context of this story was 30 odd years ago in Northern Ireland during the Troubles when random sectarian acts of “revenge” on innocent people of both religions were rife. His background makes seeking out an “other” to attack, in revenge for a highly traumatising attack on a member of his group, more understandable. For Neeson to have extended that thought process to black people in this situation is in keeping with that mentality.
Most people would accept that we are, to a certain extent, products of our environment. While we have to take personal responsibility for our actions, I have a great deal of empathy for people who are unconsciously racially biased, and indeed count myself among their number. I use that term instead of “racist” because the toxicity of that word renders it useless in nuanced conversation – where the only sane response to “the R-word” is to deny/condemn and stop all further discussion for fear of being tarnished.
When I was asked in an interview [on Thursday] whether I would forgive Neeson if he had actually killed an innocent black man I was stumped. Of course I couldn’t? But then I considered how I would feel about a young black kid living in inner city London who gets caught up in the wrong crowd and ends up killing someone with a knife. A young man living in a society in which he feels that he has no opportunities? This is not an excuse for murder but maybe I can see how this young man’s environment has pushed him towards this path.
Neeson went on to talk about the bigotry and racism still present in Northern Ireland when you scratch the surface. It shows that, 20 years after the end of the Troubles, there are still conversations that need to be had.
The commentary on Neeson so far reads as if he’d been clandestinely recorded glorying in a secret hatred of black people, not, as is the case, freely giving on-the-record comments. This is not Mel Gibson on a drunken antisemitic tirade. This was a story purposely told to a journalist in which he explicitly explained that he was horrified about thinking this way. He could have kept this whole story to himself and we would be none the wiser.
The fight against racial bias in society will not be won by hounding Liam Neeson or boycotting his films. It will be won by allowing honest discussions about why people hold biased views and exposing the flawed logic behind them. – The Guardian.
John Barnes is a former England footballer.