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February 10, 2019 / catherinebwrites


Is Liam Neeson a racist? I don’t know the man so, I don’t know. But he’s Irish and we have long been on the receiving end of racism. We have some sense of how insulting, ridiculous, demeaning, undermining, ignorant and horrible it can be. But, we are white, so we also know that our experience is a pale shadow of what people with brown, black or yellow skin experience.

The problem is that most of us grow up with levels of racism. My childhood was spiked with references to the Jews who murdered Jesus, pennies for the poor Black Babies, Africans cooking missionaries in pots, the evils of the Yellow Peril, Russians who killed priests and nuns, the savage Red Indians attacking wagons full of nice white people. All of them, I learned, behaved that way because they were unfortunate pagans who needed Irish Missionaries to guide them on the true path of civility and righteousness!

As an adult I realised that these ideas were not just wrong, but stupid as well. I demonstrated against racism, I refused to buy the produce of racist regimes, I argued against racist comments, attitudes and prejudices. I consciously made friends with anyone I met who was not white. I believed myself to be unprejudiced, anti-racist, open-minded, liberal and generally a very good egg.

And then I went to Trinidad.

One day I found myself in downtown Port of Spain. Looking about me I realised that I was the only white person on the street – and I wasn’t freaked out! That just proved how cool and non-racist I was – totally unaware that this notion was, of itself, racist! I went into a shop. The assistant ignored me. She served several people who had come in after me. Initially I wasn’t bothered but, by the time she’d served the sixth person, while continuing to ignore me, I was getting hot under the collar. Suddenly from the depths of my psyche a thought flashed into my head.

How dare she ignore me… I’m white!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Did I think that? Did I really think that? I was so shocked that I had to leave the shop and rest against a tree. And there, for the first time, I realised that the racism I’d grown up with still lurked deep inside. For the very first time I understood how unaware of our own racism we can be. How it will rise to the surface when we’re put under pressure. It was a sharp slap in the face for my liberal self.

Liam Neeson’s experience was much more distressing than mine. His response at the time was both racist and savage. He recognises that now and regrets it. So here’s my question.

When you realise that your behaviour was racist, when you regret it, learn from it and strive to change , is it racist to recount the incident?

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