The revelation by the actor, Liam Neeson, that he reacted to the rape of his friend by looking for a Black man to attack has generated a lot of publicity. Some of his own comments and the comments of others, however, reveal a deep misunderstanding of the nature of racism (and, by extension, other types of oppressive behaviour).
Part of the discussion has centred on whether or not he is racist. He, himself, has maintained that he is not racist and abhors the way he responded to what happened. Unfortunately, all of this misses the point.
I have no doubt that Neeson is a good person, but any white person who grows up in a predominantly white culture, with the best will in the world, cannot escape internalising racist feelings and attitudes. And, to one degree or another, these feelings and attitudes will get acted out. I don’t know any white person, including myself, who has escaped this.
So, the real question isn’t whether someone like Neeson is racist or not. There is no way he or any other white person could have avoided becoming racist given the culture around them.
The much more relevant question is in what ways are we white people racist and what are we doing about it.
I suspect that when someone says they are not racist, often what they mean is that they are not aware of any prejudicial feelings or behaviour on their part, particularly extreme forms of these. This fails to take account of the fact that much oppressive behaviour happens unawarely and often in subtle ways. Just because we don’t intend any hurt does not mean we won’t be oppressive. Oppression is best recognised by its effects on the oppressed rather than the intentions of the perpetrator.
What was refreshing about what Neeson said was his honesty about how he reacted and his admission that it was abhorrent. What was unfortunate was the subsequent debate over whether or not he was racist.
Implicit in this debate also is a tendency to divide people into good white people (not racist) and bad white people (racist). This then makes it difficult to have any useful communication. If racist equals bad person, then very few people are going to accept that label. On the other hand, if we accept that people are essentially good and they carry oppressive patterns of behaviour, then we can move on to look at what we can do together to overcome our prejudices.