• Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

The Uncomfortable Truth about Racism by John Barnes

ByFreddy Lowe

Nov 25, 2022

CW: references to racially aggravated violence

In 2019, beloved Irish actor Liam Neeson made headlines for his controversial comments on race. While promoting the film Cold Pursuit, he told a story from nearly 40 years prior when a friend of his had been raped by a Black man. Neeson was so enraged that, for a week, he ventured into Black areas looking to be set upon by any Black man so that he could unleash physical violence. Eventually, he was ashamed by how he felt, immediately sought help, and realised that he was appallingly wrong to have these horrible feelings towards ‘any’ Black person.

There was an intense backlash, so much so that the premiere of Cold Pursuit was cancelled. People called for his films to be boycotted. It looked for a while as if the actor would never work again. Piers Morgan compared his actions to the KKK and demanded on Good Morning Britain that he be “roundly condemned”.

Then John Barnes, a Black former England footballer, weighed in. He said that “Liam Neeson deserves a medal” for being honest about his unconscious bias and for realising that his horrendous thoughts were so wrong. On Sky News, Barnes declared, “we have people who have been [having racially aggravating thoughts] for hundreds of years, but as long as we don’t admit it, we believe that everything is okay.  …he should be applauded for saying, ‘yes, I was an unconscious racist, and after a week I was horrified that I was.’ But people will be afraid to admit it now because of what has happened to Liam Neeson [the backlash].”

He doubles down on Liam Neeson in his book The Uncomfortable Truth about Racism: “If only more people would do the same in being honest with themselves about their true feelings towards not only Black people but so many other groups who are disenfranchised by mainstream society, then the world truly would be a better place.”  

Barnes’s philosophy is that we are all culpable of discriminatory perceptions but should not feel guilt. Instead, we should admit it and acknowledge the flawed ways we have been taught to think. We should all declare, “yes, I do think negatively of [x, y, z]. I know it’s wrong. Don’t blame me. Blame what society, the media, and my experiences have wrongly portrayed to me, and now I strive to correct my perceptions.” He believes that if we guiltlessly but honestly examine ourselves introspectively, then that is how we truly change our perceptions.

This philosophy is what makes The Uncomfortable Truth about Racism so compelling. The first chapters are biography, where he narrates the racism directed at him as a footballer. Then he discusses history and colonialism before finally addressing more modern examples of racism in the media (for instance, Liam Neeson) and how he thinks we should respond. 

A big question I had was, “does John Barnes agree with Critical Race Theory?” The answer, I believe, is yes and no. From my interpretation, he wholeheartedly agrees that unconscious bias exists. He believes even more strongly that white privilege exists. Barnes perceives that nothing tangible has changed for Black people throughout history and that our capitalist society predominantly favours white, middle-class men in positions of power.

Nevertheless, he offers fresh and possibly controversial stances on many current topics about race. His stance on statues is particularly revealing. He is largely indifferent to whether statues are removed or not, claiming it doesn’t bother him “one way or the other”, but speculates that perhaps they could “serve as a reminder of the discrimination of the past, without judgement so that it may not happen again. Without those reminders, mistakes and perceptions of the past may be tangibly forgotten, so there may be no accountability for the present or future as the visible proof will have been erased.” He also points out that those historical figures were “heroes of that age, misguided or not, and the views they held were largely the same as the majority of the people at that time.”

Barnes also disagrees with the ‘neutering’ of broadcasters, referencing sports broadcasters being banned from calling Black men lazy. He acknowledges the damaging trope of the ‘lazy Black man’ but says that if we ultimately want equality, then we should be treated equally. If a Black man is letting everyone run past him on the pitch, we should be allowed to call him lazy.

Most interestingly, he addresses holier-than-thou activists condemning “scapegoats” in the media as racists; scapegoats such as Liam Neeson, Peter Beardsley (who he sympathises with on the grounds that his type of banter was accepted in his era), Amy Cooper, Amber Rudd, Alan Hansen, the football fans who abuse Raheem Sterling, etc. Barnes says we cannot create an environment where people are hounded for unconscious bias. For ultimate truth and reconciliation, we should encourage people to come forward, so they can openly admit it and be willing to change. He also believes that we are not qualified to condemn people. We all have views that need alignment, himself included.  Not just straight, white men: everybody. We cannot condemn ‘scapegoats’ to make ourselves feel better and pretend that we are okay. Barnes emphasises more than anything that we all have biases that need correcting. But, most crucially, we should not blame ourselves for these imperfections. All we need to do is be introspective and constantly self-reflect.

 Image Credit: “John Barnes” by Sjur Bjørkly is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival