Liam Neeson has been giving white people fits this week, not because they’re scared they might bump into him in the street someday (that’s my problem, apparently), but because they can’t figure out why his admission to attempting to commit a premeditated hate crime isn’t being embraced by black people as the kumbaya moment they think it should be. That’s because in that moment, he was not atoning for anything.
When someone admits to the kind of thing that Neeson did, then a day after it breaks walks around telling people, “I’m not racist”, it means they don’t understand what racism is. The first step of atonement may be to admit what you did wrong, but you also can’t fully atone for something you don’t understand.
Part of actual atonement seeking would have involved some other steps being taken that were not present here, like mindfulness of the audience, actually naming the problem in question (admitting to his anger management is not the same as admitting to his racism), and admitting as much in an actual platform where the admission can be dissected. It may be a confession but it isn’t atonement, and there is a difference. This isn’t atonement. This is him trying to show us how he used crystals to cure his lung cancer. That’s not how any of this works.
A typical white response to saying as much has been, “Well, who are you to say what racism is?” I’m the person not only affected, but targeted by it. I’m the person who doesn’t get to turn those effects off, ever. I’m the person who can’t afford to get caught in the street with someone like Liam Neeson when he can’t control himself. I’m the person whose very existence is owed to worldwide white supremacy and imperialism. I’m the person whose lone tweet or post you don’t get to take out of the larger context and thrust of my many tweets and posts about what racism is.
This is why I’m constantly telling white people that you don’t get to tell us when you’ve conquered racism. You don’t even know whiteness better than we do. How can you be expected to determine the bar on when your racism is cured? The fact that you think racism can be cured is part of the problem.
Anyone who sits in the lap of a society literally designed to cater to, reward, and otherwise benefit consciously or unconsciously those who meet the ideals of white supremacy by virtue of their very existence is a participant in racism. If you want to debate degrees or extents or outcomes or origins, fine, but you don’t ever get to pull yourself out of that system. The fact that you think that’s how the system works proves you don’t understand how the system works.
I’m sorry black people haven’t set up an office where you can go get checked out or an official test you can take or an ombudsman you can report to or a single essay that sells this best or a special book with all the answers or an extremely patient black person you can make an appointment with and pay by the hour to figure this all out. Or better, absolve you. Or better, cure you. Or, at the very least, simply make you feel better about it. Sorry we don’t have that set up for you. We had to fight to get 28 days of your attention on us, and that’s entirely optional. I’d say we should set aside a holiday for such work, but we don’t even celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in every state in 2019, so maybe we’re not the problem.
The most viral thing I’ve ever written is a description of racism. Two things about that:
1) It’s not viral because it’s convenient or short or a meme or annotated. It’s viral because people are constantly looking for answers about how to navigate racism.
2) It’s not even the best or most complete definition of racism I’ve written.
It might be the best description of racism I’ve written, but I only use about one line out of my actual definition in the quote. (And yes, it takes more than one line when you’re trying to do the job right.) The rest of the quote is largely a symbolic description of racism. I point this out because definitions are important in determining not just if we can have a conversation, but if we are capable of doing anything about what it is we’re discussing.
I didn’t arrive at my definition from a place of convenience. I arrived at it from a place of experience and research. I’m not making up a definition that suits my strengths and white people’s weaknesses. If you’re wondering why we get to use my definition instead of, say, yours, it’s primarily because you’re talking to me. I probably didn’t seek you out. So when you step to me to have a discussion about racism, my definition is where we are starting from. If you want me to reconsider my historically, politically and intellectually sound definition for one that makes you feel better or that maybe lets you feel like you have a shot in the debate, then float your definition and let’s see if it stands up. I got no problem dissecting definitions if I’m in the mood, have the time and – and this is important – see a discernible benefit to engaging you. I don’t exist on social media. I have a life and a job and people I can talk to when I feel like having conversations for fun’s sake.
I am under no obligation to engage you, no matter how well-intentioned your request to do so might be.
Ain’t nobody scared of having a conversation about race with you. I mean, unless you’re Liam Neeson, then maybe I need to come to that table with a sock full of quarters. I’ve been living directly against the grain of racism all my life. I have been reading, writing and speaking on racism for decades. If I’m not having a conversation with racism or white supremacy with you, it’s not because I can’t. It’s probably because I have made a decision not to. Why I don’t want to may vary, but whatever the reason is, best believe it’s valid.
Talking about racism isn’t fun. It’s work. And depending on the platform or audience of that work, I may deem it not worth either of our time to commit to it. I am not here for the intellectual exercise and I am not here to make people feel better about realizing a hard truth about themselves. I am engaged in a war against racism. It is a war that will not end in my lifetime. I’m okay with that reality. I’m not writing any of this for you. I’m writing this for the people who come next, or the people I will never meet, or the people for whom a seed may in fact become something more in their life. What are you writing for? To change my mind? To be able to say we had the conversation? To feel better? I’m not engaging anything that has a whiff of that on its breath.
Let us entertain, briefly, the possibility that you may be here to learn. It’s a popular enough refrain from white people: “How can I work on it if no one will show me the way?” Well guess what: every sentence in this essay ties to another essay I have already written that further explores what that sentence is about. You don’t even have to leave the website my thoughts are on to learn more about what I am saying if I’m the only source you wish to engage. So consider this my chip count to sit at the table. Read what I wrote on whatever it is you want to debate – not my tweet, not my single post that day. My essay(s) – and then maybe you get to gamble with my time. It’s not like I didn’t spend hours writing that stuff already, or years reading and learning things to be able to write that stuff. I’m not like your other black internet friends. I’m particular about my fights. I’m like Goro at the top of the Mortal Kombat tree. You don’t just get to skip all the other fights and then select me on the menu screen. If you want that fight, the whole of the internet awaits you.
Me? I got things to do. And apparently I have to now keep an eye out for Liam Neeson in the street.