'Funny Tinge': Why Can't People Stop Saying Bizarre, Racist Things In Interviews?

After Angela Smith's blunder and Liam Neeson's comments, how is it possible that strange racial PR nightmares keep happening in 2019?

Two months in, and conversations around race in 2019 have already made me tired, enraged, and well, confused. Yesterday, within half a day of a new political group being set up, one of its seven members, Angela Smith, had to issue an apology following a “race row” sparked live on air. If you haven’t watched the footage of “funny tinge-gate” I highly recommend you do – it’s uncomfortable viewing, but something you have to see to believe.

But I’m also getting a throwback to waking up blurry-eyed and baffled to see that Liam Neeson had said something on a similarly strange racial note, just over two weeks ago. In case you’re living under a rock, Neeson found himself at the centre of an international controversy after admitting to roaming the streets with a cosh, looking to kill any black man he saw, following the sexual assault of a loved one. Yes, saying someone has a “funny tinge” and discussing murderous urges towards black people are different things – but something unites them: their shock value, their blunderousness, and frankly their bizarreness. Watching and listening to both clips, you feel the heavy, unbearable weight of painful awkwardness descend on you.

In light of the Liam Neeson PR disaster, David Mitchell asked the pertinent question: “why didn’t Neeson just stick to the script?”. It’s a good question – neither Neeson nor Smith were obliged or coerced into talking about race. They could have easily either left it out of the picture, or to someone more knowledgable – or stuck to a safe and prepared statement. So why can’t people stop saying strange, racist things in interviews? Is something broader going on here?

One explanation is that conversations about race have come a long way, in a relatively short period of time, perhaps too quickly for many people in the public eye to keep up with. One thing that’s notable about the explosion of the discourse of race and oppression into the mainstream is that it’s closely intertwined with the digital world. Online platforms have given people of colour, particularly writers like me, unprecedented space to share their experiences and lead a rapidly evolving conversation. The combination of potential anonymity, huge shareability, and freer platforms for thinking and discussing has shaped the way we think about justice. We also watch less TV and engage in less traditional media than generations before – we prefer platforms where we can more actively shape the conversation. I see traditional media, and the people it privileges, as lagging far behind the discussions we’re having online. In part, what we’re seeing is the result of a huge knowledge gap between audiences and public figures when it comes to talking about identity.

Another unavoidable truth here is the fact that both incidents involve white people talking on race. White people can talk about race proficiently and with in-depth understanding; Robin DiAngelo, who sat across from Smith, looking faint from shock, coined the term “white fragility” and has proven herself a prolific thinker on race and whiteness. But DiAngelo is very much an anomaly – without bringing lived experience to discussions on race, white people can often stumble when they find themselves in the hot seat. Terminology is important, and when you’ve had enough conversations about race, certain terminology slips off the tongue very naturally without much thought. What Smith was trying to say was “people of colour”, “ethnic minority people” or, what she eventually went for, “BME”, but the fact she couldn’t find the term indicates a lack of practise in actually talking about it. The stumbling, fumbling, painfully awkward silences that punctuate both Smith and Neeson’s statements, to me, look like the hallmark of people who have not often had to speak on race before. Neither interviewee seems comfortable or confident in the hole they’re digging themselves.

But this just further presses the question of why talk about it at all then? Why do we keep seeing white people flung into the centre of conversations about race? It likely has something to do with the aforementioned way that conversations about marginalisation have evolved. There’s more demand than ever from the digital world, particularly in this current political climate and government, to speak on race and identity. Some of both the criticism and sympathy Neeson received surrounded the idea that he was trying to open up a conversation about race (but doing it very, very, badly). To me, it just looked like he was trying to perform some type of strange “wokeness” without an understanding of what that analysis actually entailed. And there’s a similarity here with Smith – she was actually trying to talk about the important issue of anti-Semitism and racism on the left when she stumbled and made the blunder.

Perhaps the PR world also needs to catch up with the culture of virality. Might the format of talking interviews be dead? Both were interviewed rather than putting out statements themselves, and Smith was live. When words go online forever, to be thrown into inconceivably large audiences who can make things trend, carefully considered, written arguments take on a fresh importance. Perhaps things need to be more carefully checked over than they were before? This may be a part of what went wrong for both Neeson and Smith in recent weeks – but this still can’t fully account for how bizarre their racist comments were.

My main advice to celebrities and politicians who want to engage in critical conversations on race, but also to television producers and journalists, is to keep people of colour front and centre when we do so. We don’t always want to talk about race, but those of us who are willing to, and have the experience to, are abundant. When you’re not being asked to talk about race, it is not essential to clumsily shoehorn in tangential anecdotes that later require on-air apologies. And when you are being asked to talk about race, like in the case of Smith, it’s worth interrogating whether you’re as clued up as you should be, whether you’ve consulted enough people of colour, had enough conversations in your day to day life, and thought critically enough to do so. Apologies always follow, and Smith has since insisted she is not racist and was “very upset” at having misspoken “so badly”. But one thing’s for sure, if you have no experience of racism, you’re probably going to stifle conversations on race, or at least give them – for lack of a better term – a funny tinge.


What's Hot