The ‘conversation’ Liam Neeson is having is really just an explanation of his actions. To truly examine his past requires taking down the wall of protection so many White people build around themselves to avoid genuine accountability …
During an interview with The Independent earlier this week to promote his new film, actor Liam Neeson used a personal story to highlight how revenge can be fueled by rage and violence – a theme of his movie. He explained that decades ago he found out a close female friend had been raped by a Black man and that he sought revenge by going out in search of any Black male – innocent and unconnected to the assault – so that he could violently retaliate to gain some kind of justice for the woman he cared about.
“I asked, did she know who it was? No. What colour were they? She said it was a black person. I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody – I’m ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could,” another pause, “kill him.” Liam Neeson via The Independent 2/4/19
I think it’s likely that many of us can understand feeling angry and hurt when someone we love has been assaulted. That’s a very human reaction. But the desire to brutalize someone, who would be an innocent victim of your own rage, speaks to something else. Neeson’s reaction wasn’t about justice for the victim, it was about putting his response to her trauma onto another person so that he could feel absolved of any self-perceived blame. Neeson said he woke up to the abhorrent nature of his thinking before he acted on it and sought help from his friends and a priest.
I can’t say with any certainty that Liam Neeson’s reaction was stoked by racism (he has denied this), but seeking revenge in this way – violently making an innocent Black man pay for the actions of someone else – seems to reveal indentured racism to me (walks like a duck, quacks like a duck?).
Here in the United States (and I’m pretty sure in many other places too) his admission has caused ripples of pain and disgust. The deep racist roots of America’s past, that continue to nourish racism in its present, have a devastating impact on communities of Colour today. Neeson’s personal story echoes a legacy of White rage carried out against Black people. And while he certainly opened up a conversation, which must always be encouraged, where do we go from here? He is being applauded for starting a discussion. The thing is, he didn’t start anything. Black, Indigenous and other communities of Colour have been having this dialogue since – forever. I’ve not found any coverage yet that goes beyond providing Neeson with a platform for his explanation. If you know of any good follow-ups that delve more into what work needs to be done, please share them in a comment.
A really valuable and educational resource that’s helped me understand historical context within modern-day acts of racial violence comes via Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror via the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). The detailed EJI report lays bare how historical physical violence/lynchings and White vigilantism has been a tool used against Black men who’ve been accused of sexual assault or perceived sexual/social improprieties against White women to inflict terror and control. Hearing reflections of this racist violence in the words of a well-known actor must have been disturbing to Black Americans and other communities of Colour in this country (and beyond).
So, with regards to Liam Neeson’s admission – conversations are great, but unless it includes actual recognition that what you did was racist, progress will be limited to how far the racist White man wants to evolve. And I’m pretty sure just talking it out with your priest and some buddies isn’t far enough.
What would you like Liam Neeson to do that takes his ‘conversation’ from words and explanation to action and genuine accountability?
Don’t Confuse Revenge With Justice: Five Key Differences (Psychology Today)