This morning I’ve been flitting around social media, trying to engage thoughtfully with people who I fervently disagree with on the topic of racism and Liam Neeson. It is taking my whole mind and day up, and I can’t imagine the pain it is causing to many black people who will be scrolling through their timelines seeing more white people take issue with the term “racist” being levelled at Neeson than with, you know, the actual racism. So I thought I’d put my thoughts here, invite the debate to me, and clarify a few things about what the ‘yes he is a racist’ camp might mean. I’m not a spokesperson, but I feel moved to speak, so here’s my two pence:
Let’s get something straight, Liam Neeson is not being brave or candid. He is ‘honesty’ doesn’t deserve a medal, or applause. His retelling of his disturbing, racist anecdote on live TV, accompanied by the words “I’m not racist” betrays at best a misunderstanding of what racism is and, at worst, a disregard for the trauma his recent revelations are causing black people to relive. His matter-of-fact plug for his revenge movie at the end of the ABC interview was crass and deeply insensitive. “I had this disturbing urge to kill any random black guy based on something one black guy did… but my film is good you should go and see it!”
It is being suggested that Neeson’s admission is somehow progressive; that it can “start a conversation”. Or even that he meant to start one himself. As far as I can see he said what he said as an example of what he draws on for character motivation, while promoting his revenge film. What conversation starts from here, exactly? And why does Neeson get to start it? Who controls the flow and scope of this conversation? How can we make sure it doesn’t become centred on Neeson himself and whether or not he is racist (how this is up for debate in 2019 I do not know), or if he should be cancelled? This conversation is already focussed on the injustice being done to a rich, privileged white man who we should all forgive immediately because ‘at least he’s admitted it’.
If this admission wasn’t accompanied by an almost immediate push to defend and rehabilitate Neeson, it could lead perhaps to a conversation. It could lead to a conversation about how white people have been raised to see black men as predators and how this can and does manifest itself in racist violence. It could lead to white people listening to the fact that, just as women live their lives in fear of rape, black people live their lives in fear of racist violence (black women, of course, fear both). But it won’t – the conversation will be about Neeson. No doubt, in 6 months he’ll be being rehabilitated on The Ellen Show and unarmed black men will still be being shot by police.
But what about the argument “it was 40 years ago and he said he’s ashamed!” Okay, firstly, what exactly is he ashamed of? Because it doesn’t seem to be his racism – he won’t even admit to that. He insists it would have been the same if the guy had been “Irish or a Scot”. It’s the urge to violence he regrets, which is something, but not enough. (Let’s just acknowledge the fact that he breaks down white people into nationalities whilst seeing black people as conglomerate).
And, yes, this episode was 40 years ago but the trauma and danger to black lives is still present. Tell Trayvon Martin’s family “it was 40 years ago”; he would’ve turned 24 yesterday, had he not been shot, unarmed, aged 17, by a white man who faced no judicial consequences. Tell it to Steven Lawrence’s family, who fought for two decades to get some semblance of justice for their murdered son. Tell that to the families of black men like Rashan Charles, who are still dying disproportionately in police custody in the UK. Tell it to the women who get spat at and have their Niqab torn off. Tell it to my black friends who still get followed around shops by security. These things are not unrelated, they are a symptom of a society that values white live over black ones.
For me, cushioned by white privilege, this is a difficult but important debate. For black people it is about the lives and their safety.
Neeson’s continual use of the word “primal” is also disturbing. It conjures an idea that his urge to go out and kill an innocent person was somehow a human instinct; involuntary but natural in the circumstances. But, even if we were to take race out of it (which we can’t and shouldn’t) that kind of sustained impulse for randomised violence is not some ‘natural’, masculine instinct to protect – it is a product of the patriarchal and white supremacist paradigms that have shaped Neeson’s subconscious mind (and mine, and yours). He keeps saying he “understands” that urge for revenge, whilst demonstrating he has no understanding of he forces that have shaped it. We cannot allow him to normalise blind rage and violence as a reaction to rape – what if he had killed someone?
Or consider this for a moment: he had told a story about being so angry with a specific woman that he went on the streets hoping to be approached by any woman so he could rape them. Would that admission be admirable and candid? Would it be seen as ‘of it’s time?’. Would that be a “teachable moment”? Could it be said that he wasn’t sexist because he was ashamed and didn’t actually do it?
No, because time is up on that shit and it should be up on this shit too.