This morning, the internet outed Liam Neeson as a racist. However, I don’t blame him, I blame the environment he was raised in, and the culture today that doesn’t see the difference between innocence and guilt.
This morning, the words “Liam Neeson” are tattooed across the walls of social media, as users blithely check if the man is dead, only to discover that he’s very much alive, but now very much dead to them.
Liam Neeson: I used to hunt black people in pubs pic.twitter.com/JsWDh3J9uA
— Lovingmesomeme❤️🌈❤️ (@Royallytrue) 4 February 2019
In case you missed it, Liam Neeson, is a racist. Which seems to be the short easy answer, but that’s not the entire plot. While promoting his latest movie expressed regret of a past action, as he dealt with the rape of someone he knew through the illustration of hopeful violence. Neeson quizzed her friend, “did she know who it was? No. What colour were they? She said it was a black person.” He continued: “I went up and down areas with a cosh (a large stick), hoping I’d be approached by somebody – I’m ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could … kill him.”
To further that point, and not dip to clickbait, the modern-day Neeson expressed woe, stating that “..it was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that. And I’ve never admitted that, and I’m saying it to a journalist. God forbid. It’s awful. But I did learn a lesson from it, when I eventually thought, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’”
Neeson also did admit that his earlier years were coloured by the hue of violent revenge as a worthy medium. “I knew a couple of guys that died on hunger strike,” he said, “and I had acquaintances who were very caught up in the Troubles, and I understand that need for revenge, but it just leads to more revenge, to more killing and more killing, and Northern Ireland’s proof of that. All this stuff that’s happening in the world, the violence, is proof of that. But that primal need (for revenge), I understand.”
So that’s that. The issue, of course, is the means of his revenge. In that he couldn’t find the black man that did it, so he looked for a proxy, any black man will do. The fact that he’s shown remorse about the action, and admitted it (albeit to promote a movie), is an important point.
But Neeson taken by revenge merely illustrates something far more ancient. There’s long been a concept that has existed to boost racists, in order to legitimise their existing predispositions. We’ll use the black-white angle to keep it within the narrative. 1955 saw the brutal murder of Emmett Till, who was perceived to insult (read: flirt with) a woman in a grocery store. The race riots that visited Nottingham in 1958 was kicked off after a black man was apparently chatting up a woman in a pub.
For a more contemporary example, look no further than 2015, when Dylann Roof’s murder of nine people was apparently punctuated by the statement: “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.” Examples exist elsewhere, post-WW1 Germany found time to assemble the “black horror on the Rhine”, the idea that French colonial soldiers of Senegalese origin on their borders were primitive and posed a specific sexual threat to women. Speaking of France, their mixed-raced World Cup winning (and losing) football teams were subject to the same divisions on racial grounds. Any largely colonial nation has stories such as these. Articulating the black faces around them as not individuals, but representative of a collective, and in turn, entirely responsible for the crimes of an awful few.
Neeson is a great example of this. He wanted to hurt a black man to hurt the black man that hurt him. It didn’t matter who that was. It’s hard not to take it personally, this impersonal brand of violence. I don’t blame Liam Neeson, I blame those who established that thinking, and indeed, those who continue to cultivate it today. Using the Neeson example, I blame the environment he was raised in. The white troubles of Northern Ireland didn’t allow the humanisation of black people. There weren’t many around, or no-one bothered to make a connection. So, it was easier to assume, and not see the difference between a guilty black man and an innocent one. However, the streets of Liam’s youth can easily be transported to our own. We may have our own awful history, but it also exists in the interpersonal (or lack of) relationships between black and white Australians today. It’s easy to assume that we’re all petrol sniffers, or rapists, and use that as a reason to not make a connection. I mean, why would you? They’re dangerous.
The difference between Liam Neeson and Kerri-Anne Kennerley is a big stick and a large pile of regret, that’s all. Let’s attempt to find the difference between guilt and innocence, and one individual from another. Happy Birthday, Rosa Parks.