The response to Liam Neeson’s recent revelations of his plans to randomly kill a Black man as an act of revenge has now switched to the impact on the actor’s career. But as Kristel Tracey writes, it reflects the fact there is still much work to do around toxic white masculinity and structural racism
You have to wonder what was going through Liam Neeson’s mind when he volunteered the story of the time he walked the streets with a “cosh” looking for a “black b******” to kill.
From the man who once referred to the #MeToo movement as a “bit of a witchhunt”, Neeson was recalling the time he responded to news of the rape of a close friend by a black man.
“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 ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could kill him.”
He was responding to a journalist’s seemingly innocuous question of how he sought inspiration for his new role, in which he plays a man hell-bent on revenge (again). “I’ll tell you a story. This is true” he responded. 40-years-ago, upon returning home from overseas, his friend told him about the traumatic experience. “I asked, did she know who it was? No. What colour were they? She said it was a black person.”
For over a week, Neeson stalked the streets looking for any nameless, faceless black man to harm in retaliation. “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that,” he said. “But I did learn a lesson from it, when I eventually thought, ‘What the fuck are you doing,’ you know?”
The lesson being?
“I understand that need for revenge, but it just leads to more revenge, to more killing and more killing… But that primal need, I understand.”
“Commentary on the story has been deafening and in predictable fashion, there are many out there for whom the accusation of racism is more offensive than the racism itself. Those who sympathise with the ‘primal need’ to protect the honour of a woman he cared about, performing Olympic-worthy mental gymnastics to convince themselves that his response wasn’t also influenced by deeply entrenched racist ideologies”
The admission was shocking and the backlash immediate. The premiere of his new film was cancelled. He appeared on Good Morning America insisting he wasn’t a racist and claiming he would’ve had the same response had the perpetrator been Irish (to which he could’ve just coshed himself on the head in revenge, presumably). He had apparently worked through his murderous impulses at the time by going to confessional, talking to his friends and power-walking for 2hrs a day. Despite previously insisting his response had not been influenced by the race of the perpetrator, he said he’d hoped his admission would encourage people “To open up, to talk about these things. We all pretend we’re all politically correct… sometimes you scratch the surface and discover this racism and bigotry, and it’s there.”
Commentary on the story has been deafening and in predictable fashion, there are many out there for whom the accusation of racism is more offensive than the racism itself. Those who sympathise with the ‘primal need’ to protect the honour of a woman he cared about, performing Olympic-worthy mental gymnastics to convince themselves that his response wasn’t also influenced by deeply entrenched racist ideologies.
“Everyone has irrational thoughts… it doesn’t make them racist” said Niall Boylan on Good Morning Britain. “Neeson has been condemned by all the usual suspects on the fashionable Left, yet there is nothing in his lifetime of public pronouncements to suggest racism,” remarked Moir in the Daily Mail. BBC Breakfast presenters flinched and challenged Kehinde Andrew’s use of the term ‘lynch’ to describe Neeson’s former intentions. John Barnes, the Black ex-footballer who has been an outspoken anti-racism campaigner, claimed that Neeson “deserved a medal” for his honesty – a defence that even Piers Morgan deemed ‘truly shocking’.
As hurtful and incendiary as Neeson’s admission was, he laid bare his bitter truth. His cautionary tale reveals a clusterfuck of toxic masculinity and racism. That many are quick to rationalise and contextualise Neeson’s ‘primal’ instincts and dismiss the explicitly racist component as “irrational thoughts” supports the assumption that Neeson voiced something that resonated with many, for reasons fewer are willing to admit. As highlighted by Moira Doneghan, Neeson had laid bare the logic of lynching: “In many instances, when white men enact racist violence on black men, they imagine – or pretend – that they are committing this violence on white women’s behalf.” Neeson has centred himself in a woman’s trauma and sought to reinforce his masculinity through the use of indiscriminate violence.
“Fears that black men would exact sexual revenge against white men through their womenfolk were used to justify the indiscriminate terror of lynchings. As Neeson’s cautionary tale shows, black men continue to be reduced to an amorphous mass in the white imagination, indistinguishable and therefore guilty-by-association”
Black male sexuality has been the bogeyman in the white male imagination for centuries, a fear and inadequacy that has been weaponised to devastating effect. Black masculinity is still seen as something to be demonised or fetishised, but always dehumanised. During slavery, the stereotype of the strong, virile, animalistic and brutish black male was calcified and used to justify their subjugation. Upon emancipation, the stereotype was weaponised to suggest a predisposition to criminality and deviance. Fears that black men would exact sexual revenge against white men through their womenfolk were used to justify the indiscriminate terror of lynchings. As Neeson’s cautionary tale shows, black men continue to be reduced to an amorphous mass in the white imagination, indistinguishable and therefore guilty-by-association.
Modern manifestations of these stereotypes continue to pose a very real threat to the lives of black men and boys around the world. It is unfortunately apt that on the same day Neeson appeared on Good Morning America, Trayvon Martin should’ve turned 24. In 2012, 17-year-old Martin was walking back to his dad’s fiance’s house after a visit to a nearby convenience store, clasping a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea. He never made it back. For the crime of walking-whilst-black, Martin was reduced to a nameless, faceless black threat – in the eyes of the jury that acquitted his killer, the perceived threat was justification enough.
It’s the same nameless, faceless threat that led a 2018 UN human rights panel to find that the disproportionate number of deaths of black and brown people in incidents with the police shows that structural racism remains rooted in the fabric of British society.
In an environment that is increasingly hostile to those deemed ‘outsiders’ and accommodating to bigots, we are still fighting to prove our basic humanity. Confessions of wrongdoing or outpourings of outrage that aren’t accompanied by real work to confront and dismantle racism are bootless.
“Because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying”
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyrics
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