Content Warning: Please note this article discusses rape and racially-motivated attacks.
The last few weeks have been dominated in the media by racist remarks, blackface and white guilt, and Liam Neeson is one of a number of white men who have been at the forefront of this ever-growing storm. Neeson’s now-infamous statement consisted of him relaying a story of his search for retribution after hearing of a friend’s rape, which spurred him to go on the hunt for a “black bastard” to “kill him”. Many have been rightfully disgusted by Neeson’s comments, with New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow criticising Neeson on Twitter, referring to him as “a representative of racial terror,” yet there has equally been a counter movement of support and defence of Neeson, with former footballer John Barnes praising Neeson’s courageousness and applauding his ability to learn from his mistakes.
Neeson has also come to his own defence, appearing on breakfast show Good Morning America to clarify and reiterate that he is not a racist, and that he would have done the same if the assailant was white. Neeson also explained that in retrospect he was ashamed of his thoughts and actions and expressed remorse. “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that.”
The claim from Neeson and his supporters that he should be afforded an opportunity to reform and that he should not be labelled a racist is problematic for many reasons. Firstly, it places the onus on black people to absolve Neeson of his guilt, as it appears as though Neeson was aiming first for a cathartic confession, then absolution. This expectation is unfair, as it takes no regard for the psychological damage comments such as Neeson’s have on black people. Moreover, there appears to be more regard and sensitivity for white fragility, seen in the outrage at Neeson being labelled a racist, than there is for black people’s own far more justified outrage. In this instance, worryingly, it seems the label of ‘racist’ is more taboo than the racism itself.
Secondly, Neeson’s search for vengeance is not a stand-alone instance, but is rooted in a historical power imbalance between white and black men. The presentation of black men as sexual predators and white men as heroic protectors of white women is a classical dichotomy, with this narrative forming the basis of the infamous film ‘The Birth of A Nation”, credited with being a major influence on the reformation of the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s America. This parallel has not been missed by Neeson’s critics, who have likened his actions to a kind of modern-day lynching, which itself revolves around the assault and murder of black men on the basis of protecting white women’s virtue. Historical victims of this process, such as, Emmett Till, who aged 14 was lynched for allegedly ‘offending’ a white woman in 1950s Mississippi, would surely have something to say about Neeson’s apparent attempts once again to make black men the victims of white men’s pursuit of heroism – yet both he historical parallels drawn from Neeson’s comments and the contemporary response should make us all question how far we have actually come on the issue of race.
Image: Georges Biard