We shouldn’t be surprised.
Liam Neeson’s admission that he went looking for a ‘black bastard’ to kill after learning that the rape of his friend was committed by a black man was only shocking in so far as he admitted it.
And no John Barnes, he doesn’t deserve a medal. If there is anything he deserves, it’s to be on a poster; a poster showing how his thoughts and actions were not unique. They were the thoughts and actions of many a self denying racist. Neeson sought to seek revenge not on the man who committed the heinous act of rape, but on any black man he came across. An innocent black man’s life was under threat because, for a week, Neeson decided that the act of one black man, justified the killing of any black person.
Neeson’s words should highlight a larger point; that the environment in which he was brought up, had an impact on how he reacted. Not everybody who grows up in an environment produced by British imperialism will feel the compunction to try and find a black person to kill as a method of revenge. Thankfully he didn’t. When black people talk about having better and more positive representation in the media, it is to combat situations like this. Had Neeson not had his bigoted upbringing in Northern Island during the ‘troubles’, perhaps his thoughts wouldn’t have gone to such a dark place. But they went there.
I don’t doubt that there are many people across the UK who heard his confession and could empathise with Neeson, having had similar thoughts on one occasion or another. While they may not admit it like Nesson, or may not have carried out their own brand of vigilante justice, those thoughts and feelings do not just disappear after talking to friends. They surface in the form of off colour jokes, burner twitter accounts, the rejection of a black Hermione Granger and ridiculous stories about Raheem Sterling. The microaggressions and subtle racism that many people of colour often talk about are the outpourings of white frustration at not being able to exact the violent revenge that may take over their thoughts. The lynchings in the US during the mid 20th century, were children were given days off school and the bodies of young black men were left to hang like Strange Fruit, were the result of whites being able to express their anger with no repercussions. To them, taking the life of any black person was justified if there was even a hint of wrongdoing. If Liam Neeson had indeed killed a black man in revenge, it would tantamount to nothing short of a modern day lynching – the killing of an innocent to appease a desire for race based revenge.
When this all happened is irrelevant. The fact that it happened is all that matters. Winston Churchill is well known for being a racist, having expressed his disgust for Indians saying, ‘I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” However, his supporters are quick to point out that he simply held the opinions of his time. Imperialism thrived as the British Empire regarded blacks as less than human 400 years ago. Men, women and children were segregated in the United States 60 years ago because of the colour of their skin. 40 years ago Neeson wanted to kill a man for a crime he did not commit simply because he was black. The New Cross fire in 1981. Stephen Lawerence in 1993. Dylann Roof in 2015.
The opinions of the time seem to be timeless.
Of course, Liam Neeson has learned from that ‘episode’. There would be no way he would have volunteered that information if he didn’t feel as though he could declare that he is now over his racism, like a strong bout of flu. For him, it was a moment in time. For many of us, it’s a daily reality, knowing that there are people walking the streets who want to act out on thoughts that have been influenced by the media and learnt from family members and immediate communities. Their thoughts and actions may not kill us, but they may affect job prospects, our love lives, self-confidence and mental health.
Neeson was right about one thing though. There needs to be more dialogue. But not from us. We’ve marched, protested, debated, written, sung, and preached for years. To quote Reni Eddo-Lodge, ‘You can only do so much from the outside’.
And power walking won’t help.