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Liam Neeson’s comments show how racism and denial work hand in hand

The problem with how Neeson talks about racism, explained.

2018 Arthur Miller Foundation Honors
Liam Neeson has come under fire after revealing a racist murder fantasy.
LiaPhoto by Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

One of the most nightmarish news stories of this first week of Black History Month has been that Hollywood actor Liam Neeson — star of the Taken franchise and the upcoming revenge film Cold Pursuit — once fantasized about murdering a black man in retribution for the rape of his friend.

“I went up and down areas with a cosh [a bludgeon], hoping I’d be approached by somebody — I’m ashamed to say that,” he told the Independent in an interview published on Monday. “And I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [Neeson apparently gestured air quotes with his fingers] ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could … kill him.”

Neeson is currently promoting Cold Pursuit, about a father who avenges the death of his son. When he was asked by the Independent’s Clémence Michallon how he tapped into the mentality of revenge, Neeson responded with the anecdote quoted in part above — a story about how, 40 years ago, one of his female friends told him she had been raped by a black man she could not identify. Neeson said that upon hearing his friend’s story, he was motivated to go out looking for black men to hurt.

He did express remorse. “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that,” Neeson said to Michallon. “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 f--k are you doing,’ you know?”

Neeson followed up his Independent interview by going on Good Morning America on Tuesday for an interview with Robin Roberts. Asked about his comments, he repeated the story, adding that he came to his senses after going power-walking and talking with friends and a priest.

“There were some nights I went out deliberately into black areas in the city looking to be set upon so that I could unleash physical violence,” Neeson said. “[My response] shocked me and it hurt me. I did seek help. I went to a priest, I aired my confession, I was reared a Catholic. I had two very, very good friends that I talked to. And believe it or not, power-walking helped me. Two hours every day, to get rid of this. I’m not racist. This was nearly 40 years ago.”

For many people, Neeson’s account has tested the limits of shock and dismay. “You are no hero for your admission,” New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote on Twitter. “You are a representative of racial terror.”

Others have defended Neeson, praising his willingness to publicly grapple with his racist act.

“The commentary on Neeson so far reads as if he’d been clandestinely recorded glorying in a secret hatred of black people, not, as is the case, freely giving on-the-record comments,” John Barnes wrote for the Guardian. “He could have kept this whole story to himself and we would be none the wiser.”

Neeson, by his own admission, could have hurt or killed an innocent person based on the color of their skin — which, as some have pointed out, is akin to the mentality used to justify lynching. Then there’s his apparent candidness in telling the story while promoting a revenge movie.

His GMA interview with Roberts was particularly painful in the way that he used the story, and his account of power-walking and talking to friends and a priest to “get rid of this,” to show how he’s progressed on race in the past four decades. But the way he has discussed his response to his friend’s rape shows that he might not have progressed as much as he thinks.

“Whenever a person self-admits [a story like Neeson’s], is charged with being a racist, and their response is, ‘I’m not a racist,’ they’re essentially defining what a racist is,” Ibram X. Kendi, a historian at American University and the author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, told me.

Neeson’s comments and the discussion and debate they have started represent something bigger than Neeson: a problem with how society continues to talk about and define racism.

Neeson repeated his murder fantasy but claimed not to be a racist

After Neeson’s comments were published, critics were quick to point out the obvious: that regardless of when they occurred, Neeson’s actions were both racist and absurd:

Some also questioned whether there was any value in Neeson sharing his story:

When Neeson appeared on GMA on Tuesday, with the apparent intention of clarifying his comments, he retold part of his story and insisted that he is not racist, but was shocked and hurt by the “primal urge” he felt to avenge his friend.

“I’m not racist,” he told Roberts, explaining that if his friend’s attacker had been white, he would have done the same thing. “If she had said an Irish or a Scot or a Brit or a Lithuanian, I know I would have had the same effect. I was trying to show honor, to stand up for my dear friend, in this terrible medieval fashion.”

In that response, Neeson hinted at an apparent difference in how he views white men versus black men and other nonwhite men. When Neeson recounted going to “black areas in the city looking to be set upon so that I could unleash physical violence,” he seemed to indicate that any man with black skin who confronted him would’ve received his vengeance.

But when it comes to white men, Neeson distinguished between specific ethnicities and nationalities.

“What he is saying is that he generalizes individual black people to the entire race of black people. And he generalizes white ethnics to the entire ethnicity,” Kendi said.

“Both of those are problems,” he continued. “The reason why Neeson’s black generalization is a bigger problem is that Neeson’s generalization affects a bigger group of people — a far greater number of innocent people.”

Perhaps the most alarming thing about Neeson’s story is how closely it parallels a historical pattern used to justify violence against black men.

“In Neeson’s mind, all black men were of a piece with one another, an undifferentiated group that was uniformly menacing and collectively responsible for what happened to his friend,” Moira Donegan wrote for the Guardian. “Neeson’s intention of killing a random black man to avenge the rape of his friend recalls the history of American lynching, the mob murders of black people by white people that were often committed under the pretense that the black victim had committed sexual violence against a white woman.”

Neeson’s comments underline society’s skewed view of what it means to be racist

Cynically speaking, white men in Hollywood are a resilient bunch and it’s not hard to believe that Neeson won’t suffer too many consequences for his unprompted admission of a racially driven murder fantasy, despite much rightful disgust at said fantasy.

Though the red-carpet portion of Cold Pursuit’s premiere was canceled in the wake of Neeson’s comments and he reportedly canceled an appearance on The Late Show, director Ava DuVernay tweeted that Neeson being white affords him the privilege to think it’s okay to talk about how he wanted to kill innocent black men, as well as the privilege to likely walk away from that admission unscathed:

But Neeson’s story also reflects a problem that extends beyond Neeson and affects society as a whole.

One of the most pertinent moments in Neeson’s follow-up interview with Roberts came when he confidently asserted that “this was 40 years ago” and stated that he isn’t racist.

Despite Neeson also saying that he worked to get rid of his racist feelings, his reminder that decades have passed since this incident might be interpreted as a declaration that racism and bias are problems that go away with time. If that were true, racism wouldn’t exist today.

Additionally, Neeson’s apparent sensitivity to the word “racist,” contrasted with his comfort in telling an unprompted story during a press junket about wanting to fight and kill random black men, seems to indicate that while he knows better than to go out seeking innocent men to hurt in 2019, he may not have the best grasp on concepts like casual racism.

Neeson’s comments, as well as recent incidents like the resurfacing of a photo in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook of someone in blackface and the Republican Party’s admonishment of Rep. Steve King after a political history fraught with racist comments, show how the terms “racist” and “racism” have effectively lost their meaning in modern society.

My colleague Jane Coaston wrote about this last month when examining the Republican response to King’s comments that softly supported white supremacy, pinpointing how the term “racist” has in some ways become an insult rather than a term defining blatant contempt against nonwhite people.

The result, she argued, is that society has become more sensitive to the words “racism” and “racist” (see: Neeson’s reaction) and less sensitive to actual instances of racism.

We talk about racism, and racists, in a way that turns an egregious evil into a mere show of poor form, and we have turned calling someone a racist into the real sin,” Coaston wrote.

She also argued that “racist” and “racism” have gone from terms that identify contempt or bias against another race to very specific labels that come to identify blatant acts of white supremacy.

Throughout Neeson’s GMA interview, he demonstrated the inability to categorize his logic as racist when he said he would have had the same response if his friend had been raped by “an Irish or a Scot or a Brit or a Lithuanian,” and by labeling his response as a “primal urge” to defend his friend’s honor.

Roberts pushed back on that characterization, and tried to explain to Neeson why his comments caused outrage:

“The one point I want to make out is that this wasn’t discovered by somebody; you admitted this. It isn’t a ‘gotcha’, so I give you credit there,” Roberts said. “But also having to acknowledge the hurt, even though it happened decades ago, the hurt of an innocent black man knowing that he could have been killed for something he did not do because of the color of his skin.”

Neeson had commented earlier during the interview that “luckily, no violence occurred.” He also said that his “primal hatred” shocked him.

But his responses failed to consider intangible concepts like bias and prejudice, by making the most blatant forms of racism the only forms of racism. They also failed to consider what could have happened if Neeson had found a black man to confront.

“The defense of Liam Neeson that he didn’t ‘act’ on it is like exonerating a drunk driver who doesn’t kill anyone,” Kendi said. “The heartbeat of racism is denial — the denial of racist ideas, policies, and acts.”

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