Is Liam Neeson a racist?


Liam Neeson, action star known from the “Taken” series as well as many other films, made a statement that shocked many of his fans. During an interview promoting his new film while speaking about a rape of a loved one he discussed his response to seek revenge:

“I went up and down areas with a cosh [crowbar], hoping I'd be approached by somebody. I'm ashamed to say that, and I did it for maybe a week -- hoping some [Neeson gestured air quotes with his fingers, according to the Independent] 'black bastard' would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could kill him.”[1]

Neeson did state that what he did was horrible and that he had learned from it:

“It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that,” he said. “And I've never admitted that, and I'm saying it to a journalist. God forbid.”

“Holy s***,” said Tom Bateman, his co-star, who was reportedly sitting next to Neeson during the interview.

“It's awful," Neeson continued. "But I did learn a lesson from it, when I eventually thought, 'What the f*** are you doing', you know?”[2]

Now on its face, a person seeking retribution for the harming of a friend or family member, is as old as humanity. And the social psychology of people engaging in tribalism is also as old as our collective race. Always, people who see themselves in one type of collective or another view outsiders with a bit of caution. And if an outsider commits a crime on someone in a collective; the response can be blaming the whole group that the outsider comes from. Now does any of this make Neeson justified in how he responded? No, but it does allow for us to contextualize he feelings and understand where they came from. The question is would Neeson have felt as angry had his friend’s rapist been a White man? We can only speculate; however, the phraseology he utilized makes us consider the actuality of race as he was waiting for a “black bastard” (Presumably any Black would do, rather they did it or not didn’t matter) that he “could kill.” Had Neeson not utilized racial imagery to talk about this, it would not have been nearly as troubling; but he did. This brings up the troubling past of how Black males have been and are viewed in Western society since the first slaves were taken to Europe and the Americas during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Sex between Black men and White women was discouraged and eventually legally prohibited. However, sex between White men and Black women was not only allowed; but encouraged as a way of control, terror and a means to make more slaves. Prior to the Civil War, Blacks were often described as child like, a way to justify slavery was to posit that the poor Blacks just couldn’t take care of themselves. But one of the fearmongering tactics utilized to get the majority, which was (and still is) poor and working class Whites to get on board to fight a war that benefited primarily rich slave / land owners; was the propaganda campaign that freed Blacks would revert to their “savage / morally bankrupt” state and run amok committing crimes. Clifton R. Breckinridge, a 19th century southern politician characterized the free Black male as such: “when it produces a brute, he is the worst and most insatiate brute that exists in human form.”[3] And the crime that was promoted the most pre Civil War through the Civil Rights era was the rape of a White woman by a Black man.

“The ‘terrible crime’ most often mentioned in connection with the black brute was rape, specifically the rape of a white woman. At the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the virulent, anti-black propaganda that found its way into scientific journals, local newspapers, and best-selling novels focused on the stereotype of the black rapist. The claim that black brutes were, in epidemic numbers, raping white women became the public rationalization for the lynching of blacks.”[4]

Some may ask how could American southern slave imagery affect the culture in Ireland that Liam Neeson came from? The fact is, there were small populations of Blacks historically in Ireland from the 18th century on. Some slaves, some free. However; Neeson was born in 1952, and by then America had long since exported the commodity of White supremacy to many parts of the world, including Ireland. Further; Ireland developed what some coined “Afrophobia” as Blacks immigrated to Ireland.[5] Mixed race Black children were often given up for adoption during the 1950s as the shame of a White Irish woman having a child by a Black man was often too much to bear. And often, these children were badly treated because of their Black ancestry. Rosemary Adaser, one of these mixed race children born in the 1950s like Neeson stated: “The racism was relentless and brutalising. My formative years were devastated by it.”[6]

Therefore, it is not far fetched to understand that Ireland had its own issues with Black men and White woman being sexual; and this may have had an influence to Neeson’s mindset at that particular time in his life. Again, not to excuse his statements just to contextualize them. The issue is, the perpetrator being “Black” at that point of Neeson’s development, took on an added dimension to the horrible crime. The bigger problem was, just like the lynching mentality, that every Black man was potentially the one that would have to pay for it. Was Neeson racist? At that time; based on his words, absolutely. Is he now? That we cannot say with certainty. However, I would posit; that the fact that he admitted thinking these things and was ashamed of it, would point to his mindset having changed. But in today’s racially / politically charged atmosphere, the fallout is more than likely going to be severe.

[1] Lisa Respers France and Megan Thomas, “Liam Neeson: 'I'm not racist'” CNN.com, February 5, 2019, accessed February 5, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/05/entertainment/liam-neeson-gma/index.html

[2] Megan Thomas, “Liam Neeson: 'I'm not racist'” CNN.com, February 5, 2019, accessed February 6, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/04/entertainment/liam-neeson-revenge/index.html

[3] Southern Society for the Promotion of the Study of Race Conditions and Problems in the South. Race Problems of the South; Report of the Proceedings of the First Annual Conference Held Under the Auspices of the Southern Society for the Promotion of the Study of Race Conditions and Problems in the South at Montgomery, Alabama, May 8, 9, 10, A.D. 1900. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969. (174)

[4] David Pilgrim, “The Brute Caricature” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia Ferris State University, Nov 2000, edited 2012, accessed February 6, 2019, https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/brute/

[5] Afrophobia, see: https://static.rasset.ie/documents/news/afrophobia-in-ireland.pdf

[6] Kitty Holland, “Mixed Race Irish: ‘We were the dust to be swept away’,” The Irish Times, June 18, 2015, accessed February 6, 2019, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/mixed-race-irish-we-were-the-dust-to-be-swept-away-1.2287196

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