As a black man, I know Liam Neeson isn’t the only white person who’s had thoughts like those
For years black men have been portrayed as dangerous, untrustworthy and angry – and many of us are responsible for perpetuating that idea
The recent comments made in The Independent’s interview with Liam Neeson have reignited a discussion about the way black men are perceived in our society.
For context, Neeson recalled the time he spent a week walking the streets with a weapon, wanting to kill any black man who provoked him in an act of revenge for a woman he knew who was raped. He then ended up unearthing some uncomfortable truths about the way black men are generally treated in society.
It’s a mindset that stretches back centuries, and sadly, refuses to go away.
I am not avid fan of Neeson's work, as I haven’t had chance or the time to go through his back catalogue of films. But from what I’ve seen of him on screen – especially in his recent part in Steve McQueen’s Widows – there’s no question he’s a gifted actor who brings a lot of talent and energy to the screen.
But for someone who has recently worked so closely with black creatives such as McQueen and Viola Davis, specifically covering the horrors of racism and unprovoked brutality against black men as part of that role, it’s baffling that he opted to say something so blatantly racist, even if it was something that happened in the past.
Unfortunately, this is the type of language that is becoming increasingly common in the age of the rising far right and widespread anti-immigration rhetoric. Police brutality and deaths in custody are growing issues. The fact that remarks of that nature were repeated by a well known and respected Hollywood actor – regardless of the fact that he now claims to recognise how bad his actions were – doesn’t exactly matter.
Crucially, Neeson’s words have raised questions about whether we have actually got to grips with prejudice and racism. It highlights how I and other black people are generally perceived mainly by a lot of white people who, like Neeson once did, fantasize about finding black men to beat up and take their rage out on.
Not only does the aimlessness of that compulsion to find and hurt any black man suggest that we are disposable, it also speaks to the wider phenomenon of failing to differentiate between black people. We’ve seen it before, when Lenny Henry was confused with Ainsley Harriott on ITV News after receiving a knighthood; when Samuel L Jackson was mixed up with Laurence Fishburne; when white people protest about black men dating their children.
I was surprised about the black British community’s mixed views on Neeson’s comments. Listening to a late night radio phone-in, I heard many callers say they were not interested in what Neeson said and wanted to focus on more pressing issues such as the mythical phenomenon of “black on black” crime, with some even suggesting that the middle class white elite had jumped on Neeson’s comments to make a bigger deal out of it than necessary.
But if the general view is that we can’t accept what Neeson said is wrong, then this is a bigger problem than I had anticipated. Because it echoes language that encourages violence against black people.
Let’s imagine the actor had, in fact, found a black man on his travels. It could have easily been my brother, dad, friend, uncle, neighbour, or myself, who could have been attacked for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many commentators have questioned whether Neeson's career should be over considering the gravity of what was said. But I think that question is for Neeson and Neeson alone. It’s his livelihood, and taking it away wouldn’t address the wider issue, it would sweep it right back under the carpet.
For years black men have been portrayed as dangerous, untrustworthy and angry, and many of us are responsible for perpetuating that idea.
What people who still think like the Taken star seemed to think actually need is to unlearn the idea that the black man is the enemy. It's time for all black people to be judged on merit, not their ethnicity or skin colour.