Neil Price is associate dean in the School of Social and Community Services at Humber College in Toronto.
During an interview to promote his latest revenge flick, actor Liam Neeson reflected with The Independent on an experience in his past, when he reacted with anger and bloodlust after a close friend disclosed she had been raped.
“My immediate reaction was … I asked, did she know who it was? No," he said. Curiously, he then inquired about the attacker’s race: “What colour were they? She said it was a black person.”
And then the Hollywood veteran’s imagination took flight: “I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody – I’m ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could … kill him.”
We do not know what is in Mr. Neeson’s heart today, but there is no way to characterize what he was admitting to as anything other than deeply wrong and hurtful. That he was merely reflecting upon how he’s changed since a long-ago and regretted episode in his life does not excuse his raising of such violent anti-black sentiment. Whatever fallout comes his way as a result of his now-infamous interview is entirely his own making.
But, Mr. Neeson unintentionally did something of a public service: blowing up the poisonous and persistent idea that we live in a postracial society.
It is a useful case through which to examine how black people are imagined and what we should do when people make offensive remarks as a result. Mr. Neeson reminded us how black people, particularly black men, are often imagined in the popular white psyche and become real-life targets for violence. Whether it’s a random attack as in the recent assault of actor Jussie Smollett, state-sanctioned police brutality or the actions of a rowdy white-supremacist mob, black people are often the victims of race-based violence. And that’s increasingly the case: According to Statistics Canada, reported hate crimes involving black people and other racialized groups have increased by 47 per cent since 2014.
Of course, Mr. Neeson’s desire for revenge against a black body – any black body – isn’t new. There is a long and sordid history of this kind of thinking.
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation depicted the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in response to fears that free black men would run amok and defile white female virginity. The Klan’s violence was driven by the same impulse that Mr. Neeson admitted to: the need to lynch black men into submission.
The Central Park Five case in the late 1980s showed how the white imagination, conveyed throughout news media coverage, viewed black youth as prime suspects even though there was little to no evidence to support such claims.
And in 1994, Susan Smith conjured up a make-believe black man who she claimed stole her car containing her two young sons, leading to their deaths. Ms. Smith was later found to have drowned her children.
What do we do when such vile imaginings lead to offensive statements? How should such moments be addressed?
As an educator, I’ve had to deal with several situations where a student has made racially insensitive remarks during a class discussion. In one such case, a student commented on how she would never marry a black man because she believed they were prone to intimate partner violence.
My first priority is to call out such statements and ask the speaker to explain themselves. Most times, students will immediately realize the impact of their words and apologize without delay. I will then check in with other students and offer support to anyone who feels affected.
Earlier in my teaching career, I felt pretty satisfied whenever such issues were resolved in this way. I had demonstrated that I would not tolerate offensive language and was transparent in setting those expectations.
But I’ve come to realize that we often fail to adequately address the harm done to those who have been targeted. In many ways, the hurt is irreparable and permanent, and the classroom stops being seen as a safe and welcoming place. That was certainly the case for my black male students in that particular class, just as I assume it will be for the next black actor who has to work with Mr. Neeson.
There is no perfect way to address these challenging moments. What matters, though, is that we continue to openly discuss racism in all of its manifestations and acknowledge that anti-black racism is deeply woven into the fabric of our collective discourse. Even as celebrities such as Mr. Neeson make spectacular, high-profile PR blunders, it’s essential that we seize upon the everyday opportunities to address such hurtful imaginings head on.