A few words on Liam Neeson’s recent interview

When I first read the Independent‘s piece on Liam Neeson within which he describes setting out to murder a Black man as a response to the alleged rape of an acquaintance, I went through a range of emotions. There was disbelief, shock, anger, and distress, but there was also a dose of relief. The relief was there because many of us can recognise and have experienced the type of racial (and sexual) dynamics Neeson described.

When I was interviewed by the BBC to offer a psychological perspective, it seemed the main questions to be considered revolved around two issues. Firstly, was Neeson racist or was he simply angry, distressed, and distraught? And secondly, if his words or conduct were racist, since he has apologised and accepted he was wrong, why vilify him and/or stop him from speaking freely?

I find these questions rather symptomatic of a society which still has a hard time tolerating complexity. A society who wants easy, clean, and straightforward answers to complex questions. A society, nonetheless, that still feels an urge to quickly ‘forgive’ and move on when racial transgressions are carried out – particularly those transgressions that contain strong imperial echoes.

So, as someone who has spent months if not years, thinking and writing on the topic of racism, I thought I would discuss three characteristics of racism to help assess the words and the conduct of Neeson.

  1. Racism has a deep impact

The psychological and physical impact of racism is well documented. What is less well documented is the lived experience of that impact.

For my doctoral thesis I interviewed people about their experience of racial injustice and, I work clinically with individuals struggling with racism, including racism at work, history come up over and over again. Not only as background or explanatory lenses to make sense of the present, but as traumatic material causing psychological distress. This debilitating distress becomes amplified by everyday discriminatory experiences. Clinicians refer to this phenomenon as intergenerational trauma. Words and conduct that are so evocative of past violent events re-open deep wounds and trigger trauma responses. Words describing racial violence, depictions of racial violence, or the intention to carry out racial violence function as a form of abuse/violence, even if the intended action (in this case, murder) was not carried out.

  1. Racism always has a reason

For as long as racism has existed, it has existed with justifications that have legitimised or explained racism in some away. The reason for colonial crimes was ‘civilisation’ – slaves and colonial subjects needed masters to protect them from their own aggression and save them from one another.

We continue to see this perverse form of rationalisation today. In the case of Dianne Abbott, who has been recently found to receive 50% of all abuse directed at the 650 MPs, the ‘reason’ for her abuse is her alleged incompetence. The reason for the disproportionate hateful bile Sterling has to endure is his attitude. In the case of Neeson, the reason he set out to murder a Black man simply because of the colour of his skin, was because he was distraught over an alleged rape of a relative or friend allegedly suffered at the hands of one Black man.

  1. Racism uses denial

Some argue that since Neeson regrets his actions, that he repented and accepted he was wrong, and he has changed, he therefore should not only be forgiven but ‘applauded’.

The fact that these events were reported to be over 40 years old has also been used to argue that Neeson is a changed man. He may well be. The fact remains however, that there has been no ownership of any racism.  There has been no acceptance that the act of choosing specifically to target a Black man as a substitute for the alleged rapist of his acquaintance was an act of racism.  There has been no acceptance of the impact of his words on communities who continue to be stereotyped, homogenised, and vilified en block for acts they have had nothing to do with. In fact, what there has been is denial and rebuttal of any racism.

Avoiding over-simplification and contextualising  

The urge for oversimplification, vilification, and scapegoating may be a strong one here. This rarely, if ever, allows for a nuanced understanding of psychological and social phenomena and, stops us from interrogating and reflecting on our own biases and the differential levels of power we all hold to exclude, marginalise, and indeed exert overt violence towards those we consider inferior.

Having ‘awful’ and ‘terrible’ racists which many would want Neeson to be categorised as would serve this purpose. It also stops us from considering less extreme manifestations of racism, such as micro-aggressions and micro-incivilities as well as more gentile or liberal expressions of racial prejudice – which do as much damage. This also causes us to lose sight of the bigger picture, such as the media outlets who made it possible for his hateful words to be printed without adequate challenge.

Nonetheless, there is a balance to strike.

Accountability at a time of increased racial violence truly matters. It’s not so long ago that it was socially acceptable for random Black people to be killed, harassed, or tortured for some alleged wrongful action carried out by another individual. Sometimes, this was done in the name of ‘revenge’. However, it was mostly a way to exert power and control. And it always led to the lynching of innocent people who found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time, just because they happened to be Black.

Not only is our (not so distant) history awash with such violence but so is our present. Acts of terror carried out in the name of Islam results in retaliatory violence against the Muslim ‘community’ – usually by way of mosques being vandalised or Muslim women being assaulted. Brexit too, has had a powerful effect on race relations. Racial hate crimes are on the rise. Marginalised groups feel unsafe and are indeed living in increasingly precarious, if not violent conditions. Our own research indicates this climate may be translating into the workplace.

It is thus particularly important that we pay attention to the social, political, and historical context to illuminate Neeson’s words and actions and decide whether in 2019, his, is the kind of behaviour that is going to be conducive of safety, equality, and social cohesion for all. And bearing the distressing impact of his words in mind, one must ask if it is ethically sustainable to refuse to acknowledge the racism at play here.


Guilaine is a Senior Psychologist for Pearn Kandola who specialises in mental health, racism, inequality and their intersection. She will be writing a monthly column on this website. You can follow her on Twitter @Kguilaine.

Guilaine is available for consultancy, training, coaching, and research.

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