Actor Liam Neeson should be thanked, not reviled, for his recent revelation of a vengeful and racist episode in his past life.
The 66-year-old actor and Oscar nominee said on “Good Morning America” that after he was told 40 years ago that a black person had raped a close friend, he walked around with a club for a week, hoping to be confronted by any black person so that he could kill him.
Neeson described a “primal urge to lash out,” which he finally was able to overcome by speaking with friends and a priest about his feelings and behavior.
Immediately following his televised confession, the red carpet premier for Neeson’s latest film was canceled. People in the film industry such as director Spike Lee weighed in with condemnation of his actions, evoking the ugly history of lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan. And social media exploded with indignation and horror, accusing Neeson of hatred and racism.
Stop. Everyone needs to count to ten and take a deep breath. The easy, lazy rush to judgment is exactly what is impeding America’s progress on issues of race. That’s because many government officials and African American leaders, including former President Obama, have called time and again for a national discussion or dialogue on race as being necessary to take the next step toward national harmony.
Whereas, the thousands who have posted accusatory knee jerk reactions, dismissing Neeson as a racist, are stifling that dialogue. Instead, it’s helpful to examine Neeson’s self analysis, particularly his reference to the “primal urge” to hate and kill and wreak vengeance on a random black person.
His story suggests that human beings have an innate capacity for bigotry toward people of another race, when ignited by trauma. The urge that he recounted, which is clearly the definition of racism, was triggered and intensified by extreme emotional hurt he felt when a friend was raped by a man she alleged was African American.
I’ve witnessed this several times in my own attempt to understand what motivates racists to generalize and to feel unjustifiable contempt for African Americans. One example was my 16-year-old classmate who was mugged by black youths after school, who then extrapolated the anger and resentment he felt for the muggers onto every individual of color for the rest of his life.
The seeds of racism had already been implanted while he grew up in a working class family on the edge of the city. That upbringing, combined with the powerful fear and hatred of the individuals who assaulted him, led him to feel no obligation to reflect upon the absurdity of his conclusion about all African Americans. He stubbornly believed that because of his suffering, he earned the right to revile and mistrust all African Americans; and anyone who did not suffer as he did, had no right to tell him otherwise.
Liam Neeson similarly identified hatred for a race of people because of a crime committed by one, and he had planned to act on it. But his intellect told him something was not right about that inclination; and his willingness to reflect and confront it with friends and with a priest, enabled him to overcome it.
Like my classmate, I was also exposed to prejudice toward African Americans in my growing years. But with education and maturity, I was able to reject it. When I was a young adult, however, teaching in a Chicago high school, I, too, became a victim of a crime, when a gang banger I had confronted on campus threatened: “I’ll blow you away.”
In the aftermath of the threat, I found myself struggling to overcome involuntary feeling of animosity toward African American males. I was surprised by the feeling, knowing it was irrational and triggered by fear. But I was in a better position than my aforementioned classmate for understanding, fighting and extinguishing the feeling, since in my world, unlike in his, African Americans were not anonymous or unknown. They were my students, my colleagues, standing as a rebuke to the “primal urge.”
Liam Neeson did not have to share his own story. But the man who played savior in the Academy Award winning film “Schindler’s List,” who is obviously well versed in the danger of prejudice and hatred, shared a truth about himself that sheds light on the problem of racism in this country, including even hope for resolution.
Former Moose Lake resident and emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, David McGrath is author of “The Territory.” firstname.lastname@example.org