Opinion: What racist white people can learn from Liam Neeson: Own up to your horribleness

Actor Liam Neeson attends the USC Shoah Foundation gala at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City in 2014, where President Obama received the foundation's highest award.
Actor Liam Neeson attends the USC Shoah Foundation gala at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City in 2014, where President Obama received the foundation’s highest award.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

First, we had Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam confessing to being in either blackface or a Ku Klux Klan robe in a photo on his medical school yearbook page. Then he denied doing so, but volunteered that he did slather on some shoe polish to imitate Michael Jackson. Now we have movie star Liam Neeson dropping his bombshell confession that he once wandered the streets, armed with a club, wanting to kill a random black man years ago.

A website’s expose forced Northam, 59, to confront his past or, at least, his yearbook version of his past. Neeson, 66, unearthed his past practically unbidden in a 17-minute hotel room interview with writer Clemence Michallon for Britain’s Independent newspaper. Neeson is energetically promoting his new film, “Cold Pursuit,” a tale about a man seeking revenge for the death of his son at the hands of drug dealers.

On the surface, neither of these anecdotes (and that word seems too lighthearted for all this) seems to have much in common beyond centering on a white man of un certain âge who should have known better than to do what he did when he did it. And as reprehensible as costuming yourself in blackface is, it’s not as dangerous as hunting for a black man to beat up. But they’re both about some unsettling racist urge that seems to be tattooed under the skin of far too many white people in the modern era — and by that I mean by 1984, the year that Northam’s yearbook photo came out.


The difference here is that Northam, for all his liberal politics and his black church-going, has just acted like a dolt trying to explain himself. Neeson, on the other hand, confessed that what he did was horrible. And it was.

The actor brought it up as a cautionary tale about the perils of seeking revenge in real life. Years ago, when a friend told Neeson that she had been raped by a man she did not know, he asked her what race the rapist was and then, filled with rage, he wandered the streets (presumably England or Ireland, but he kept a lot of details out of his story) in search of any black man.

The Independent quotes him saying: “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.”

He says now that “it was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that.” He apparently hurt no one and eventually realized what he was doing was awful. Not that Twitter is giving him much of a pass. Was he moved in the moment of the interview to confess this (as the Independent story suggests)? Or was this a calculating ploy on his part to gin up even more publicity for his new film?

Neeson has become hugely popular as the everyman avenger in a spate of successful action movies, starting 10 years ago with “Taken” and its sequels. He doesn’t really need to relate this story to get people into theaters to see it. And he runs the risk that people will be so offended by his story that they won’t go see the movie.

Was he a racist or just a tightly wound man capable of vindictive violence? Or was he both? Of course, he was a racist. He was roaming the streets trying to find a random black man to kill. And he gave every indication of being capable of violence. That’s a pretty explosive combination. And his revelation about himself is deeply disturbing. The question is, how much has he changed since then?

Frankly, I wish he would talk more about what he’s learned from this — and whether he’s dealt with whatever racism he still harbors. No doubt, he will be given more opportunities to talk about this as he continues his press tour. He should take them. He shouldn’t shy away from the subject now. He put this in play. He started a conversation about violence and about racism. The way he conducted himself years ago was despicable. But having a conversation about what he’s still learning from his actions is something that could benefit us all.