Feb 18th, 2019, 03:48 PM

What Do Blackface, Liam Neeson and Gucci have in Common?

By Zakiyyah Job
Liam Neeson at Commuter Premier. Image Credit: Shutterstock/795006319
A brief history of why Neeson's comments are stirring up so much controversy.

Throughout Black History Month, racism has remained a trending topic in public discourse. Stars such as Spike Lee and 50 Cent have spoken out against Gucci in response to the brand's blackface turtlenecks. But even more shocking than the historically racist business of fashion, was Liam Neeson's comments on his "brief" hatred for black men this month on February 6, 2019.  As a black woman who has encountered her fair share of racially charged situations and prejudice while living in America, I understand why these events have aroused feelings of hurt and anger. I believe the public outrage towards these comments and displays are justified, as these incidents serve as just another example of how black individuals are continually misrepresented and misperceived in society today. 

During an interview intended to promote his latest film, Cold Pursuit, Liam Neeson struck a nerve with many audiences, when he admitted to fostering racist and violent sentiments towards black men. In an interview with the Independent, the actor stated that upon hearing the news that a close friend of his had been raped by a black man, he walked around bars and pubs in predominantly black neighborhoods on multiple occasions in hopes to unleash his anger on an innocent black man to avenge his friend's assault.

Last week, Neeson spoke out in an interview on Good Morning America, in an attempt to dilute and clarify the weight of his statement by explaining that he had received therapy for those thoughts, as he realized shortly after that they were hateful and irrationally violent. However, many believe the interview only made his original statements worse.

His comments have caused a schism in public opinion, with social media being quick in condemning his comments as another case of white male privilege. Similarly, they argue that these comments, combined with the recent backlash surrounding Gucci and U.S. Government Officials like Virginia Senator Ralph Northam who have been exposed for using blackface, show that society has not advanced in regards to racial prejudices as much as we thought.

But surprisingly, Neeson's comments were defended by many. Including celebrities and other prominent figures like football legend John Barnes who states that Liam Neeson should "win a medal" for his candidness, and for sharing his experience battling with racism. Many like Barnes explain that his thoughts were from 40 years ago, and no longer represent him as a person now. He argued that his comments were simply reflective of a time these attitudes were acceptable. But the big question surrounding this debate remains, is the outrage towards Liam Neeson’s comments justified, seeing this was an issue from 40 years ago?

I believe this outrage is, in fact, warranted because his comments serve as tools to perpetuate the conversation on negative black perception. However, Neeson’s mentality is not an isolated one. More and more, these sentiments are becoming vocalized and have even turned to violent acts.  The statistics prove this, as it stands in the U.S, hate crimes have risen 17 percent in three years in the U.S., and racist symbolism such as blackface have re-emerged in public discourse.  


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One of the other issues of these seemingly harmless comments is they result in real violence. The reality of police brutality in infamous cases such as Trayvon Martin is a direct result of the misperceptions of black people. Because black individuals are still characterized as dangerous and threatening in the media, many groups often openly talk and fantasize of inflicting harm upon us; this should be an issue of high concern.

Neeson’s defense was that he claimed that he was so overwhelmed by anger and rage because he wanted to defend the honor of his friend and that his actions should be viewed simply as a that: devoid of the racial undertones. Although many think this is a justifiable reason to wish to resort to violence, it is not.

The justification of inflicting harm on a black individual to restore the idea that the honor of a white woman is a trope that is rooted in centuries of hatred and prejudice surrounding black individuals. In Birth of a Nation, a film responsible for the resurgence of Ku Klux Klan members in the early 1900s, Black Union soldiers who had helped win the Civil War, were depicted as sexually aggressive towards white women in hoping to take revenge on their white plantation owners.  

This is why the comments of Liam Neeson are so alarming, he was not looking for the attacker himself, but targeting an entire race. As a woman of color, I cannot help but shudder at the thought of what could have happened if my father or friend had walked past Liam Neeson one of those fateful nights. Neeson tried to remedy this statement by insisting that he would have done the same if the assailant had been white. He states that if his friend told him that it was someone "Irish, Scot, Brit, or Lithuanian, or Russian" he would have gone out in search for that ethnic group and found someone to attack. But even in this argument, his logic falls short. For white individuals, he divides them into different ethnic groups, whereas with black individuals are just one group. He does not use the same distinctions for black individuals, who are also comprised of many different ethnicities, such as Nigerian, Somalian, Haitian, etc.   

This sort of perception stems from a particularly embarrassing era in black history where minstrel shows created and reinforced stereotypes of African American individuals and diluted black individuals to nothing more than their skin color. Created in 1842,  these minstrel shows required that white individuals would don black face paint and sing and dance in skits designed to humiliate and mock black individuals. As the author of the History On Black Face, Ken Padgett states, “They wear the blackface mask in performances that would serve to define the meaning of blackness for many Americans who by choice or geography had little contact with Blacks.”

These sort of representations have no place in today's society, but yet continuously appear, just as in the string of cases of U.S officials like Virginia senator Tommy Norment who have caught fire for having been pictured participating in blackface in his medical school yearbook. Even recently, Gucci has come under fire, for trying to promote a hoodie that many views to be representing blackface. These symbols act as painful reminders of society which continually marginalize and distort the perceptions of black individuals.


This is just a glimpse into why there is a long history behind why comments such as those Liam Neeson made have amassed such shock and understandable rage. By bringing up the issue that under one wrong action of a black individual, we are put under a spotlight and scrutinized. The actor's comments remind us that despite recent strides of progress, we are still simply measured by a difference in melanin. However, on a brighter note, No longer are the views shared in Birth of a Nation and in Minstrel Shows the standard public norm, nor are they to be excused and tolerated. It appears in the cases of Liam Neeson, Gucci and Northam,  public consensus has seemed to place a firm stance of no regarding racial misrepresentation.