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Sadly, Liam Neeson Isn't That Different From Many White People

Liam Neeson

Racism is an ingrained, insidious part of Western society (e.g., Virginia). How do we start to truly move past it?

I have no idea why I actually want to write about Liam Neeson's comments other than that I must be an absolute sucker for punishment -- especially knowing what I'm going to be saying is going to get me yelled at online. Which strangely is actually kind of the point.

By now, we all know how during a run-of-the-mill interview promoting his new movie, he confessed to wanting to go out to kill a black man in revenge for his friend's rape. Of course, this is absolutely horrifying and shocking and people are up in arms about it, but what is amazing, is that when his publicist put him on Good Morning America to do damage control, he said it again. He wanted to go kill the first black man who he got into a fight with in revenge for another black man's act. He didn't deny it, and when Robin Roberts asked him if he understood why black people are rightfully horrified and angry, he said he understands now, but at the time he wasn't even thinking about it.

However, what he said in that interview that might not get the same attention as his disturbing and clumsy confession, was that when asked what the teachable moment was, he said that, "We all pretend we're politically correct, but in this country...sometimes you just scratch the surface and you discover this racism and bigotry," he said. "It's there."

The thing is... he's right.

For years we've talked about "casual racism" or "casual sexism" or homophobia or whatever, and we can point right at folks like the alt-right and call them racists, but the reality is, is that there are lots and lots of people out there that have said or done and still do some horribly bigoted things but will absolutely never admit to it. Not everyone has recordings of them being a bigot, not everyone has a yearbook photo (we see you, Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring), but that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.

Look, I know that lots of folks will dismiss me out of hand for commenting on this topic because I'm white, but that's a huge mistake; a lot of those woke-ass white friends of yours have said or done some really racist things that they're never going to admit to; trust me, I've heard them talk when you're not around. They'll pretend that they were born under the glowing light of the street lamp at the corner of intersectionality, but they weren't.

Lots of men supportive of #MeToo have been some of the worst abusers of women. Same for straight people towards gays and gays and straights to trans and bi. And we're not talking about letting a slur slip, or buying into a stereotype. I'm talking about Liam Neeson-grade stuff, and they will do everything in their power to avoid ever thinking about it, much less confessing publicly. You think right-wing evangelical closet cases are the only ones with a dark secret they're overcompensating for?

You see, the reason why these folks will never admit to it is because what happened with Liam Neeson is what happens when we finally have someone step up and admit guilt to start those difficult discussions we keep saying we want to have. We keep saying that the first step to ending bigotry of any kind is to not only recognize our privileges that cause it, but to admit our own actions and the consequences of them. Well there it is, in all its festering rot. It's not pretty is it?

This is why a lot of people who are ashamed of their misdeeds against others, once they recognize what they have done wrong, are reluctant to admit to it publicly. Confessing to even 40-year-old wrongs induces as much rage and anger as if it happened just minutes ago. This reaction is not wrong morally or emotionally, because those past actions have present consequences and present pain. People want justice for it, or maybe what they think is justice for it. This is why historically we have placed courts between the criminal and their victim, and why in religions that practice confession and atonement, they have clergy act as an intermediary between the sinner, the people wronged, and their God. Without these intermediaries to arbitrate and reign in the emotional reactions, there is nothing but raw pain and anger and people act on that, and not always in a good way.

That's why Liam Neeson's public confession to his act, despite it being the thing we say we want and say we need, has caused not only people to lash out against Neeson, but against others who view how to deal with it and process it differently. It's not just with Neeson and race, but men who have confessed to acts based on misogyny, homo- and transphobia, and just about anything else that violates our values.

We only have half the process in place. We know what we think will make things better, we know the first steps to reach the accountability, justice, and reconciliation we want, we just don't have the next mechanism in place or really any idea of what it's supposed to be. Do we account for acts made after the wrong that were meant to make up for it? Do we measure the genuineness of their contrition, and how do we even grade that? Some people get upset if the correct phrasing and words aren't used to express the form of accountability they expect, almost like a secular purification ritual. Also, in a nation of over 325 million people there won't be a singular thing we see as the right way to go about it, there won't even be a unified way to approach it within the communities that were wronged and within these communities there will be conflicts over which way is right, and certainly condemnation of outsiders seen as butting in where they aren't wanted.

I have no idea on how to move forward after Liam Neeson's confession because his act is not one against me to forgive, but I also don't think we as a society have fully formulated a way to do it either. If any sort of crime was committed the statute of limitations has long passed and so there's no court justice to be had. His confession is something we expect wrongdoers to do, but we don't have a consensus on what to do with his confession now that we have it.

It's easy for us to step back from it and shout "Shame!" at him when we know people who have acted like him but forgave because we are biased towards them. We may recognize a similar act in our own past that we are not brave (or maybe foolish) enough to step forward and admit to. Some of us will even shout harder to show how sinless we are while being corrupted in our hearts and minds to hide it from others. Some will stoke up the rage because it gives them clout and something to exploit for personal gain. Because of this, those difficult conversations we always say we need to have in order to progress and heal as a society will only ever get this far and then fall apart. I'm not saying we need some sort of social justice priesthood with a book of scripture and laws that can rule on this, but we need to start figuring out the way we want these conversations to be handled and how we go about dealing with those people who are willing to admit their wrongs that are hidden underneath the surface that we sometimes don't want to get scratched.

AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City, and a regular contributor to The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @Amanda_Kerri.

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