Recent scandals involving Liam Neeson and two top elected officials in Virginia have shown a rapidly evolving landscape for what is considered racism. The conversations around these events are generally being dictated by critics on the left, who prescribe a solution based on the idea that the easiest way to better society is to eliminate the racist individuals through massive demonization.
As the reaction to these two recent scandals have shown, however, this doesn’t really solve those problems because it’s not based in the true complexities of racism and doesn’t involve discourse and education, which are far more successful.
Liam Neeson and the Sins of the Past
To recap, Neeson gave an interview to The Guardian in which he spoke about how he dealt with a friend’s rape several years ago by fantasizing about beating up (possibly fatally) a black person: “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 [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] ‘black b-stard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could…kill him.”
The blowback has been swift. A sample: “While Neeson later appeared on ‘Good Morning America’ to clarify his comments and deny that he was a racist, the damage was already done. Neeson will now be known as an actor who contemplated a hate crime,” wrote Kara Alaimo in an assessment that doubled as a personal condemnation and forecasting that his career should suffer.
So let’s review: Liam Neeson revealed he had held racist beliefs in his past. Some treated this as sufficient cause to put Neeson on trial with the oversimplified question about who he is today: “Racist or not racist?”
There could be thousands or even possibly millions of people out there with the same thoughts in their head that Neeson shared. Imagine what would happen if they saw Neeson being villainized to such a degree for expressing his former opinion. They would likely be scared of expressing similar thoughts out loud.
As a result, their views might never be modified because they will never have a personalized conversation to correct their misperceptions. They could also be steered passively to the darker corners of the internet where those views are not only welcome but nurtured and weaponized that would make them even more strongly racist.
The Virginia Scandal and Past Blackface
Let’s look at the scandals regarding Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, who have admitted to wearing costumes that fall under some definition of blackface more than 30 years ago and faced calls to resign because of their racial insensitivity.
The definition of blackface has been considerably loosened in just the last five years, as well as the degree to which it’s been considered such a massive offense. In 2013, State Assemblyman Dov Hikind wore blackface to a Purim party and was quoted as saying, when asked if he’d learn his lesson, “Next year I was thinking I’d be an Indian. But you know, I’ve changed my mind about that. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Somebody will be offended.” Despite the quasi-humorous response, he retained his seat until his retirement.
In 2008, almost a quarter-century after Northam’s yearbook photo, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Fred Armisen donned dark makeup to dress up as Barack Obama. Anyone who was keeping up with pop culture during that period likely can’t recall an outrage anywhere near the size of today’s over such things.
The point here is that context can’t be removed if one is to make a proper judgement. A discussion of that judgment can’t be driven by today’s symbolism.
A similar example of a cultural appropriation that shook the internet was Keziah Daum last year. The Utah teenager who wore a Chinese dress to the prom and faced viral backlash that originated from a Twitter response: “my culture is NOT your g-dd-mn prom dress.”
One Chinese writer published an objecting article noting that the dress itself, the qipao, was a 1920s Shanghainese fusion of Western form-fitting styles with the original chángpáo. Another Chinese writer pointed out that “cultures borrow from one another, even between the victor and vanquished….Jihadists may be chopping the heads off Western hostages, but even they sometimes wear T-shirts, jeans and trainers, and use Western-invented weapons. That’s cultural appropriation!”
In a response entitled “There’s No Such Thing as Harmless Appropriation,” one writer at the Independent wrote: “The debate her prom pictures have prompted is justified. Cultural appropriation is about power, and to many she is the embodiment of a system that empowers white people to take whatever they want, go wherever they want and be able to fall back on: ‘Well, I didn’t mean any harm.’”
Chinese writer Alex Lo responded quite saliently, “I would argue those who scream loudest about cultural appropriation are themselves after power. As soon as you raise issues about your own race and culture, you pretty much shut people up, because most people don’t want to be accused of being racist, elitist or not being ‘woke’, in the parlance of social justice warriors (SJWs).”
In other words, wearing blackface shouldn’t equate to punishment for leading a discussion about blackface. In keeping with the danger of shutting down cultural discussions, I’d like to suggest the lack of distinction between the two—as evidenced by Megyn Kelly’s recent firing and the professor at Yale who was harassed about Halloween costumes—is more worrisome than someone dressing as Michael Jackson for party purposes.
Discussion Is the Most Important Cure
The problem with any solution that seeks to cure racism through full-blast eradication is that this treats racism as a defining trait of character when it’s more a pre-conceived set of malleable beliefs. Similarly, branding people bad is not only a needlessly cruel and inaccurate description but it further discourages the notion that opinions and the way we see one another can be changed. In other words, it’s another full stop before the discussion and education component of coming to better terms about race.
Neeson is not necessarily a racist today but a man who harbored racist feelings in the past. There’s nothing more inevitable than people growing out of their beliefs. The litmus tests to see if he’s truly changed are, to some degree, justified, but the burden of proof doesn’t need to be on Neeson to dance around in a flawed PR circus of our making. Beside the terrible precedent it sets for digging up every ghost in someone’s closet, this behavior simply ignores basic human nature, which is that people change and grow.
The other main question being ignored here is what is racism measured by? It should be defined by the amount of harm it causes. Neeson just had a thought of doing something harmful. He wanted to, but ultimately did not act on that thought. What specific harmful consequences did that spread other than imparting the lesson of not acting on your violent thoughts?
Similarly, consequences matter with someone like Northam in office, both in terms of him sending a message that promotes blackface and his ability to do good things for the black community. He has pledged to lead the charge to remove more Confederate statues and push affordable housing. Whether he carries this out remains to be seen, but those actions should carry more weight than a symbolic infraction.
Racism Has Become a Moving Target
Another problem with fighting racism: It evolves in real time. Just as the proponents of cruel and unusual punishment for blackface have argued that the definitions of racism have changed and we have to draw a stronger line in the sand, we must also consider the changing opinions of those affected by blackface and other forms of cultural appropriation.
For example, how well-reported were tweets of support from China that encouraged Daum to wear her prom dress? Or a 2016 Washington Post poll that found nine out of ten Native Americans weren’t offended by the Washington Redskins name? Or that 60 percent of African-Americans showed support for Northam staying in office in early February?
A recent article from Politico catalogued how what is considered scandal-worthy has changed over the decades. What was originally homosexuality and extramarital scandals transformed to drug use and draft dodging and has now transformed to sexual harassment and racial insensitivity.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with changing standards of right or wrong, assuming they are improving, but in order for these standards to be properly set, there needs to be a continued open dialogue about those issues with everyone involved and people being prepared to hear views that do not align with their political orientation. Anything less is not progress.