How media can heal themselves from the ‘whiteness psychosis’

A 5:25 minutes debate on a Sunday morning two weeks ago, about the question whether the word ‘Empire’ should be removed from British Honours, teaches us everything that goes wrong in journalism nowadays if it’s about discussing the colonial past.

Professor of Black Studies Dr Kehinde Andrews was invited to join a panel in the breakfast programme “Good Morning Britain” on ITV. Breakdancer Jonzi D, who had refused to accept an honour designating him as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, was one of the other guests together with journalist and columnist Toby Young who wants to keep the word ‘Empire’ in the honours. Presenters and journalists Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid hosted the debate.

After reading about it in Atlanta Black Star, I wanted to analyse the five minutes clip to contribute in a constructive way in improving the profession of journalism for the long term. Watch the full segment. 

Incorrect facts and dates
Piers Morgan opens the discussion by asking Jonzi D:
“Do you think that the empire did some good things as well or is it all bad?”.

The breakdancer responds saying:
“It’s tricky to say there are loads of good things about the empire. I think we need a bit more of a balance”.

Obviously Toby Young doesn’t agree with him:
“Let’s not pretend it’s just an unbroken litany of exploitation and shame.”

What happens next is that Young comes with incorrect facts and dates to support his argument and Dr Kehinde Andrews jumps in, pointing out the sore point of the debate:

“This is the whole problem here: the way we remember this history is so bad, that we actually think we can find some comfort in a system which killed tens of millions, probably hundreds of millions of people through rape, murder, torture, famine. The idea that in the 21st century we’re even having this discussion, whiteness is a psychosis, you can’t have a reasonable discussion because this is the kind of thing….”

What is striking in how the hosts of the show deal with Dr Andrews statements is that instead of asking him questions and giving him an opportunity to explain where his words come from, Morgan interrupts him continuously.

Besides that, Dr Andrews comes with facts and figures, it’s not that it’s his personal opinion. Oddly enough, the journalists treat his knowledge as if he talks about something you could disagree with. With doing that, they deny the truth about the colonial period.

It’s clear that Piers Morgan feels personally attacked, he isn’t able to listen anymore to what Dr Andrews says and instead reacts with emotion.

Morgan: “The problem is you say whiteness is a psychosis! You’re basically calling all white people nuts”
Dr Andrews: “No, that’s not what I said. The discourse around whiteness which underpins all of this and all this conversation, is totally irrational, is deluded, it has no basis in fact or reality, and the whole purpose of it is to perpetuate this …”
– gets interrupted –
Morgan: “Toby you’re psychotic because you’re white”
Dr Andrews: “That’s not what I said at all”
Toby Young: “That sounds racist to me!”
Susanna Reid: “That does sound racist, whiteness is a psychosis”.

But what does Dr Andrews actually mean with saying ‘Whiteness is a psychosis’? If you google the term ‘psychosis’, this simple definition comes up:

Psychosis = a severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality.

Isn’t that exactly what happens here?

In Dr Andrews own words:

“Whiteness is not just for white people. There are plenty of black people, Asian people who also proport the psychosis of whiteness. It’s about the idea, it’s about the fact that in the 21st century 60% of British people believe the empire was a force for good. I mean this is like saying the Nazis build motorways so we just celebrate them. This is literally an irrational…”
– gets interrupted once more —

Fact versus feelings
One more element that needs attention here. Towards the end of the debate, Morgan says: “I’ve spoken to a lot of black people who feel this way. There’s no doubt this is a feeling that many black people in this country feel. They feel the British Empire stands for something that oppressed their people around the world.”

The thing is, we’re not talking feelings here. We’re talking facts and figures. It’s unfortunate that the host of the shows brings the subject down to the personal emotions of people. It again shows his lack of knowledge around this subject and it confirms the psychosis.

The result of an apparently innocent Sunday morning debate that went viral is a ton of social media comments from people who miss out the point. This is how media create useless content and how misinformation spreads around the internet.

What is a solution to all of this? It’s easy to think there isn’t any, because where to start, right?

If we stick to solutions on the side of the journalists, you could say:

  • The journalists should be better educated about the colonial past. Same holds for the editors who prepared this item.
  • Morgan is the typical white male from a certain age, it’s about time he gets replaced by a presenter of colour.
  • The media company should make the staff of the newsroom inclusive.
  • etc.

It’s all true. But let’s be honest, we know this and we talk about this already for over twenty years. And the problem still isn’t solved. We miss the root cause. And you’ll only find the root cause when you’re willing to look inside of yourself.

The British science journalists Angela Saini explained it in an interview in the Dutch newspaper NRC:

“We’re in an identity crisis, because the stories we grew up with, aren’t correct. It makes us feel uncomfortable about who we are. Instead of admitting that, we go for defence.”

Saini herself is from Indian descent and grew up in the UK, it’s nice of her to use the word ‘we’, but I would say white people are in an identity crisis. People of colour are less so because they’re used to getting questions about their identity. They grow up in our white society getting remarks every day about where they are really from, giving them the feeling they don’t belong here.

Thus, like Joaquin Phoenix stated in his BAFTA speech:

I think that it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So that’s on us.”

Let’s start with that responsibility today. All the possible solutions stated above are tools from outside to implement: new people in the newsroom, more education, new presenters. All logic things to think about. But what’s really necessary is to:

  • accept the fact that there is an identity crisis and take action based on that realisation. For example, organize programs about the colonial past and invite academics like Dr. Andrews to rewrite the history. Seek collaboration with institutions who already are on top of this.
  • have a look at the structure that lies beneath the creation of editorial topics: how do we make sure all our content is always inclusive? Repeat it in every meeting and in all items over and over again, until it becomes a habit. Be aware of your blind spots all the time.
  • realize that there are powers that benefit from keeping this version of history in place. Make sure you see the broader context so you won’t be swept away by incorrect facts.
  • organise regular evaluations in your newsroom and analyze where facts and emotions are mixed up.
  • research your own fear that is the root cause of your racism believes and the discomfort that comes with that. Where are you afraid of? Losing your position? Are you afraid of change (like many people are)? Yes, therapy. Or meditation.

If all of this had been applied that day, Britain would have gotten a real Good Morning.

Just imagine:

  • The expertise of Dr Andrews would have been taken seriously and he would have gotten questions like: “What could be an alternative name for the honours?”, “What else should we change in society you think, based on the logic of your academic research?”.
  • Toby Young would have been critically approached instead of as an ally, with questions as “Why is it so difficult to change words when a big part of British people are logically offended by it and we should actually be ashamed of that part of history”, “Why do you still want to associate with that part of history?”, “Why is it so hard to let that go?”.

In an ideal situation, it would have ended in at least agreeing all together that the colonial past should be redefined in our minds and history books. And that it’s the only way to develop a common future. Let’s talk about how to do that, as an example of constructive journalism.

Love to hear your thoughts.