When the white gaze is automatically seen as informed opinion

by Shane Thomas

What do you know about the Large Hadron Collider? Personally, I know it’s a science thing, and… that’s about it.

So what would you think if I declared I was going to talk at length about the LHC in this piece? You would be entitled to think me asinine, and wonder how on earth I could write about such a matter with any authority.

Don’t worry, you won’t have to deal with my half-baked musings on events at CERN, but if you did, it would be the first warning sign that I’m intending to seek a career as a media commentator[1].

My reason for throwing such contumelious shade towards the established press concerns the wearying domination of our cultural and political discourse by those who lack expertise in some of the subjects on which they speak, with the most recent example being the explosion of analysis that came in the midst of Beyonce releasing Lemonade.

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Now, Lemonade is a topic more than worthy of voluminous inquiry. Yet, even though it wasn’t hard to find black women online imploring the media to let them lead the dialogue, it was even easier to find the press doing the exact opposite (especially where Becky was concerned).

One of the greatest hindrances to a well-informed public is information being dispersed through a prism that is either reductive, incomplete, or incorrect. Conversation should be the first step to progress, but progress is seldom the endgame of those in control of the discussion.

For clarity’s sake, that doesn’t mean those without specific lived experience can’t have an opinion. But that opinion shouldn’t siphon off space that needs to be occupied by those who are directly affected. For example, combating white supremacy is difficult enough without having to deal with white people dictating who can and can’t use the n-word.

When a relative few speak for many, it allows the many to be perceived as abstract concepts, or as stereotypes – the pilfering migrant; the benefit cheat; the Islamic militant – instead of as multifarious human beings.

Biehs30IEAAusaS.jpg_largeHave you ever noticed how government positions work like a carousel? Jeremy Hunt is the current Secretary of State for Health, and has been so since 2012. But during 2010-2012, he was the Culture Secretary. These are very different branches of government. If he was so qualified to be Culture Secretary, why is he no longer in that position? And if health was his speciality, then why appoint him in an arena he was ill-equipped for back in 2010?

It’s easy (really, so easy) to single out Hunt, but this is standard practice throughout British politics. Not just for the government, but also for the opposition. Why are ministries treated like a primary school sports day where everyone gets to have a go? What kind of way is that to efficiently run a country?

This paradigm continues in part because of the asymmetric way – despite the diffusion of opinion and information in the internet age – in which we valour credentialed thought, and few things come with stronger credentials than being white, male, cis, upper/middle class, or having letters after your name. Anyone else with a viewpoint runs the risk of being derided as too impartial or overemotional.

There’s a voracious greed in having a cabal of unelected thought leaders. You can’t insist the best ideas will naturally come to the surface, when you have a hoarding of human knowledge production, controlled by a small subset of people.

It results in a deformed dialectic, which can never help those in society who need it most. Brian Phillips had an interesting observation when he said; “When I watch the news now, I don’t feel like I’m looking at a window onto the world. I feel like I’m looking at something that has auto-completed its way into some airy alternate reality, the way your phone thinks you want to spell “ducking” when you’ve actually typed “fu.””

What I find most deflating isn’t even when influential media gets things wrong. It’s the refusal to learn from mistakes, so that future ones aren’t made. It’s so disconcerting when we see an unwillingness to countenance that one’s awareness of a particular subject is deficient, and that others are more capable of filling in the gaps than you are.

I feel much of this problem stems from what Stanford University professor Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset, stating: “In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

Far too much of the established media aren’t culturally multilingual, and are communicating in a language that they don’t speak. It puts me in mind of this character from Catherine Tate’s old sketch show, who would insist she was an expert in everything, but was in fact an expert in nothing.

EBONY’s senior editor Jamilah Lemieux articulated my concerns in under a paragraph when she stated: “It is absolutely maddening to have someone lie to your face about you, to distort the truth about who you are, proclaim it to the world and shout over your attempts at correction.”

We have something to say that you don’t. Something to say that you can’t. It’s the lived experience that makes the personal political, and the disenfranchised can’t forge a path to justice unless they’re allowed to speak. So let us speak.

[1] – Yes, I know I have a regular column in Media Diversified, but – through no fault of this site – it’s not something one can live on.

For expertise you can trust try the Media Diversified Experts Directory, a searchable and managed database of experts and professionals from a variety of fields from  BAME backgrounds, all of whom have experience in media settings.

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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015

Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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