The Guardian

Problematic provocations

This insightful journey through the realms of racial oppression is marred by a careless disrespect for black female scholars, writes Afua Hirsch

The Psychosis of Whiteness: Surviving the Insanity of a Racist World Kehinde Andrews Allen Lane, £25, pp272

Appearing on TV to talk to white audiences about why you don’t need to explain yourself to white audiences is one of the strangest things you can do. I’ve been there, more than once in the company of Kehinde Andrews, the professor of Black studies whose new book explores this and many other contradictions inherent in critiquing whiteness.

Andrews’s new book is as provocative as his frequent TV clashes with Piers Morgan –a man with whom, it seems, Andrews quite enjoys sparring. He is so at home with provocation that the first few pages of the book are devoted to simply defending its title. Psychosis is a condition from which black people are disproportionately likely to suffer, including Andrews’s own father, he reveals. So using psychosis as a metaphor for “whiteness”, something harmful – is less than ideal for the many activists and patients who have worked to remove its stigma.

In fact, “psychosis” isn’t so much employed as a metaphor here, but a diagnosis. It’s certainly true that the history of white supremacy – and specifically the way in which white people have racialised, demonised and oppressed black people – offers an abundance of symptoms: hallucination, delusion and failure to adhere to reason. Thus, Andrews argues, psychosis is an appropriate way of describing the collective, racial ideology of white societies.

What follows is, for me, one of the most confusing parts of the book. Andrews goes on to argue that psychosis doesn’t actually exist. Perceptions of “delusion” and “irrational behaviour” are in the eye of the beholder, he says. He then offers a compelling examination of the history of psychiatry, and its appalling treatment of black patients. Mental health treatment has been highly racialised, Andrews argues, persuasively, forming an important component of racial oppression – an oppression so irrational that it’s akin to psychosis… the condition that Andrews tells us doesn’t exist.

If you are confused, so was I. Is whiteness psychotic because it is crazy? Or is psychosis crazy because it’s invented by whiteness? Or have black people been told we are crazy because mental health care is weaponised by whiteness? Or are black people going crazy because of the racial oppression involved in whiteness? None of these questions helps reduce my discomfort that we are rolling back the work that has been done to destigmatise mental health, rejecting problematic ideas of “craziness” in the first place.

The rest of Andrews’s book offers an insightful but sometimes repetitive journey through various areas of racial oppression – in academia, in the media, in narratives of history, in tourism, public policy, museums, and political discourse.

Repetition is not necessarily a bad thing. We have all been so conditioned by the erasure and demonisation of blackness that is hard-baked into our society – something Andrews is excellent at articulating – that we all need reminders, re-education, and reconditioning constantly.

Ironically, the most original part of the book is also the one with which I take most issue. Andrews’s chapter The Anti-Racism Industrial Complex takes aim at various black writers, activists and intellectuals who aim to create white allies through antiracism education. He argues that they advance an excessive focus on changing individual people’s attitudes, which is pointless.

There is much here with which I agree. Andrews is right that educating white people about race does not of itself dismantle oppressive systems of power. It’s also vital that we don’t become complacent with the corporatised, tokenistic approaches to training, workshopping, unconscious bias removal and so on, which all too often present themselves as the radical solutions they are not.

Andrews is a revolutionary, and anyone deeply versed in what black people have experienced should be too. But I find it helpful to distinguish between revolution, which much of the work he attacks could not create, and racial intelligence, which it can. Racial intelligence – in which we all become better educated about how race works and continues to distribute power and resources – is not revolutionary in itself, but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time.

My greatest discomfort is not with Andrews’s critique but with the way he communicates it. He singles out anti-racism writers and activists by name, many of them black women, and derides, mocks and dismisses their work. In one instance, he says he would prefer

My greatest discomfort is not with his critique, but with the way he communicates it

people to “don KKK hoods and burn a cross on my lawn” than listen to a well-respected black woman’s work on educating white people.

Setting aside how problematic it is to reduce fatal white terror attacks to a joke, this strikes me as an odd way to model black solidarity. Above all, at a time when so many black men are becoming more intentional about examining their misogynoir and protecting black women, it’s careless and disrespectful. As Malcolm X, who Andrews is fond of quoting, said: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most un-protected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Andrews would do well to heed these words, too.

Failing to take care in critiquing other black scholars is the single thing I find hardest to digest about Andrews’s approach. Ironically, I would never do that to him. His book offers many rich observations, some honest self-reflection, and an authentic narrative style. I share his deeply held frustration that many black people, who have the most to gain from meaningful change, have all but given up, satiated instead on a filling diet of Wakanda and self-care.

Andrews says his book aims to help us abandon pointless battles, and “win the war”. I agree. Even if I’m not quite the wiser how we get there.

Decolonising My Body by Afua Hirsch is published by Square Peg next month. To order The Psychosis of Whiteness for £21.25 go to or call 0203176 3837