What journalism can learn from Michelle Obama’s response to the Meghan & Harry interview

Screenshot from the interview with Michelle Obama in The Today Show by Jenna Bush Hager.

What Michelle Obama is actually saying

What is so interesting about this answer is that Michelle Obama doesn’t doubt Meghan Markle’s confessions about racism. She goes beyond the personal experience and draws a bigger picture. It’s important to hear a Black woman of this influence and stature analyze the case like this because it brings the debate to the level where it should be.

  • And even though it’s not easy to live a life in public service, there are ways to protect yourself and apparently, Meghan and Harry didn’t find the right help to do so.
  • Besides that, Obama rightfully concludes that racism isn’t new, which is actually saying that Meghan and Harry might have been a little naive.
  • She refers to the fact that it’s obviously sad to experience racism within your own family and that it’s important to learn from that experience together.
  • What I read in her comment between the lines here is that it’s more powerful to work together with your family to solve the problem instead of accusing them and walking away.

No room for people who downplay racism

Obama ends her comment by summarizing the steps necessary towards antiracism, namely a lot more education about our history and the understanding that it takes time, effort and honesty.
With this statement, she doesn’t leave any room for people who want to downplay racism. Instead, she lets everyone know the ingredients needed in the future: patience towards the process, a willingness to change and self-reflection.
Michelle Obama’s words are worth analyzing because they bring us to a level of the racism discussion that’s hardly reached nowadays, where we’re not stuck in the sharing of personal experiences by Black people and the feeling of being personally offended on the white spectrum. Obama zooms out to a bigger picture: racism exists, the question is what we’re going to do about it.

Is her opinion new? Of course not. She stands upon the shoulders of social justice giants who’ve been fighting for equality all their lives. But those voices sometimes get overshadowed by emotional statements from (famous) people who mean well and have the same goal but lose sight of the wider context. Statements that emphasize the courageousness of Meghan to speak out against such a powerful institution and support her in her mental wellbeing. Which is great, important and necessary. But it often ends there. Obama’s contribution isn’t less compassionate towards Meghan, it just focuses on policy instead of the individual. The former first lady uses her highly respected position in society to focus on much needed long term goals.

We can’t build policy on personal experiences alone

We live in a world where personal experiences have become the default. And private feelings are hard to disagree with because why would you deny someone’s truth, right? It becomes challenging when we need a common ground on which to base our societies. Meaning rules and visions we all share and agree on that let us build a future together. There’s no need to invent such tools because we already have them, in the ethics of our professions and in human rights laws. Racism is part of that as well.
Meghan and Harry definitely have shocked the United Kingdom with their revelations and the interview most probably has shaken things up in the monarchy. The question is: now what?
This is a shortcoming concerning personal experiences, causing people to discuss if the accusations are true or false. Whereas it should go beyond the point of checks and balances. Human rights aren’t an opinion, neither is racism.

The media diversity debate has the same characteristics

It reminds me of the dynamic in the debate about media diversity. An incident happens, everyone is shocked, people deny what is happening, they become angry and depressed and after that slowly rise towards acceptance and curiosity. Like drawn in the change curve:

The focus on mental health in journalism is related

It’s even interesting to observe how the mental health issues among journalism colleagues fill multiple webinars and at the same time I still need to find the first Zoom about white journalists doing self-reflection on the topic of race. There is no doubt that mental wellbeing is of the utmost importance, but we lack an overall view, a holistic view, where both topics — mental health and racism — come down to the same roots: journalism ethics.

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Sanne Breimer

Sanne Breimer

Exploring the solutions to the lack of inclusion in journalism, focusing on decolonising journalism and discussing whiteness, Eurocentrism and objectivity.