A Psychologist Explains Why It Took So Long to Call Out the Chef with the Racist Instagram Account

Reaction to former Som Saa chef Sean Beagley's offensive social media uploads shows the many ways in which we turn away from things that we find uncomfortable.

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Jul 17 2018, 11:28am

Screengrab via Instagram

I’m an orbiting member of the London food scene. After finishing as a finalist on The Great British Bake Off in 2013, I developed long-lasting friendships with cooks and eaters across this diverse, hungry city. I host a podcast that explores the deeper role food plays in our lives and contribute to recipe sites and blogs. Vocationally, however, I am a psychologist and as such, my job is to study and understand complex and often conflicting human behaviour.

My two worlds collided this week when it emerged that Shaun Beagley, a chef at celebrated London Thai restaurant Som Saa, had created YouTube cooking videos under the persona “Boring Kitchen.” The instructional videos date back to 2016, and see Beagley put on a mocking East Asian accent and use racial slurs. In one that demonstrates how to make coconut cream, he likens black people to monkeys. Beagley also ran a Boring Kitchen Instagram account, on which he used similarly offensive homophobic and racist language.

As Eater London and Twitter user @phowax have pointed out, Beagley’s behaviour seemed to have been approved by Som Saa owner Andy Oliver, who tweeted Boring Kitchen’s coconut cream video in 2016, calling it “awesome.”

News of Beagley’s racist social media content soon began circulating, alongside confusing details about other high profile chefs and food personalities who had either expressly or tacitly endorsed it. Beagley was sacked from his position and Oliver issued a statement via Twitter, saying: “I would like to personally and unreservedly apologise for commenting on one of Boring Kitchen’s cooking videos which has, quite rightly, been identified as highly offensive.” He also said: “We should have seen it more clearly.”

Food blogger Ed Smith was another to have followed Beagley’s Instagram account, then regretted his actions. He tweeted: “I don’t know why I assumed the best in the person writing the comments, rather than simply look to their content and likely effect. I’m sorry for that.”

Both Oliver and Smith’s reactions—and those of many others in the London food scene—hint at the many ways in which we psychologically turn away from things that we find uncomfortable.

Racism is an unpleasant subject all round. For those of us who have experienced it, there is the constant nagging doubt that the person in front of you is making judgements and assumptions about your character, your abilities, your cleanliness based on your features or the colour of your skin. These are judgements that may well have long-term effects on your livelihood or wellbeing. For non-POC, there is the awkwardness of not knowing how to talk about race; an unconscious wish for it to no longer to be an issue; and the fear of being unfairly condemned with a racist minority.

But however unpleasant these feelings are, there is no disputing the racist nature of Beagley’s videos and social media content, nor the support it initially received. So, what prevents us from being able to believe what we see?

Psychologically, human beings like ease and simplicity. Our brains will take a shortcut wherever they can, and will do almost anything to avoid discomfort. This helps us make decisions faster, but also opens up a whole world of biases that we’re not even aware of. At least three of these play a role in the Beagley affair:

1. Cognitive Dissonance

2. Bystander Apathy

3. Wilful Blindness

“Cognitive dissonance” describes our difficulty and discomfort with holding two opposing views simultaneously. For example, it’s generally accepted that racism is bad. That’s our first premise. At the same time, we like to think of our friends as good people (why else would we like them?) These two beliefs come into uncomfortable conflict when we see our friend being racist. Our mind is compelled to dismiss one of the beliefs. It feels too painful to lose the friend, so the solution is to deny the racism. “It was just a bad joke.” “She didn’t mean it.” “He’s a good guy.” The friendship is protected but the people on the receiving end of the racism get told that they are wrong about their own experience; that they are overreacting or simply that their feelings don’t matter.

“Bystander apathy” or “diffusion of responsibility” is the phenomenon in which we are less inclined to take action or intervene in racist behaviour when other people are present. Each person decides that it’s someone else’s responsibility. In the case of social media posts, the presence of others’ “likes” or comments sends the message that since other people have seen this content and not raised concerns, there must not be a problem. Everyone just passes the buck.

“Wilful blindness” is simply turning a blind eye to racism. Smelling something rotten but instead of going to find out what it is, closing the door, walking away, and hoping someone else will deal with it.

But in order to grapple with any of the unpleasant realities of life, we can’t close our eyes and just hope it goes away. Nor can we dismiss the validity of another person’s position because it doesn’t fit our cosy view of things. Resolving cognitive dissonance starts with holding two thoughts in your head and facing up to them. “Racism is bad AND my friend, whom I think is good, is being racist.” Now, how do we resolve this conflict? How do we face, rather than deny, reality?

The food industry now has an opportunity to look honestly at its issue with racism and the culture that may enable it. It needs to be willing to have difficult and frank conversations. Everyone needs to open their eyes, believe what they see, and commit to the uncomfortable process of reparation and change. Only then will behaviour like Beagley’s no longer be tolerated.