While there are a number of television programmes and films that are beginning to purporting to show reimagined worlds separate from the systems within which we currently exist, they often simply reinforce the oppressive systems that they are so keen to distance themselves from.

We still have a long way to go.

10 March 2021

Old Amsterdam

New Amsterdam - The White Saviour

The tagline NBC uses for its hospital drama New Amsterdam is, ‘Break the rules. Heal the system.’ A tagline sure to have me rolling my eyes, but let me stop. New Amsterdam is set in a fictionalised New York hospital and follows a new medical director, Max Goodwin, who upon his arrival makes it very clear that he wants to overturn the hospital’s current system, making it one that has social justice at its core. 

The immediate problem is, as with many other programmes that attempt to go down this path, that however much each of the episodes touches on issues in a holistic and ‘progressive’ way, they are not the radical reimagining of the system that they seem to think they are. Goodwin as the white male cis-gendered, non-disabled protagonist ensures that with his very presence whiteness remains centred. New initiatives, the firing of ‘unsuitable’ staff members, and the fetishising of marginalised narratives are simply the continuation of white supremacist structures, albeit with a pretty bow on them.

Goodwin is a likeable character, and the Katherine of 10 years ago would have potentially sat through the show without a critical questioning of what and who he represents. Full disclosure, the Katherine of 2021 still somewhat finds him endearing, and other characters like him in a plethora of ‘conscious’ programmes dominating our screens. Whilst viewing, I couldn’t help but see parallels between what Goodwin represents, has achieved, and will achieve as a doctor within the series, and the maverick white male headteachers with their ‘transformative schools’. I wonder, say, whether a black man or women in that position would be afforded the same license. Goodwin’s refusal to bow to the hospital’s sponsors, and constant demands, changes and the fact that he has made it so far up the ladder, are all a testament to his whiteness. Black men and women who try to assimilate and conform to the status quo find it almost impossible to make it up the ladder to eventually penetrate the glass ceiling; Those with a radical approach probably wouldn’t make it past the first rung of the ladder.

I found the above impossible to look past when viewing the series. As mentioned, Max is endearing enough; Clever story arching, including his battle with cancer, the loss of his wife, and his unwavering commitment to helping others, make him likeable and has you rooting for him. But I am just tired of the white saviour narrative. A narrative that is in full force in an episode titled ‘Denominator’.

In Denominator, Max happens across a group of black men playing basketball and stops to play a game with them. Whilst playing, one of the men collapses. Max runs to assist him, and he is taken to New Amsterdam. At the hospital, the man is told that he has hypertension. It becomes clear that he is not keen on regular check-ups, and the episode moves to comment on many black people having a (very justified) mistrust of the healthcare system. To try to ‘tackle’ this, Max decides to set up an outreach clinic at the patient’s barbershop. This is a great example of a reimagining of what the healthcare system can and should look like. There is a funny exchange between Max and a black cardiovascular surgeon when Max asks the black doctor to run the clinic and insinuates that he would be the right person for the job.- black doctor shuts him down and calls out the fact that Max is only asking him because he is black. 

Max finally opens up the clinic in the barbershop, and very few people show up. He decides that he is going to train the barber to be able to give customers high blood pressure tests.

He believes that this will give the barber and the community agency. He also believes that customers would be more likely to be convinced by and trust their barber to carry out the tests.

This is all great and all, but:

  • Goodwin is still pulling the strings and choosing what reimagined healthcare should look like- whilst it is community-embedded and physically accessible, who knows if it is what the community want
  • The episode does not truly examine why there is such a high rate of hypertension amongst black males- once again with this show, whilst an acknowledgement that the old way isn’t working, and alternative suggestions are being shown, there is no real interrogation of the purposeful damage the existing system does to underserved communities
  • No reference is made to other social factors affecting health
  • No reference to ridiculous medical costs that come along with a diagnosis, that many Americans cannot afford
  • We do not linger on the fact that he, a white male, has access to world-class surgeons when he has his treatment, but black communities do not have this, and this barbershop clinic, whilst imaginative, is not the same as being treated by a qualified doctor- although we have to be careful when saying this, as it is a fact that black people are undertreated in an extreme way within the healthcare system

Goodwin plays ball at the end of the show with the same group of black men. He is the ‘hero’, the ‘second coming.’ He shoots and misses the basket- which is fitting, as, once again, white liberals have missed the point.