This may come as a surprise to no one, but [stage whispers] National Geographic (along with many other publications) used to be hella, obviously racist.
Shocking. I know.
But as it turns out, we don’t even need to lash out at Nat Geo for its racist past, as the world-renowned magazine that explores science, geography, history and world culture has decided to come for its own wig and snatch itself bald, the first step to righting a long-overlooked and perhaps even taken-for-granted wrong.
Susan Goldberg, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, and perhaps not so coincidentally the magazine’s first woman and first Jewish person to hold the title, penned an article for the Race Issue explaining how the magazine had invited a leading historian, University of Virginia professor John Edwin Mason, to investigate the magazine’s coverage of people of color in the U.S. and abroad.
What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers. Meanwhile it pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.
Unlike magazines such as Life, Mason said, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.
“Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures,” he said. “Segregation was the way it was. National Geographic wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received, and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority. National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism, and the world was divided into the colonizers and the colonized. That was a color line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”
Throughout the article, Goldberg links to old articles and also displayed old photographs with the offensive, disparaging and/or racist captions that they carried. There was one referenced article, a 1916 story about Australia, that featured photos of two Aboriginal people. The caption accompanying that photo? “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
And, as Mason pointed out to Goldberg, it was not just what the magazine included but what it also chose to omit:
Mason compared two stories we did about South Africa, one in 1962, the other in 1977. The 1962 story was printed two and a half years after the massacre of 69 black South Africans by police in Sharpeville, many shot in the back as they fled. The brutality of the killings shocked the world.
“National Geographic’s story barely mentions any problems,” Mason said. “There are no voices of black South Africans. That absence is as important as what is in there. The only black people are doing exotic dances … servants or workers. It’s bizarre, actually, to consider what the editors, writers and photographers had to consciously not see.”
Contrast that with the piece in 1977, in the wake of the U.S. civil rights era: “It’s not a perfect article, but it acknowledges the oppression,” Mason said. “Black people are pictured. Opposition leaders are pictured. It’s a very different article.”
Fast-forward to a 2015 story about Haiti, when we gave cameras to young Haitians and asked them to document the reality of their world. “The images by Haitians are really, really important,” Mason said, and would have been “unthinkable” in our past. So would our coverage now of ethnic and religious conflicts, evolving gender norms, the realities of today’s Africa, and much more.
Bluntly acknowledging its own past in this way is indeed powerful, but it is not necessarily something, I think, that we should applaud, as much as we should expect ... especially at this time in our lives when race and discussions of racism and even general cultural insensitivity can be volatile, tense and perhaps even deadly.
This is something that National Geographic also readily accepts and acknowledges.
April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a worthy moment to step back, to take stock of where we are on race. It’s also a conversation that is changing in real time: In two years, for the first time in U.S. history, less than half the children in the nation will be white. So let’s talk about what’s working when it comes to race, and what isn’t. Let’s examine why we continue to segregate along racial lines and how we can build inclusive communities. Let’s confront today’s shameful use of racism as a political strategy and prove we are better than this.
Indeed, let us confront the issue at hand, up front.
Who wants to be next in line to drag themselves down the street?