"I’m the tenth editor of National Geographic since its founding in 1888," Susan Goldberg writes. "I’m the first woman and the first Jewish person—a member of two groups that also once faced discrimination here. It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past. But when we decided to devote our April magazine to the topic of race, we thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others" (via).
One of my favorite comedians once said, "If someone calls you an asshole you can't say, 'No I'm not,' because it's not up to you!" The correct response is to say sorry, and then ask what you did wrong. And that is exactly what National Geographic is doing.
The article continues:
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.”
. . .
Mason also uncovered a string of oddities—photos of “the native person fascinated by Western technology. It really creates this us-and-them dichotomy between the civilized and the uncivilized.”
Yet, on February 18, 2018, National Geographic published a video that attempted to show the story of human evolution through paintings on a face. The video is brilliant, but it's also a reinforcement of all that National Geographic is trying to move away from.
Right before we turn into machines (I guess), is the light-skinned human. It's so subtle because it's lost in the brilliance of art, but it's there, and it engrains itself into our psyche every single day.
“If I were talking to my students about the period until after the 1960s," Mason states, "I would say, ‘Be cautious about what you think you are learning here.'" . . . "At the same time, you acknowledge the strengths National Geographic had even in this period, to take people out into the world to see things we’ve never seen before. It’s possible to say that a magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time it closes them.”
Although National Geographic is making great strides and is an example to us all on self-evaluation, Mason's warning to students of the 60's is a warning that still applies today: be cautious about what you think you are learning here.
The article ends with, "We hope you will join us in this exploration of race, beginning this month and continuing throughout the year. Sometimes these stories, like parts of our own history, are not easy to read. But as Michele Norris writes in this issue, “It’s hard for an individual—or a country—to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones", and I think that's brilliant. National Geographic isn't perfect, but they're also not defensive. They're taking a good hard look at themselves and they're inviting us to join them in the process, to join in the discussion.
I hope we're mature enough to handle it.
You can read the full article, "For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It" here. And I would encourage you to. It's pretty great.
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