National Geographic calls itself to task for its racist past

As a species, we've got a long history of being shitty to one another for no other reason than skin color. White folks, myself included, have arguably earned the right to drop the mic on bigotry. Over the centuries, we honed systemic racism to such a razor edge that the cuts our ugly worldview made are still being suffered today. As our world's recent politics have illustrated, a lot of people still buy into this superiority-of-the-white-man bullshit. But it's getting better. Views are changing, albeit slowly, and we're crawling on our knees towards equality.

I think that one of the reasons that it's taking us so long to get there is that no one likes to admit that they're wrong. Doing so puts you in a perceived position of weakness, which is ironic given that owning one's faults can be so powerful. Believing this as I do, I was really surprised to read this morning that National Geographic decided to call itself to account for the racist reporting that its correspondents have written and they've published over the decades:

Instead of wasting their time on naval gazing, the magazine's editorial team asked an outsider, historian John Edward Mason, to hunt down all of the ugly, racist writing he could find from National Geographic's archives. As National Geographic's current Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg explains, examining the publication's past was both painful and necessary:

I’m the tenth editor of National Geographic since its founding in 1888. 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.

Race is not a biological construct, as writer Elizabeth Kolbert explains in this issue, but a social one that can have devastating effects. “So many of the horrors of the past few centuries can be traced to the idea that one race is inferior to another,” she writes. “Racial distinctions continue to shape our politics, our neighborhoods, and our sense of self.”

Focusing a lens on a publication's racism over the years would be a worthy, noteworthy accomplishment for any magazine. But when one with a pedigree and history like National Geographic does it? That's huge.

Image: National Geographic

Loading...