When I was in my teens, as an avid lover of magazines, I began to consciously seek out black publications. I had grown weary of magazines which either didn’t feature people of colour at all, or which contained articles and images that depicted us in ways that I found to be inaccurate at best and racist at worst.
I was tired of seeing Africans portrayed as primitive people, shown mostly as victims of famine, poverty, disease and death. I couldn’t stomach reading any more articles about black men as absent fathers, criminals or drug dealers. I didn’t want to see another bare-breasted black lady feeding a baby.
Although these magazines did not openly say so, I was left to conclude that the vast majority of publications were written by white people for other white people. As a young black woman it was very clear to me even then that I was never going to get an accurate sense of myself, or the world, from reading them.
However, some of my (white) friends at my secondary school in London would ask why I felt the need to read black magazines. “You don’t see us reading ‘white magazines’ do you?”, they would say.
I would then have to explain that although most magazines did not have “whites only” stamped on them, in practice, that’s essentially what they were. I would have to point out what I saw as omissions, gaps, inaccuracies and stereotypes because while we might have been looking at the same magazines, we saw different things.
It troubled me that they thought they were being given an accurate and objective perspective of the world when I knew they weren’t.
So I felt some sense of vindication when I heard National Geographic’s public confession that it has historically been racist in its coverage. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, the magazine’s April issue focuses exclusively on the topic of race, so National Geographic took itself to task by hiring an independent investigator in the form of historian John Edwin Mason to go through its archives, and did some serious soul-searching.
The findings of that investigation were not pretty. In fact, “until the 1970s, National Geographic all but ignored people of colour who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond labourers or domestic workers,” writes Susan Goldberg, the current editor of the magazine and a Jewish woman. “Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages.”
In her piece, she calls some of the magazine’s past stories “appalling”, and was left “speechless” by others, including an Australian photo of two Aboriginal people from 1916, below which is stated: “These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
It is commendable, however, that National Geographic has been so honest about these wrongs, is apologising for them and is now seeking to make amends and to better itself, which is more than many of the countries who were actually involved in slavery, colonialism, segregation and structural racism are willing to do.
At a time when America is facing growing racial divisiveness and when there is much troubling rhetoric in the West about race and ethnicity, it is also both literally and symbolically important for a publication to take a stand and to acknowledge how much of a role it plays in shaping how people see the world.
There are many teachable moments which could come from National Geographic’s mea culpa. Firstly, in an age where we are overwhelmed with information and saturated by media in many forms, consumers must become more media-literate and must be willing to educate themselves on what media really does in terms of shaping and reinforcing social norms, including those which may be dangerously inaccurate.
I am an advocate of media literacy in schools, and in young people being taught to think critically about what they see, read and hear. Similarly, publications must become much more aware of the impact of their output on society at large, especially when racial intolerance and divisions are on the increase and when, even despite increasing mistrust of the media, the general public still relies on it to provide it with what it believes to be accurate, objective, unfiltered and unbiased depictions of the world at large.
More publications would benefit from engaging in the kind of self-reflection and internal examination that National Geographic has done. I was impressed by its decision to engage a third party who could provide independent analysis, investigation and judgement, which the magazine actually took on (since there’s no point doing an investigation if its conclusions are ignored).
Goldberg’s decision to admit that the publication has operated with a worldview which has, falsely and harmfully, equated whiteness with superiority in its output was a bold and brave move. But, unfortunately, much of the damage has already been done. The stereotypes are out there in the world, the negativity exists, and the prejudice is ingrained.
So ultimately this confession should be a reminder of just how deeply pervasive and damaging an unexamined media authority can be.
According to the historian John Edwin Mason: “National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.”
He also found it, “wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority”
This is damning. Can you imagine the degree to which the types of images and words emanating from a publication like National Geographic have contributed not only to toxic prejudices, racist and colonialist beliefs but to racist behaviours themselves?
If real change is to be made, National Geographic should encourage others to follow suit, and should stand not only for self-examination but for tangible changes to corporate culture, to staff diversity and to employing a rounded workforce of human beings who are a true reflection of the world in which we live.