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National Geographic admits to historic racism – but modern magazines are racist too

They are written by white people for other white people.

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.

Lola Adesioye is a British-born, New York-based political commentator, writer and broadcaster of Nigerian heritage. She tweets @lolaadesioye.

Photo: Getty
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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.