With the arrival of its latest issue, National Geographic has preempted many an angry blog and tweet thread by officially acknowledging its racist past. In an article from the appropriately-titled Race Issue, published online today, the magazine’s editor in chief Susan Goldberg wrote about the racist, often colonialist lens the magazine saw the world through for much of its 129-year history. Goldberg cited examples of articles that said Aboriginal Australians “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings,” used racial slurs to describe African Americans, and glazed over the horrors of slavery in the U.S. The article also includes analysis of the archives from University of Virginia professor John Edwin Mason, who stated, “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.”
In what is undoubtedly a landmark statement in the storied history of the magazine, this move echoes The New York Times’ recent announcement of its “Overlooked” project, in which the paper will run belated obituaries for historic public figures whose deaths were previously ignored by the “newspaper of record.” Both “The Race Issue” and “Overlooked” mark rare admissions of vulnerability from publications that are as old as they are highly revered. It’s not every day that we see major, canonical media outlets admit that their power had been wielded in ways that upheld racism and sexism. While National Geographic’s statement may, to some, seem like pandering to a particular cultural moment, you can’t deny that for a magazine that has otherized non-European and American cultures for decades, outright calling your past coverage “racist” — with no included caveats — is progress.
Indeed, it’s in that no-holds barred call out that National Geographic’s announcement edges out the New York Times’s in terms of taking a stand. In writing about “Overlooked,” Obituaries editor William McDonald offered a more defensive critique of his predecessors:
With Overlooked, our new collection of obituaries for women and others who never got them, The Times is acknowledging that many worthy subjects were skipped for generations, for whatever reasons.
Conscious or unconscious bias? Could be. Perhaps my predecessors and I were never informed of the deaths. Maybe those who knew the deceased did not think we’d be interested. Maybe an editor passed for lack of interest, or maybe considered an obit but did not have a reporter available to write it. (A practical reality that bedevils us today.)
McDonald went on to write that the reason so many Times obituaries are about white men is that “relatively few [women and people of color] were allowed to make such a mark on society in their own time.” This, despite the fact that the point of “Overlooked” is to recognize women and people of color who did just that.
Overall, as more legacy publications seek to publish incisive, critical pieces on cultural and political power imbalances, their own long, white male-dominated histories become a liability. While some acknowledgements of these checkered pasts may seem more earnest than others, they do offer some hope that change is coming — at best because people really care, and at least because some media companies need to save face. Next, these outlets can put their money where their publish buttons are and greatly increase the number of women — particularly women of color — in their newsrooms.