National Geographic, one of the oldest magazines in the US, asked experts to look back at its archives. In the April issue, they respond to the findings, which uncovered racism, stereotypes and colonial tropes.
In a highly lauded move, National Geographic took a deep dive into their 130-year-old archives to uncover how the US magazine contributed to racism in the way it reported on other cultures. In an editor's note titled, "For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It," Susan Goldberg introduced the April 2018 issue, one which focuses solely on the subject of race, with a bit of self-reflection.
"I'm the 10th 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," she wrote.
The issue has been released on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and 50 years after the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia which legalized interracial marriage. Its cover features bi-racial twin sisters — one with a fairer skin tone than the other.
The image, along with articles on topics such as the issues interracial couples face during marriage and how race is a social construct, have already sparked a conversation just one day after the issue's release. Under #IDefineMe people are tweeting about their own experiences with race and applauding the move.
In preparing the issue, the editors at National Geographic asked University of Virginia professor John Edwin Mason, who specializes in the history of photography and the history of Africa to examine their archives within the context of the eras in which the pieces were published.
"What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers. Meanwhile it pictured 'natives' elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages — every type of cliché," Goldberg wrote.
'The colonizers and the colonized'
"Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures," Mason is quoted as saying. "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."
In considering their own role in shaping that world view, the editors cited specific examples that readers today would find troubling: using inappropriate language to refer to cultures as well as perpetuating stereotypes, such as Aboriginals in Australia having low IQs. With its pictures of tribesmen snapped with the latest technology, the magazine's stories would often focus on "exotic dancers" instead of on the country's actual problems.
After reflecting on their past mistakes, National Geographic will spend the rest of the year confronting issues of contemporary racism in the US with features on Muslims and Latinos in the US as well as a look back at the Japanese internment camps of World War II.
Museums and culture institutions reflect on colonialism
The move comes just as museums and cultural institutions across Europe are being asked to take a similar look into their own backgrounds and collections. Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron announced he had appointed Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy to report on the return of goods held in French museums that are of African cultural heritage. That follows on Macron's speech in Burkina Faso in November, during which he said, "African heritage can't just be in European private collections and museums."
Savoy grabbed attention in 2017 after resigning from the board of the not-yet-opened Humboldt Forum in Berlin. After resigning, she published an opinion piece in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, writing, "I want to know how much blood is dripping from each artwork. Without this research, no Humboldt Forum and no Ethnological Museum should open."