Opinions: National Geographic’s acknowledgement of its racist past is an important first step

Better Late Than Never

National Geographic’s acknowledgement of its racist past is an important first step

Tia Kutschera Fox / Opinions Editor
With files from Ana Frazão

The April issue of National Geographic is dedicated to race. But the actual discussion around the magazine is that the Editor-in-Chief, Susan Goldberg, wrote her editorial about the magazine’s racist past.

The racism is hardly surprising for a magazine that has been printing for 130 years in a country with a blatantly racist history, and it is hard to find a publication that wasn’t racist in the past. But it’s heartening to see a large publication write an open and harsh self-examination. Goldberg wrote bluntly, “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.”

In order to support boundaries of respect and work towards the end of racism and a future of equality, the first step is admitting there is a problem. Especially in this time of scandalous racism in politics and the dubious comments made by Donald Trump. The editorial sends a strong message of the magazine’s position.

It’s impossible to fully measure how generations of racism, lack of representation and dehumanization can impact a group. But it’s clear the effect is devastating, and echoes through generations. So if a powerful magazine can do anything to make reparations for a racist past, they must do it. Just like women fought – and continue to do so – to release themselves from centuries of subjugation. The Black community also continues to fight for the acknowledgment of past heroes that were ignored by the media, lack of representation and eradicating stereotypes. Black people were portrayed horribly in the magazine. Goldberg pointed to a 1916 National Geographic article in which Aboriginal Australians were called “savages” who “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

Other powerful entities are taking similar first steps. The New York Times reviewed past obituaries to celebrate distinguished females and Justin Trudeau making amends and apologizing to First Nations people. In order to past beyond the history, the bullies must recognize their actions. National Geographic Magazine Chief Michelle Norris wrote, “it’s hard for an individual—or a country—to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones.”

For those that think this was not needed at all, their position simply reveals their privilege. Marginalized groups have been fighting for centuries for acknowledgement and reparations. While acknowledgement is just the first step, it’s still a key part of ending systemic racism. A problem can’t be solved before it is acknowledged.  Goldberg even stated “It’s possible to say that a magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time it closes them.” That influence is not insignificant. Acknowledging a problem doesn’t excuse it and it’s a first step, not a finish line.

The magazine’s position shows progress, as long as this isn’t the only thing they plan to do. Apologies without action are empty. The world needs more powerful voices admitting their mistakes and actively working towards reconciliation. We all should take a leaf out of National Geographic’s book. “Let’s confront today’s shameful use of racism as a political strategy and prove we are better than this.”

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