National Geographic’s mea culpa isn’t enough

A deeply colonial institution, with a shameful history, struggles to reinvent itself.

Photos of aboriginal Australians C.P. Scott (left) and H.E. Gregory (right) from a 1916 article in National Geographic. The article called them "savages" who "rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings."

In 2017, National Geographic hired John Edwin Mason, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, to go through the magazine’s 130-year-old archive and probe its history. Mason, a historian of South Africa (he wrote a book on slavery in the Cape Colony, and, more recently, has studied the history of photography of South Africa), summarized his research findings to NPR: “The photography [in the magazine], like the articles, didn’t simply emphasize difference, but made difference … very exotic, very strange, and put difference into a hierarchy. And that hierarchy was very clear: that the West, and especially the English-speaking world, was at the top of the hierarchy. And black and brown people were somewhere underneath.”

Now National Geographic’s April 2018 issue is dedicated to race and a Letter from the Editor, Susan Goldberg, details Mason’s findings.

The magazine’s mea culpa made a big splash in certain segments of the media, namely NPR, the New York TimesThe Guardian, and other media outlets frequented by liberal elites. Within academic circles, the news is the apology itself (full stop), as the publication’s problematic editorial slant has long been well understood. While apologies are definitely a good thing, the label racist does not capture the full extent of the problem. Rather, this is a deeply colonial institution that is struggling to reinvent itself.

I’m a white American, an academic geographer and a scholar of Africa. Despite the publication’s name, most geographers have a deeply conflicted relationship with National Geographic magazine. While it has opened up new worlds to many general readers, it has also done so with a colonialist, orientalist and racist gaze.

In many ways, I’m a classic example of this conundrum. I grew up in a decidedly white middle class household in suburban Chicago in the 1970s. For me, National Geographic spawned a curiosity about the outside world that might not have otherwise existed. While this deep interest in other regions would persist, I would soon learn of the magazine’s more problematic side in college. Then, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali in the 1980s, I had close friends who had a deeply troubling encounter with a National Geographic photographer who insisted on photographing Dogon women in spite of their protestations (for a story that would later appear in the October 1990 issue of the magazine).

I thought the publication had turned a corner when, in 2005, they reached out to me and other Africanists for our comments on a series of landscape photographs taken in various parts of Africa. Our commentary was to be used in a special issue on the continent in which they would look at the region with fresh eyes, questioning old stereotypes. I distinctly remember being shown an image of goat herders on a relatively barren landscape in the Turkana District of northwestern Kenya. The funny thing was, I could tell that the reporter was looking for certain answers. He clearly wanted me to talk about overgrazing and land degradation in this particular area. I, on other hand, wanted to know when the photo was taken, because this would have a huge bearing on the appearance of the landscape. Needless to say, my comments and those of others were never used.

When the September 2005 issue of National Geographic did appear, provocatively entitled “Africa: Whatever you thought, think again,” it was worse than I could have imagined. In a subsequent critique I published later that year in the African Geographical Review, I wrote that the dominant narrative in this “revolutionary” piece of journalism was that “Africa is awash with problems that largely stem from overpopulation, corruption and resource scarcity…” I then went on to say that the issue: “promotes a simplistic understanding of the relationship between population growth, environmental degradation and conflict; fails to highlight sufficiently the connections between Africa and global political economy; and tends to unquestioningly privilege the preservation of wildlife and natural areas over human livelihoods.”

While Goldberg’s mea culpa for National Geographic is a much-needed step, it is inherently limited. In her letter she highlights the work of Mason. He highlights the difference in stories the magazine did on South Africa in 1962 and then in 1977. She cites his commentary on how the former story has no voices of black South Africans and barely acknowledges politics or violence (even though the Sharpeville massacre had recently occurred), whereas the latter article acknowledges oppression and features black South African in more than just traditional attire. Goldberg then goes on to mention a 2015 story on Haiti in which they gave cameras to locals to take pictures that were featured in the magazine, supposed evidence that the subject-object binary, and related power dynamics, were really being inverted.

My own experiences, and those of others, seriously undermine the suggestion that the magazine’s coverage became less problematic after the 1970s. Perhaps it was less overtly racist (and even this is a big question mark), but it was still deeply inflected with an orientalist and colonial worldview.

The real challenge for National Geographic is that it is a product of the colonial era. It published its first issue in 1888 at the height of European colonialism. It was the mouthpiece of the US National Geographic Society which, like many of its European counterparts, was deeply engaged in the colonial enterprise. By communicating a certain view of the world to Americans and other western constituencies, National Geographic helped sustain domestic support for colonialism, and then neocolonialism, neo-imperialism and neoliberalism.

While it is appropriate to call out National Geographic magazine’s racist past, the problem runs deeper. The challenge is colonialism cum neocolonialism. To address this issue, the magazine must not only diversify its staff and introduce new voices, but devote itself to exposing and deconstructing the structures that perpetuate neocolonialism in a material and discursive sense. This will be no easy task for a magazine that is firmly entrenched in a capitalist market place and is owned by a conservative media organization, 21st Century Fox.

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