Since it launched in 1888, National Geographic magazine has typically covered people of color the same way it covered animals or trees: as objects. The magazine attempted to confront this history head-on in its April 2018 special issue on racism. But critics wonder if the people behind the magazine have learned anything at all.
Editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg explained in an introductory essay, “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It,” that the magazine commissioned historian John Edwin Mason to evaluate its archives for evidence of racism. Mason found many examples, ranging from outright racist portrayals of people of color (one 1916 story called Indigenous Australians “savages” that “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings”) to erasure of these communities’ struggles against White supremacy (a 1962 feature about South Africa did not mention how the apartheid government subjugated Black South Africans). Goldberg also acknowledged that the magazine frequently presents women of color as sexualized objects.
“How we present race matters,” Goldberg wrote. “I hear from readers that National Geographic provided their first look at the world. Our explorers, scientists, photographers and writers have taken people to places they’d never even imagined; it’s a tradition that still drives our coverage and of which we’re rightly proud. And it means we have a duty, in every story, to present accurate and authentic depictions—a duty heightened when we cover fraught issues such as race.”
The magazine apparently tried to carry out that duty in its new issue, which features headlines like “These Twins, One Black and One White, Will Make You Rethink Race”; “As America Changes, Some Anxious Whites Feel Left Behind”; and “There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It’s a Made-Up Label.”
These stories, many of which focus on how race is socially constructed, raised the ire of critics who saw the publication as promoting race-blind and Whiteness-centered rhetoric. Gene Demby, of NPR’s Code Switch, tweeted a thread that included the following critique:
Is Nat Geo’s cover story finna be the shocking revelation that race is socially constructed? ? pic.twitter.com/yiWyqFv6Xm— Gene “GD” Demby (@GeeDee215) March 12, 2018
Sigh. Turns out that IS the big revelation. https://t.co/NvgFMcrZ35— Gene “GD” Demby (@GeeDee215) March 12, 2018
*rubs temples* pic.twitter.com/QW96bmypy7— Gene “GD” Demby (@GeeDee215) March 12, 2018
It would be great that if, upon stumbling upon the idea that race is not a biological reality but socially constructed, people didn’t immediately proceed to presume that that means it can just be waved away. Money is socially constructed. Nation-states are socially constructed.— Gene “GD” Demby (@GeeDee215) March 12, 2018
Other users shared similar responses:
every two years National Geographic or Time or whatever be like “CAN RACIALLY AMBIGUOUS MIXEDEDED PEOPLE SAVE AMERICA AND ALSO CAN THEY FLY AND BREATHE UNDERWATER”— wikipedia “Killmonger, But Make It Feminist” brown (@eveewing) March 13, 2018
And who decided she was “white”? Was there a blood test or something? They must sell those supplies at the same place they sell the devices that let people detect with great certainty whether anyone has “a racist bone in their body.” https://t.co/VRTt3YCGqw— Jenée (@jdesmondharris) March 12, 2018