On the one hand we should applaud the vaunted thinkers at National Geographic. Normally when our cultural leaders discover their own questionable behavior they blame the ills of society, and lack no hesitation in declaring how horrible we are as a nation. For a prime example of this look at Hollywood: when they are found to be acting in a racist, or a sexist fashion they take the time to lecture the rest of us on how their sins are somehow proof of our guilt.
This month the scientific outlet produced “The Race Issue”, and it has actually led to introspection. The magazine executed a productive thing by deciding to look into its archives, instead of pointing fingers. However it is a sign of our hyper-sensitive generation that a magazine in existence since the Civil War era feels the need to apologize for content it produced generations ago. It is more than probable an outlet in print for 130 years may have at times written items deemed offensive by today’s standards.
As NG covers the subject of race its Editor In Chief, Susan Goldberg, has written a column where she addresses the magazine’s past racial inequities.
I’m the tenth 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.
A few things become apparent. You have to suspect that Goldberg has taken this step because of the assurance that as the magazine releases “The Race Issue” some social activists would be compelled to criticize the magazine for those archived articles that would be regarded as “racist” today. Goldberg mentions for instance that the Society did not admit minorities membership until the 1940s, and how they lightly regarded POC in America in articles until the 1970s.
So these are issues the NGS handled generations ago, and thus hand-wringing over it today seems an overreach. Regardless they wanted to gauge their racism. To assess any possible offenses NG brought in an outside expert to comb through its past issues to look for any perceived grievance.
We asked John Edwin Mason to help with this examination. Mason is well positioned for the task: He’s a University of Virginia professor specializing in the history of photography and the history of Africa, a frequent crossroads of our storytelling. He dived into our archives.
It should be of little surprise Mason culled some objectionable content. What should be asked is a simple question: Should anyone care? A pragmatic thinker reading past issues of the gold border periodical actually should be of the mind to measure the content against the times in which it was produced. To take offense would be something of a willing enterprise by the reader.
One of the most egregious examples Mason found was from an article about Australia, which provided a harsh assessment of Aborigines in the country. Quoth the piece: “These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.” Jarring words, to be sure, but this article was written in 1916. I’m not about to hold National Geographic responsible today for content written 100 years ago, any more than you may take stock market advice from a Forbes Magazine piece from that time period, or set a fantasy baseball roster based on turn of the century box scores from The Sporting News.
Many other examples found by Mason were far less shocking. The historian alludes to the magazine reflecting the way America got ideas about the world from “Tarzan” movies, and Goldberg agrees. The Editor declares the magazine “pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché. But were not these indigenous people actually recorded by NG photographers? They reported on what they saw. These cliches were actually developed from what was discovered, were they not?
In other words, “Tarzan” was informed by details National Geographic reported on, not the other way around. Goldberg even misses this when, in her opening paragraph, she describes an article from 1930 on the crowning of Haile Selassie, King of Kings of Ethiopia. She uses that article as an example of how they covered an event in Africa while ignoring black people in America at that time. But in her praise of that article she describes “spear-wielding warriors”, describing one of those same cliches she derides later in her column.
Another questionable “problem” that was found involves those people from secluded societies who become captivated by previously unseen objects. Mason questions “photos of the native person fascinated by Western technology. It really creates this us-and-them dichotomy between the civilized and the uncivilized.” Except, this is not a racial issue, it is a cultural one. An Amazonian tribe having never seen a metal camera prior will be understandably interested. It is actually no different than National Geographic readers being fascinated by the arcane tools and regalia of those same natives.
Look, we as a society allow for these generational differences. To hold someone accountable for words delivered a century ago is folly. Our mores constantly shift, and some of today’s forbidden glossary entries were in fact acceptable terms decades back. Look at how today racial designation like “Negro”, “Colored”, and even “Black” are deemed offensive terms. Yet POC groups exist like The United Negro College Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and our Congress forming a Black Caucus.
It is just fine for an organization like The National Geographic Society to want to explore its past and to hold itself to a standard, if it so chooses. In many ways it is a healthy practice. However the environment we are in demands a type of restitution for content beyond control. The issue is why we as a society feel the need to be placing these contemporary demands on long-standing outlets.