As National Geographic prepared to look at race in its April issue, the company had to take a hard look at its own history in how it told stories and portrayed differences in both skin tone and culture. After enlisting the outside help of John Edwin Mason, a professor of African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia, they found that indeed, for decades, their coverage was racist.
At times, it can be difficult to confront our past. A more cynical view of National Geographic's decision to dive into its own history might be seen as a preemptive reaction to what it could see coming: the Internet (the new "public") would naturally tear apart the magazine for confronting racial issues in such a head-on manner without confronting its own issues around the topic. Naturally, not looking into its own past and continuing with such an issue would unavoidably come across as placing the magazine in the same position of superiority it is now accusing itself of having reserved only for white, western, modern people with its one-sided coverage of people of other races.
In his review of National Geographic's 130-year-old history, Mason found evidence of a long-standing pattern of media coverage that perpetuated a variety of racist and presumptive stereotypes regularly throughout and up to the 1970s. Indigenous peoples were often shown in a state of awe and bewilderment when presented with Western technologies. Often called "exotics," "savages," or even "noble savages," these same people were usually depicted hunting or performing exotic dances while they were regularly described as less capable or ignorant. But rarely — if ever — did National Geographic show African Americans or anyone not Caucasian at home or abroad in positions as much else than laborers or "workers."
A policy of printing only agreeable, non-controversial content meant that National Geographic often steered clear of deep (or any) coverage of major racial issues and atrocities in the United States and abroad, including, according to NPR, events such as the "Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 black South Africans were killed by police" in the early 1960s.
While a better-late-than-never absolution is hardly appropriate, a more accurate better-as-soon-as-possible or anytime-now-would-be-great approach to expecting the members of our society who have at any time perpetuated harmful, racial stereotypes through any media coverage or organizational policy might be a better, less cynical way to look at National Geographic's recent revelations about and interest in looking into its own past. Let's not exactly say, "At least they're doing this now," but simply, as a matter of fact, "They're doing this now." Regardless, plenty of critics are likely unsurprised, not-so-dumbfounded by these revelations, and trying very hard not to say, "I told you so."
See the full article at NPR.org.