Editor’s Note: Kerra L. Bolton is the founder of Unmuted Consulting, a strategic political communications consultancy and online academy. She is also a freelance writer and former political reporter and analyst in North Carolina. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
National Geographic Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg recently published a letter from the editor spelling out something many people already knew: For decades, the magazine had been racist in its coverage.
“…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,” Goldberg wrote in the piece, “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.” She went on: “Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages – every type of cliché.”
Goldberg’s article, came as the magazine unveiled its April issue on “Race.” It is the first in a series of issues published throughout the year on the changing roles of racial, ethnic and religious groups in the 21st century.
Her admission is a critical step in addressing racism, sexism and colonialism – the elephants, lions and wildebeests in the room, if you will, of National Geographic’s storied past. However, Goldberg’s piece didn’t go far enough. She wrote: “I want a future editor of National Geographic to look back at our coverage with pride — not only about the stories we decided to tell and how we told them but about the diverse group of writers, editors and photographers behind the work.”
That makes sense, but she, and the magazine as an institution, missed an opportunity to peer beyond the magazine’s yellow borders and into the heart of an institutional culture that up until recently upheld its predominantly white, male lens on the world, even when it knew better.
I should know.
I worked as an office assistant in the magazine’s photography department in the late 1990s. As part of my job, I maintained the freelance photographers’ schedules, helped with logistics and location scouting, and wrote the occasional copy for photographers.
It was a pivotal moment in the organization’s history. Gilbert M. Grosvenor, one of the last members of the Grosvenor family, who helmed the magazine since its founding in 1888, retired as President from its daily operations (he retired as chairman of the board of trustees in 2010, leaving his daughter on the board).
During this time, we saw the rise of the National Geographic Channel and the blossoming of the magazine’s international editions. Television and country-specific magazines presented possibilities for a more democratized approach – one in which local people with talent and training could shape the narrative of how their communities were presented in the larger world.
At the time, I naively hoped such changes would mean more opportunities for younger staffers and people of color at home. At an employee breakfast to welcome a new, top executive, I asked why there were no black photographers. With all the hubris of the 24-year-old I was, I asked why the magazine chose to send a white man to cover a story in the Mississippi Delta about the blues, an American musical art form rooted in black spirituals and work songs.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence during which I felt a piece of my muffin, along with my future at the magazine, slide down my throat. The executive continued his speech about innovation.
My boss approached me a few days later and defended the department’s lack of diversity by saying they couldn’t find any “qualified” black photographers, even when they inquired at nearby universities.
Searching for a seasoned photojournalist at an undergraduate institution is like scouting for Major League Baseball players at a Little League game. The uncomfortable and unspoken truth was there were no black photographers at National Geographic at the time because management didn’t try hard enough.
From what I could see during my time at the magazine, blacks were good enough to serve as local guides for photographers on assignment in Africa, subjects of exotic photos, work as film technicians, and the occasional, precocious office assistant. But we were not allowed to hold up a camera or a mirror to reflect the racism we felt and experienced.
Much has changed at the Geographic since I left 20 years ago. The magazine editor is now a woman and Jewish. Most of the contributors to its “Race” issue are people of color. The magazine’s culture editor is a black woman.
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Goldberg’s article acknowledges the work of photography historian John Edwin Mason in analyzing National Geographic’s past coverage. But the self-imposed audit of National Geographic’s coverage of race, at least that which Goldberg’s story covers, ends in the late 1970s, as if the magazine’s past racism ended then. It did not. While it hired many women as photographers, editors and writers, the numbers of people of color in those positions remained depressingly low.
The race-themed issues are National Geographic’s attempt to lead an international conversation about racial, ethnic and religious diversity. For it to work, Goldberg will have to do more than own up to a past we already knew.