National Geographic admits to historic racism – but modern magazines are racist too

They are written by white people for other white people.

[Originally appeared in The New Statesman]
When I was in my teens, as an avid lover of magazines, I began to consciously seek out black publications. I had grown weary of magazines which either didn’t feature people of colour at all, or which contained articles and images that depicted us in ways that I found to be inaccurate at best and racist at worst.
I was tired of seeing Africans portrayed as primitive people, shown mostly as victims of famine, poverty, disease and death. I couldn’t stomach reading any more articles about black men as absent fathers, criminals or drug dealers. I didn’t want to see another bare-breasted black lady feeding a baby.
If real change is to be made, National Geographic should encourage others to follow suit, and should stand not only for self-examination but for tangible changes to corporate culture, to staff diversity and to employing a rounded workforce of human beings who are a true reflection of the world in which we live.
Although these magazines did not openly say so, I was left to conclude that the vast majority of publications were written by white people for other white people. As a young black woman it was very clear to me even then that I was never going to get an accurate sense of myself, or the world, from reading them.
However, some of my (white) friends at my secondary school in London would ask why I felt the need to read black magazines. “You don’t see us reading ‘white magazines’ do you?”, they would say.
I would then have to explain that although most magazines did not have “whites only” stamped on them, in practice, that’s essentially what they were. I would have to point out what I saw as omissions, gaps, inaccuracies and stereotypes because while we might have been looking at the same magazines, we saw different things.
It troubled me that they thought they were being given an accurate and objective perspective of the world when I knew they weren’t.
So I felt some sense of vindication when I heard National Geographic’s public confession that it has historically been racist in its coverage. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, the magazine’s April issue focuses exclusively on the topic of race, so National Geographic took itself to task by hiring an independent investigator in the form of historian John Edwin Mason to go through its archives, and did some serious soul-searching.
The findings of that investigation were not pretty. In fact, “until the 1970s, National Geographic all but ignored people of colour who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond labourers or domestic workers,” writes Susan Goldberg, the current editor of the magazine and a Jewish woman. “Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages.”
In her piece, she calls some of the magazine’s past stories “appalling”, and was left “speechless” by others, including an Australian photo of two Aboriginal people from 1916, below which is stated: “These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
It is commendable, however, that National Geographic has been so honest about these wrongs, is apologising for them and is now seeking to make amends and to better itself, which is more than many of the countries who were actually involved in slavery, colonialism, segregation and structural racism are willing to do.
At a time when America is facing growing racial divisiveness and when there is much troubling rhetoric in the West about race and ethnicity, it is also both literally and symbolically important for a publication to take a stand and to acknowledge how much of a role it plays in shaping how people see the world.
There are many teachable moments which could come from National Geographic’s mea culpa. Firstly, in an age where we are overwhelmed with information and saturated by media in many forms, consumers must become more media-literate and must be willing to educate themselves on what media really does in terms of shaping and reinforcing social norms, including those which may be dangerously inaccurate.
I am an advocate of media literacy in schools, and in young people being taught to think critically about what they see, read and hear. Similarly, publications must become much more aware of the impact of their output on society at large, especially when racial intolerance and divisions are on the increase and when, even despite increasing mistrust of the media, the general public still relies on it to provide it with what it believes to be accurate, objective, unfiltered and unbiased depictions of the world at large.
More publications would benefit from engaging in the kind of self-reflection and internal examination that National Geographic has done. I was impressed by its decision to engage a third party who could provide independent analysis, investigation and judgement, which the magazine actually took on (since there’s no point doing an investigation if its conclusions are ignored).
Goldberg’s decision to admit that the publication has operated with a worldview which has, falsely and harmfully, equated whiteness with superiority in its output was a bold and brave move. But, unfortunately, much of the damage has already been done. The stereotypes are out there in the world, the negativity exists, and the prejudice is ingrained.
So ultimately this confession should be a reminder of just how deeply pervasive and damaging an unexamined media authority can be.
According to the historian John Edwin Mason: “National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.”
He also found it, “wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority”
This is damning. Can you imagine the degree to which the types of images and words emanating from a publication like National Geographic have contributed not only to toxic prejudices, racist and colonialist beliefs but to racist behaviours themselves?

 

Trump’s “shithole” comments about Africa, Haiti and El Salvador reveal the deep-rooted racism at the heart of Trumpism

Every time Donald Trump makes a comment about a non-white country, or a non-white person, it becomes increasingly obvious that his America-First agenda is a zero-sum game whose aim is to elevate all things white while denigrating anything and anybody else.
In Trump’s world, everything related to whiteness and white people (neo-Nazis included) is right and good, while all things non-white – whether that’s kneeling NFL players, black sports broadcasters, immigrant children, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Muslims and  so on – are bad, unworthy, inferior, and deserving of his scorn. Trump’s brand of racism is of the profoundly unsophisticated kind; non-white people can be put into clear categories: sons of bitches, ‘lazy’ and ‘ungrateful’, ‘rapists’, ‘the worst’.
Unfortunately, it’s now El Salvador, Haiti and Africa’s turn to be the target of Trump’s poisonous prejudices. On Thursday it was revealed that, in a meeting to discuss a bi-partisan immigration deal with lawmakers, Trump had asked “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” (He then expressed a desire to see people from Norway come to the US, the implication being that Norweigans are inherently better people than the people of color who – by virtue of residing in those other apparently undesirable places – are, therefore, undeserving of support or protection.)
Although I find Trump’s choice of words offensive, I can’t say that I’m particularly shocked by them. This is a man who speaks in sweeping stereotypes, whose prejudice is worn on his sleeve as a badge of honor, who gets off on offending people at home and abroad and who continuously panders to the lowest instincts of his ‘base’. These comments are simply more of the same small-mindedness and ignorance that we have become used to hearing from him. It’s also, by the way, not the first time he spoken so disparagingly: a few weeks ago, he was reported to have said that Nigerians would “never go back to their huts” once they had visited the US and that Haitians “all have AIDS”. Yes, those really are the words of the president of America, speaking in the 21st century.
What is deeply troubling (beyond the fact that the slur isn’t actually true), however, is the extent to which Trump not only essentializes and other-izes whole groups of people, but the way in which he continues to use his racist ideas and ideologies to guide his positions on policy. The chaotic Travel Ban, thankfully taken to pieces by the justice system, has already shown us the influence of Trump’s xenophobia on his decision-making. However, despite failing to bring the travel ban into effect in the way he had wanted, Trump still tries to do more of the same.
We have to ask why Trump really wants to disrupt the lives of Haitiain men, women and children living under Temporary Protected Status since the devastating earthquake in 2010 which, to add insult to injury, occurred on January 12th exactly 8 years ago tomorrow? What will he, and his supporters, really gain from attempting to send 200,000 El Salvadorean immigrants back to a country which they may not have been back to for 15 years? Why attack Africa and Africans? Politically and practically, these moves make no sense: Haiti is a neighbour to the US, and has been an ally for many, many years. America needs Africa, with its growing middle class and huge youth demographics. And, it does the US no favours to cause instability in El Salvador. It makes no real sense to create diplomatic tensions or political rifts with any of these nations, nor to hurt them in ways which might lead to political and economic failure which might then, in turn, come back to affect the US in adverse ways.
But Donald Trump is racist and this is, from my point of view, all about the continued culture – dare I say, race – war which Trump is trying to wage in America. He desperately wants to stoke tensions, to open up divisions, to increase xenophobia and racism using the divide-and-conquer strategy that has been his game plan from the beginning.
Trump believes that places like Haiti, El Salvador and Africa – that is, places full of non-white people – are no good. And, he wants his followers to believe (if they don’t already) the same thing. Judging by what he has said and done so far during his time in office, he wants us all to believe that non-white people are, on the whole, no good. He seeks to associate the word immigration with bad non-white people, even though a large proportion of immigrants to America are – and have been – white. Trump himself, comes from an immigrant family. But that, is the essence of Trumpism, also known as Making America Great Again and putting America First.
It is likely that we will continue to see Trump’s xenophobically-driven policies get struck down by the legislative arm. However, and unfortunately for those of us in our right non-racist minds, we will hear more of his crude rhetoric (whether said in private or in public), because it suits his white nationalist agenda.
Sadly, this president is so inept and incompetent that his only path to maintaining power and control is taking the position that places which he has deemed ‘shitholes’ (and I suppose this would mean that people from those places are, by extension, shitty) are undeserving of American support, no matter their role or position in helping America and no matter what problems such an attitude may cause.
This is further reason why this president’s nefarious agenda must be resisted. There should be no room for this kind of thinking and attitude in America; to see this kind of racism at work in 2018, is a deep, deep shame.

 

Lola on AMJoy: Discussing the shocking slave trade in Libya + Trump’s continued attacks on the media

http://player.theplatform.com/p/7wvmTC/MSNBCEmbeddedOffSite?guid=n_joy_libyaslavetrade_171203

The enslavement of migrants in Libya, as exposed recently by CNN, is so sickening that it’s hard for me to fully articulate the depth of disgust, horror and anger that I feel about this issue. From a human perspective, slavery is fundamentally wrong and should be offensive to us all, but it further pains me to see so many Africans involved given the history of slavery, colonialism and other inhuman treatment which Africans have faced over time already. Of course, though, it isn’t just Africans, there are also Syrians and people from the Middle East caught up in this. All of it is so, so wrong.

There are also a number of other videos floating about online which have been created by people who have been enslaved in Libya (which is the gateway country to the Mediterranean Sea, and thus, to European continent), and it’s shocking and nauseating to hear what migrants are, and have been, going through. There are people who have been bought and sold multiple times, who have been tortured, brutally beaten, raped, mutilated and more. They have seen people – adults and children – die. Joy and I didn’t have time in this segment to go into the details of some of the other atrocities that have been taking place in Libya, including the harvesting of people’s organs. (Yes, you read that right). 

Appallingly, the EU and UN have both known about this for quite some time and have done little to nothing to help. Italy, which has taken in a large number of migrants (said to be around 111,552 this year in addition to 2639 deaths; 159,467 last year in addition to 3615 deaths), has been facing much internal anti-immigrant backlash and has taken steps to stop the migrants from reaching the country. The steps taken have included empowering the Libyan ‘coastguard’ to deal with the migrants. However, they have done this despite their awareness of the slavery and trafficking in Libya, and with the understanding that stopping people from getting to Europe means sending people to exploited and brutality in Libya. There is some talk that the ‘coastguard’ itself facilitates the selling of migrants to criminals and militia. 

While I understand the difficulties of taking in hundreds of thousands of people from other countries (you have to factor in where these people will live, what kinds of jobs they would be able to get, who would support them once they reach Italy or other countries like Greece, which we know has had its own major economic crisis in recent years, etc), I find it hard to stomach the idea that politicians and authorities figures are ok with people being sold as slaves in a country which they know has been in a state of lawlessness since Gadaffi was killed in 2011. 

It’s sad that it takes a media expose and social media campaigns for the relevant bodies to decide to do something about this issue. Organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (ironically, a UN body) has been talking about this for over a year: in December 2016, for example, the IOM published a document assessing the risks faced by migrants on the Mediterranean route stating that “…the study identifies the high risk that [Nigerians] run from human traffickers. It interviewed Nigerians fooled into travelling to Libya and then sold on arrival into modern slavery. It also identified a host of other risks associated with human smuggling and trafficking in Libya.” Human Rights Watch has also put out studies about the risks involved. This issue has been documented and known about. Let’s hope that they take significant action now the spotlight is on them and the world is talking. 

Many people are being repatriated from Libya, which is a good thing. More has to be done to warn people about what awaits them if they decide to try and make the journey to Europe. But we also have to look at the African leaders and the African Union who have allowed this to continue. Africans leaders must do better and must focus on growing Africa so that people aren’t willing to risk life and limb in this way for a European dream which doesn’t exist. If conditions at home weren’t so bad, people would not be doing this. 

I’m deeply grateful (as we should all be) to journalists like CNN’s Nima Elbagir and her team who put themselves in grave danger in order to bring attention to these kinds of appalling events, and for our ability to use social media to spread the word fast, far, wide. Without that combination of factors (CNN, brave journalists and social media/the internet), who knows how long this will have continued. Although we live in a time in which distrust of the mainstream media is high, the reality is that without some of these organizations, there is much that would remain hidden and unexposed. This is the good work that journalists can do.