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?

 

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.  

The wisdom of Oprah

After all her success as a talkshow superstar, Oprah Winfrey’s ability to stay grounded makes her an inspiring role model

In 2004, I took part in a BBC documentary series called Black Ambition, which documented the lives of six black students, including myself, in our final year at Cambridge University. My most memorable line in that documentary, and the one for which I got the most stick, was the one in which I said that I wanted to be like Oprah.

I’ve been enthralled by Oprah Winfrey for a long time. Although her daytime talk shows started to become a little too middle-aged for me some time ago and I admittedly don’t watch them very often now, it is the woman herself as well as what she represents that continues to inspire me.

Oprah is probably the most recognised and influential black woman in the world. She’s the world’s first black female billionaire, a major philanthropist, an award-winning actress, a massively successful talk show host, a magazine publisher, and a film producer – to name just a few of her many achievements. That is not the future that was expected of a someone who was raised on a farm in the deep South and then in inner city Milwaukee. It is not what was expected of a girl who was raped at the age of nine and became a mother at the age of 14 to a child who died in infancy.

In every way, from the start of her life until now, Winfrey has defied the odds. Her ability to do the unexpected has shown many other women, like myself, that you can have it all on a material and career level. However, more importantly, in a world which carries unrelenting pressures for women to look like airbrushed, glossy, stick-thin female celebrities, singers and models, Oprah also made it cool and important for women to accept their own humanity, imperfections and flaws.

Oprah showed us that “having it all” is about accepting yourself, warts and all, and being ok with who you are. She may be rich and powerful, but one thing Oprah isn’t is perfect. She’s not a traditional beauty, nor a size zero. In fact, Oprah has made no bones about her weight problems, her past and the various issues that she has gone through in her life. She has revealed her fears and to her flaws and it is the sharing of her vulnerability and authenticity that has arguably made her the global phenomenon that she is.

Celebrity culture is based on an illusion of perfection. It is still rare in this day and age to have a high profile person – unless they are caught doing something they shouldn’t have done – publicly admit, especially on a regular basis, that despite their riches and fame, they are really just human, dealing with their life and its baggage like everyone else. Oprah not only does that herself but has an amazing ability to get the guests who appear on her show to do the same.

With her Best Life programme, which is based on taking a holistic approach to life and focuses on emotional and spiritual success as well as financial success, Oprah brought to TV and eventually to print and online, the notion that people – women in particular – need to look at ourselves in a way that goes much deeper than the superficial. There’s no other mainstream talkshow host who will do an entire season of shows about spirituality, as Oprah did with Eckhart Tolle’s New Earth series. That series, which featured audience participation from around the globe via Skype, had people “ah-ha-ing” all over the place as they discovered new insights and experienced breakthroughs in all areas of their lives. Oprah emphasized that life isn’t just about what you do, but about your being.

The message that success in life means being whole, healthy and complete internally rather than just on the outside is one that is otherwise missing, not just from the media but from modern society as a whole. It’s a message that many desperately need to hear. Thanks to Oprah for bringing that to the world. Long may it continue as she starts her OWN cable TV channel in 2011.