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16 Min Read

A New Lens

This article first appeared in The Racism Issue of Change Agent.

When National Geographic published its special issue on race last spring, the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg decided to include a letter that explored how the magazine had dealt with the topic before turning the reportorial gaze to others. The headline said it all: “For Decades Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past We Must Acknowledge It.”

Goldberg, who is the first woman and first Jewish person to serve as editor since the magazine was founded in 1888, wrote openly about how the magazine ignored people of color in the United States until the 1970s and often featured those in other countries as “exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.” When other American publications began integrating their ranks and expanding their coverage after the civil rights era, Goldberg noted that National Geographic “did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.”

Michele Norris spoke with Goldberg about her decision to publish such a public apology and how she curated the special race issue that covered topics ranging from cross-cultural marriage to the myth of race as a biological construct, the frequency of police stops for black men, and growing white anxiety around the browning of America.

Michele Norris: Susan, why did you decide that you wanted to do a special issue on race in America?

Susan Goldberg: We’ve done special issues ever since the early 1900s. We did one on Europeans, actually, in the very early 1900s, sort of the white issue, I guess you could call it. So, it’s something that we’ve done for a long time. These days at National Geographic, I feel like we are on a journey, as we like to say, from reverence to relevance. We are always trying to shine our storytelling lens on topics that feel very current, and this is one in particular that feels very current.Not only was there the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, which seemed like a good moment to step back, but the conversation about race in the United States has become so fraught and so ugly. Maybe it’s always been fraught and ugly, but it seems more open than it has in the past.

It seemed like a good time to just step back and take stock.

MN: So, when you were choosing what to include and what’s the issue’s focus, did you have a goal in mind, an impact in mind, what you wanted people to take away from the issue?

SG: Our goal is always to enlighten people and to allow people to have more reasoned conversations, saner conversations. So, let’s look at what race is, but let’s also look at what it isn’t—hence a science story. I’m afraid that for many people who are white, when you think about a race issue, often you’re thinking about everybody except for white people. That was one of the pieces of feedback that we got consistently. As you know, we invited in a number of senior journalists, a more diverse group than we have here in the office, to talk about what are the stories that would make sense to put in this issue. Again and again and again, one of the answers that came back was we need to do a story about white people.

What we always want is more understanding and more knowledge, and frankly more empathy.

MN:  I actually met with your team when you were thinking about doing this, and it was a robust discussion, but it was also a slightly uncomfortable discussion. Did you know that that would happen, and did you welcome that the journey might even be uncomfortable for the people who were producing the magazine?

SG:  I don’t think there is any way to get around that. Look, we, at a senior level particularly, are not a diverse group. And I think there is inherent criticism and self-criticism about that, and when you’re not a diverse group, you’ve got to work doubly hard to make sure that you’re making inclusive choices, and that you’re even seeing things as stories, that maybe more diverse staff would see. Are all of us from middle-class, white perspectives, are we seeing a full picture? I think it does become a bit of an uncomfortable conversation because it feels critical, even though everybody’s trying to do the right thing.

MN:  And some would run away from that, thinking, boy, this would be a minefield. Did you decide, no, it’s time for us to actually have this conversation, even though it’s difficult for us, we’ll grow from this?

SG:  Oh, totally. When you do an issue like this, just like the gender issue, what you’re doing is you’re putting a couple of very public stakes in the ground. You’re acknowledging publicly that you haven’t always done what you should’ve done in the past. But, in a way, it’s even more important that it’s a forward-looking acknowledgement that not only do we think we’re not doing everything that we can be doing right now, but we are determined to do better in the future, and we’re saying this very publicly. The only way to change things is to change things. And the only way to do that is to make sure these issues are top of mind, and to publicly go out there and say, “We are going to become a more diverse staff. We need to be a more inclusive and diverse staff to cover a big world in an authoritative, credible way.” If we’re saying that publicly, that’s going to happen.

MN:  You decided to begin this issue with an editor’s note, which is not unusual, but it was a bit unusual in this case. This was a bit of a mea culpa, looking at National Geographic’s coverage in the past, exoticizing people of different cultures and races, particularly those of the African diaspora. How did you decide to do that? Was it something that was suggested to you? Did you wake up one morning and say, “National Geographic needs to own this, and I want to put my own words around this”?

SG:  Yeah. It actually evolved. Initially, well, I always knew that we would need to write about our own history … We need to actually have the voices of some critics saying what we’ve done wrong. I decided at that point to write it myself, and I also realized I needed to hire an expert to go into our archives to give me an assessment. That’s how we ended up talking with John Edwin Mason from the University of Virginia about this. He had the perfect background: He’s a historian of photography, and he’s a historian of Africa, and those are frequent crossroads in our storytelling. So, John was invaluable in this process, and I think just was amazingly instructive and very candid. That’s exactly what I wanted.

MN:  He noted in going through the archives that … and I’m quoting you from your editor’s note, “What Mason found, in short, was that 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. Meanwhile, it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages, every type of cliché.” Did it make you think, in writing this, not just about National Geographic’s coverage in the past, but going forward, how the magazine would cover communities of color in America?

SG:  Well, certainly, and not only has it made me rethink our coverage of communities of color in America—and we have done more and more of this in recent years of course—but it’s also affected our coverage of indigenous cultures elsewhere. For example, we have a story coming out this fall that is all about these little-contacted indigenous people in Peru and Brazil. I think our conversation about race and how not to exotify people, if that’s a word, has actually changed how we’re approaching that story, the photos that we’re going to use. We’ve decided not to use some photos because of this conversation. I think they, in a way, fall into that cliché. We still want to be able to cover cultures all over the world. But how do you do it in a way that really captures the fullness of somebody’s humanity, rather than just showing them in the sort of pat way that I thought we were doing earlier?

So, yes, I think this has been very instructive for us and has caused a lot of soul-searching.

MN:  You say that there were a number of people who told you that if you were going to do a special issue on race, that it needed to include a real focus on white America. In full disclosure, I was one of those people who suggested that to you and your team, and I wound up writing a piece about white anxiety in the face of changing demographics in America, something that people often refer to as the attitude adjustment. How do you, in thinking about race, not just in this issue but overall, do it in such a way that white America understands that they have skin in the game? And not just saying that as a pun, that they quite literally are stakeholders in this conversation and not necessarily bystanders. Because as you know, often when we talk about race, there is the natural assumption that those stories or that the conversation is by, for, or about people of color.

SG:  That is what is changing, and that is why there seems to be this backlash and this discomfort in a number of white communities that you wrote about so beautifully out of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The changing demographics are making it inevitable that some people are going to feel threatened, and they’re going to feel what they always thought of as their place is being taken from them in some way, that this isn’t a matter of an expanding pie, but that this is a zero-sum game. “If somebody wins, that means I lose.” I think a lot of people look at the increasing diversity of the United States in that way. It’s very distressing, and it’s important that we keep trying to talk about that, and not just talk about it in awful ways, which is mostly how we talk about it, but in civilized ways, and that’s what we try to do.

MN:  Can we talk a little bit about the cover of the magazine? It’s twin sisters, and the headline is, “Black and White: These twin sisters make us rethink everything we know about race.” They’re two young girls. The reaction to that was interesting because some people criticized the magazine and said, “There they go exoticizing people of color again.” Were you surprised by that, and how did you react to that?

SG:  We wanted to do these two girls because I thought that they were the embodiment of one of the main themes of the story—of that science story—that we’re all the same under our skin, and that just tiny, tiny little genetic tweaks result in people looking a different way. These two girls really symbolized that, because they were twins. So, I was surprised that it became controversial in some corners, quite honestly, and I was sad about that. I didn’t think it was exoticizing anybody.

What you’ve got to do when you’ve got a magazine cover is to try to draw people in in some way, and we thought that this was both an embodiment of the point of what was the main story in the issue about science and also just a beautiful, sensitively done portrait by one of our best National Geographic portrait photographers.

MN:  There is such a variety of content. And, of course, that piece on what it’s like to drive while black, and how often people of color are stopped for all kinds of reasons, but seemingly stopped much more often. One of the things that was surprising in that piece, you also see one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the United States, Robert F. Smith. He is a software investor. He is a multibillionaire, and he talks about how his social station does not inoculate him from this issue.

SG:  The toughest story by far in that issue is the story about police stops. We did that because when we brought in all of these senior journalists who were people of color, in addition to saying, “You’ve got to do a story about white people,” this was the other story that everybody said, “You’ve got to do.” I’m struck by something, when I think about that story, that John Mason said to me. He was talking about
a story we did about South Africa in 1962, in which we failed to mention there were really any problems with oppression and apartheid. I think his quote was something like, “Imagine the things that the writers, editors, and photographers had to consciously not see.”

If we’re going to talk about race in the United States, it would be impossible to have this discussion in a credible way and not talk about these police stops, which happen every day and regularly become a flashpoint in the conversation about race. It is a very depressing, distressing story, and nobody is inoculated from it. And that is exactly why I wanted to talk to Robert Smith about it, because if you are a billionaire and you’re still getting pulled over by the cops because you’re driving while black, it’s just an astounding thing.

MN:  What was the reaction overall? You get the immediate reaction, but now it’s been published on newsstands, online, and in 33 different languages across the globe. Overall, what has been the reaction?

SG:  Overwhelmingly positive. I am really heartened by the amount of attention this got, and by people’s willingness to actually dive into a topic that mostly people want to run screaming from the room when you mention it. In that way, I think it was really successful. Frankly, the conversation that we had about our own history makes me feel really good, and there was overwhelmingly positive reaction to that as well. I feel like, hey, if we could maybe set an example, that would be fantastic.

MN:  So, for other editors who are thinking about diving into this issue, particularly in terms of looking back retrospectively and trying to understand, atone for, or unearth coverage that they might not be proud about, any advice for them?

SG:  I actually don’t think it’s that hard. Not to sound naïve, but I was a little surprised by how much attention my letter got, because to me, it seemed obvious that we had to look back at our past to be able to credibly talk about race … We had to look back at the past to even be able to write about this … I was scared we would be laughed off the face of the earth if we tried to write about race and not acknowledge our own rather complicated storytelling history. So, to me, it was an obvious decision.

I think it’s not only interesting, but it’s kind of soul-cleansing to just put it out there. Nobody is blaming me or our current staff for the fact that these things happened, and so you’ve got to get over that institutional defensiveness, because it certainly isn’t anything that any of us did as individuals. But it reflects the times in which these things were written, it reflects the history of the publication, and things are different now. If you really want to tell people things are different, then you can talk about the past and try to do it in a non-defensive way.


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