How Should Legacy Publications Reckon With Their Prejudiced Pasts?

A National Geographic cover depicting biracial twins.
The cover of National Geographic’s April 2018 issue. National Geographic

On Monday, National Geographic released its April edition, a special issue “that explores how race defines, separates, and unites us.” On the cover of this “Race Issue” are Marcia and Millie Biggs, biracial 11-year-old English twins who, according to the headline, will make “us rethink race.” Why’s that? Because, as that same headline puts it, “one [is] black and one [is] white”—presumably referring to the fact that Marcia is fair-skinned with light hair and Millie has black hair and brown skin. Given that Nella Larsen wrote Passing, a study of how black identity cannot be negated by “passing” as white in 1929, this is unfortunate, and even more so considering that this issue is, according to the editor’s note, supposed to be about grappling with the magazine’s racist past.

The release of the “Race Issue” comes on the heels of “Overlooked,” a similarly compensatory project from the New York Times that presents a “new collection of obituaries for women and others who never got them” that began with belated obits for women like Larsen, Ida B. Wells, and Ada Lovelace. (It’s worth noting that in Wells’ case she wasn’t just excluded from the Times’ obituaries, but was actively vilified by the paper’s reporters, dubbed a “a slanderous and dirty-minded mulatress.”) Both NatGeo’s “Race Issue” and the NYT’s “Overlooked” seek to reckon with their respective publication’s prejudiced histories, which of course were heavily influenced by the overwhelmingly white, male senior editorships that have historically controlled them. And indeed, the projects are a long overdue step toward acknowledging the harm these storied publications have perpetuated on underrepresented communities. But look a little closer, and it seems like those steps could lead in the wrong direction.

NatGeo’s mea culpa was issued from Susan Goldberg—the magazine’s first woman and Jewish editor in its 130-year-old history—and her editor’s note is exemplary in how it tries to reckon with the legacy behind the pages it’s written in. For the task of examining that legacy, she brought in historian John Edwin Mason to dive into NatGeo’s archives, and what he finds isn’t pretty: “National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism, and the world was divided into the colonizers and the colonized,” Mason notes. “That was a color line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”

But even as Goldberg acknowledges her magazine’s history of fetishizing woman Pacific Islanders and presenting photos of “the native person fascinated by Western technology” as “oddities,” her reflections on the past do not save NatGeo from racial missteps in the present. The Biggs twins are, of course, both black—and white. That’s how biracial identity works. Describing the fair-skinned Marcia as white not only negates a key part of her identity, but also doubles down on the mistaken notion that black people can only look a certain way. And moreover, in a well-intentioned attempt to prove that race has no scientific or genetic basis, NatGeo cheerfully waves away the fact that socially constructed concepts still very much impact our lived realities. “These twins are happy with their different skin colors. Can’t we all be?” NatGeo blithely asks.

That question ignores the fact that the entire world suddenly liking the color of my skin does absolutely nothing, for example, to decrease the wealth gap between black and white households. It rests on the idea that the end goal is harmony rather than equity, that racism is merely a difference of opinion—of someone disliking the color of my skin rather than a system that benefits some and disenfranchises the other. That question—and the “Race Issue” as a whole—assumes that there are only victims of racism, and no beneficiaries. The overarching mistake of the issue is that it tries to treat race as a series of cultural differences that can be bridged rather than as a framework imbued with power. A similar critique could be made of “Overlooked,” in that ignoring the value of important women in their times has created a deficit of knowledge and influence that cannot be easily patched over. Stumbles like these point to a deeper issue with historical reckonings by legacy media organizations: While owning up to past wrongs is worthwhile, concentrating on treating race and gender with nuance in the present might be more useful.

Both of these projects remind me of the New Republic’s 2015 mea culpa written by senior editor Jeet Heer.* (Disclosure: I was a reporter-researcher at TNR in 2017.) The piece, a historical reflection on TNR’s legacy on race, dealt squarely with the magazine’s tendency to fall “under the sway of racial theorizing and crackpot racial lore.” At the same time, as with both the “Race Issue” and “Overlooked,” the piece also made sure to point out relatively positive moments in the magazine’s history, like publishing Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, in a self-congratulatory way. I say if we’re going to reckon, let’s reckon without padding. That tepid reckoning also provided cover for the fact that TNR has done little to change the alienating whiteness of its newsroom. Heer is currently the magazine’s only staff writer of color—in the seven months I spent at the publication, I was one of four people of color to leave.

I don’t want to negate the importance of these gestures, or the no doubt considerable efforts behind them: “Overlooked” was conceived by a woman of color and the “Race Issue” was supervised by NatGeo’s black executive editor for culture. I can imagine without these women in the newsroom, these projects might not have been undertaken—and it’s better to misstep and learn than not to step at all. But if these projects are used to continue to push out the same unhelpful takes on race or as cover for a half-hearted commitment to newsroom diversity, that is all they are—gestures.

*Correction, Mar. 13, 2018: This post originally misspelled Jeet Heer’s name.