You could spend a lifetime finding ways to improve yourself and the lives of your fellow humans. You can do it all by yourself, without the help of workshops or committees. But, when it comes to institutions (government, media, assorted nonprofits and such) it can end up being all the more challenging, and rather clumsy. So, now we have the venerable publication which has presided over countless households and subsequently found in countless yard sales, National Geographic, founded way back in 1888. No surprise here that something going that far back would have some skeletons in its closet–the number one of which is rampant racism.
Today, in some of the what would seem to be the most progressive of neighborhoods, the racism has been dialed down to the most discrete of passive-aggressive levels. Oh, it’s there alright but it’s not talked about unless in some very pretentious public forum where everyone rolls up their sleeves to seriously tackle a subject they would rather not discuss. That said, the latest issue of National Geographic, with its biracial fraternal twins on the cover “daring” you to revisit the issue of race, is the perfect conversation starter for one of these particularly dowdy gatherings which all too often consists of white people who are at a loss as to how to engage with people outside their own race. These sort of gatherings take place all over the country. I’ve end up seeing for myself what they’re like in Seattle. They are well-intentioned, I guess. I came away with an overall feeling that people want to be heard and they want to come across as positive, intelligent, and “progressive.” But they are also prone to rationalizing their behavior as beyond their control, or even blaming The Other, that other group of races that seem beyond reach.
Just consider the above remarks from one of these community outreach gatherings. Feedback, like these typical remarks, was documented onto Post-It notes: “When I see black people walking towards me on the street, I’m not afraid but I also don’t think they like me.” And this one: “I know it’s not right, but every time I see a black person in my neighborhood (Fremont) I ask myself why they’re here.” Everyone earnestly discusses these sort of comments while also discussing an appropriate prop for the evening, in this case, “What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy” by Robin DiAngelo, an expert on, get this, Whiteness Studies. You can’t make this stuff up.
National Geographic is world-famous for presenting The Other: decade upon decade of presenting people from other places, from other races, as exotic creatures. The cover of the April 2018 issue of National Geographic attempts to do good but, in fact, is right back to playing with The Other dynamic. Maybe this time any perceived bad is outweighed by any perceived good. In fact, there is a whole issue here devoted to confronting the issue of race and how the magazine has dealt with it over its long history. That is worth a lot of credit. Maybe I’ll check it out at my public library. Yeah, the library is another place I remember National Geographic from. I don’t know that this publication is truly resonating with Millennials or if it even matters. The magazine will know, I presume, when it’s time to just wrap it all up. For now, it is wrestling with its legacy–and that’s nice to see. National Geographic has a few irons in the fire. It’s on cable, right? I guess it’s one step forward and one step back–but they seem to be making an effort.
Visit National Geographic right here.