National Geographic Replaces Racist Fictions With Post-racial Fantasies

Photo: Courtesy of National Geographic. Photograph by Robin Hammond

In her honest but odd memoir that it seems, thankfully, few besides me have read, National Geographic emerges as a crucial touchstone to Rachel Dolezal’s supposed racial awakening. Isolated regionally and culturally by Christian-fundamentalist parents, copies of the magazine were one of the few tokens from 1980s and ’90s American culture allowed to Dolezal in a home that forbade television and processed food. And while her older brother scrounged pages for photos of topless women, NatGeo begat Rachel’s earliest racial fantasies. Coating herself in mud from head to feet, she “would pretend to be a dark-skinned princess in the Sahara Desert or one of the Bantu women living in the Congo,” images conjured exclusively by the monthly magazine. “I would stay in this fantasy world as long as I possibly could,” Dolezal writes. “It was never long enough.”

Over the last century, National Geographic has used the guise of ethnographic research to stoke the racial imaginations of curious white people. Investigating peoples and cultures like flora, splaying their images upon glossy pages with unchecked fascination, the magazine does not have a great track record when it comes to stories about people of color. And yet, these are the stories NatGeo is most famous for, training generation after generation to gawk at peoples other than themselves through telephoto lenses. Founded in 1888 to document the interests of affluent explorers, the name alone evokes a colonial impulse — the National Geographic Society started as a private club dedicated to worldly, exotic travel. The publication has long been an unrepentant descendant of those beginnings — until now, allegedly.

The magazine’s April issue, “The Race Issue,” promises to reckon with an editorial history it describes precisely as “racist.” In a note, editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg admits that for all its well-traveled coverage throughout the 20th century, “National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.” John Edwin Mason, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, conducted a deep dive into the magazine’s archives, pointing out glaring erasures as evidence of a run that has more often than not failed to treat people of color as human. Examples include the absence of black South African perspectives in a story shortly following the 1960 massacre by Sharpeville police and the publication’s mid-century obsession with Pacific-island women, to which a casual reader could add an obsession with nonwhite women in general, often indigenous and partially nude.

“How we present race matters,” Goldberg asserts, marking this issue as a new era for the pages of NatGeo, one that will not shirk due diligence when it comes to representation. Goldberg underscores April 4, a date that marks 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, “a worthy moment to step back, to take stock of where we are on race.” She also takes notice of another landmark event of sorts, the soon-to-come time when “less than half of the children in the nation will be white.” That NatGeo would choose these climactic moments is not surprising: In fact, they suggest the issue is perhaps not as committed to interrogating racial fantasies as it claims.

King — or a certain image of him — along with America’s projected brown majority have long loomed large and symbolic in the minds and politics of people who believe that the best hope for equality is the removal of race as a topic of conversation. “Race is not a biological construct,” Goldberg introduces like a cherished revelation. Part of the Race Issue’s mission, she writes, is to “examine why we continue to segregate along racial lines and how we can build inclusive communities.” NatGeo wants to start a conversation on race, but their opening statement seems more like an end than a beginning.

The April cover story features a set of biracial twin girls with different skin shades (one light, one brown) and curl patterns. On the cover, they stand side by side in identical off-white dresses, solemn-faced against a gray background. The headline offers some assistance in case the contrast between them isn’t clear: “Black and White,” reads the bold white text (“Black” is overlaid on the lighter-skinned girl; “White” atop the darker-skinned girl). Though the cover and the story behind it intend to disturb preconceived notions about race in the year 2018, I am immediately reminded of a story from NatGeo’s 125th anniversary in 2013. Called “The Changing Face of America” and accompanied by portraits of ethnically diverse, racially ambiguous people, the story offered an increasingly self-identified multiracial population as the kryptonite to race and therefore racism.

Similarly, Patricia Edmonds’s feature on Marcia and Millie Briggs traffics in a certain post-racial optimism I find incredibly uncomfortable. The story is fascinated by the juxtaposition of racialized features and the color contrast between two children born of the same parents at the same time. “Even when the twins’ mother, Amanda Wanklin, dressed them alike, there was no mistaking one for the other,” says one caption underneath a slideshow of the twins at various ages, from infancy up. As also noted in the 2013 story, Edmonds explains that race is not a biological category, but a social one.

But while the older story at least acknowledges the residue of Japanese internment and Jim Crow with respect to flagging equality in America, in this new one, racial segregation and its effects (globally) derive from the heart. In an “out of the mouth of babes” approach, the article delegates its intellectual labor to Millie and Marcia, ages 11, who not only “understand racism,” but also “the best way to combat it.” The wisdom imparted is sweet to be sure and very much what you might expect from someone who has lived barely a decade on earth. “[D]on’t judge other people by their looks because they could be so much different on the inside,” says Millie in a short video; “If you’re happy with the way you look, then you should stay the way you look,” Marcia adds. Were it so easy. In truth, people have many compounding reasons — wealth, power, access — to judge others as less than human, and as long as those benefits remain, people will continue to do so. (And in turn, many others will be dissatisfied that what they see in the mirror will be a lifelong barrier to thriving.) I can’t expect a child to know this, but adults should know better.

Last year, I predicted 2017 (and the era of Trump more generally) would be a time of renewed faith in the political efficacy of interracial romance and procreation. This prediction was informed by two recent books — one by UC Irvine professor Jared Sexton, the other by NYU professor Tavia Nyong’o — which probe the way racial hybridity is used to avoid reflection and recollection on how white supremacy works. NatGeo’s cover illustration, which codes one biracial twin as “white” and the other as “black,” transmits the idea that racism will be fixed with more lightly bronzed children. This future utopia is one in which children who can pass for white still exist among their tanner peers, but those with dark skin and tightly coiled hair do not. This hope, which imagines a past of white racial “purity,” is a form of anti-blackness itself. Racism and multiracialism can be allies.

Rather than confront the power dynamics that racism relies upon to survive, these gestures fuel a deus ex machina fantasy in which humans breed themselves into equality — never mind the fact that mixed-race children have existed for just as long as racism has. NatGeo is not even the first outlet to break the Briggs story — that honor belonged to the Daily Mail, who covered the twins over a decade ago in a similar fashion. While twins Marcia and Millie Briggs are a genetic rarity, the nonbiological mechanisms that maintain race are not mysterious. “[T]he 21st-century understanding of human genetics tells us that the whole idea of race is a human invention,” writes Edmonds, as if centuries of genocide, enslavement, and discrimination were waiting to be stayed by a set of tenured biologists.

Racism poses a challenge for scholars, journalists, and poets not because its delusions are hard to disprove, but because its filiations are incredibly difficult to unravel. Race is a fiction, but it is one in which people are both emotionally and materially invested. Unveiling race as a social construction without an effort to address how and why it’s constructed is as much a threat to racism as North West or the Briggs twins — that is to say, not at all. It’s also often used to undercut efforts toward radical politics. Many white people on the left, fitted with the knowledge that race is a fiction, deny the efficacy of black political organizing. They, like NatGeo here, neglect the extent to which fictions rule the world we live in. Edmonds is puzzled how “50 years after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., racial identity has reemerged as a fundamental dividing line in our world.” (When did it ever submerge?) Yet she daren’t explicate any further, relying on a pair of 11-year-olds to perform the heavy lifting on that topic.

But NatGeo’s new commitment to confronting racism — among other stories, they have a lengthy history of scientific racism and a collaboration with ESPN’s the Undefeated on the routine harrowing experience of “driving while black” — could still be promising. As Goldberg writes, the Race Issue “is just a starting point.” I hope that’s true, but I hesitate to applaud just yet. It’s just like a fantasy to materialize when you need it the most.

Nat’l Geographic’s Racist Fictions and Post-racial Fantasies