Everybody’s saying sorry these days, for transgressions old and new, big and small. Earlier this month, Canadian singer Jacob Hoggard, of the band Hedley, joined the list of high-profile men issuing apologies for their past treatment of women after an accusation of sexual assault.
The President of Poland apologized for the 1968 expulsion of Jewish people from the country, and The Chronicle-Journal newspaper in Thunder Bay apologized for a headline that made fun of a wave of assaults on Indigenous people.
None of this went over well.
In every case, observers accused the apologizers of acting insincerely: of being more sorry that they got caught than of their hurtful actions, of offering hollow mea culpas without committing to meaningful change. There was, though, one admission of guilt widely considered sincere and it was made by National Geographic.
This week, the 130-year-old magazine published its April issue, on the topic of race. Alongside stories about twins born with different skin tones and a lengthy, genetics-based explanation of why race doesn’t really exist, it included an editor’s letter with a headline that made a stark admission: For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.
Identifying herself as the magazine’s first female, Jewish editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg details the findings of historian John Edwin Mason, whom she enlisted to parse how the magazine’s historical coverage has presented race and ethnicity. He found that it often ignored the voices and movements of African-Americans and other communities of colour in the United States, while presenting non-white people around the world as exotic, primitive creatures with inferior intellect.
“National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism and the world was divided into the colonizers and the colonized,” Mr. Mason said. “That was a colour line and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”
After unashamedly dissecting the past, Ms. Goldberg promised a future full of writing, photograph and videos made by a true diversity of creators. This month’s contributors’ masthead is encouraging.
The issue is meant to commemorate, on April 4, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a fitting occasion to look at the realities, rather than the ideals, of racial justice. Since his death, Dr. King has often been, well, white-washed: depicted as a kind, hand-holding teddy bear willing to spend his lifetime coaxing white Americans into sharing.
It’s common for people uncomfortable with discussions of race to simplify Dr. King’s work. Too often, his dream that “people … not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” is invoked as a way to avoid grappling with the privileges and responsibilities of whiteness.
But Dr. King was very clear that he didn’t find good intentions to be of much use in the fight for civil rights. When criticized by white clergy for direct-action tactics, such as sit-ins, the Baptist minister sharply condemned their unwillingness to disturb their own comfort, which he saw as complicity in black oppression.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block is not … the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate,” he wrote in his 1963 Letter From a Birmingham Jail, published the same year as his more famous Nobel acceptance speech. “Shallow understanding by people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding by people of ill will,” he added.
It seemed fairly shallow this week when actor-producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon announced future projects by their production company Pearl Street will have an “inclusion rider.” A concept introduced to the wider world by Frances McDormand when she picked up her Oscar, an inclusion rider is a requirement by the biggest players on a movie that various types of diversity be represented among cast and crew.
Such targets are a great idea, but these BFF-bros have multiple failings on the diversity front to atone for – such as when Mr. Damon mansplained diversity to black producer Effie Brown; or when Mr. Affleck coerced Henry Louis Gates Jr. into concealing the movie star’s relatives’ slave-owning past, leading to questions about the integrity of Prof. Gates’s geneological TV show, Finding Your Roots. Before attempting to change the system, they need to admit their place in it.
As National Geographic has shown, change begins at home. The magazine’s broad approach to rectifying its past is promising because it recognizes both individual actions and a larger system. As the age of apologies rolls on, it’s a good example to follow.