Slate Writer: NatGeo’s ‘Race Issue’ Not Good Enough

March 14th, 2018 5:05 PM

Well that was predictable. National Geographic has an issue dedicated to self-flagellation for its racist past. That weak sauce virtue-signaling may be fine for general consumption, but good luck impressing a social Justice warrior like Slate’s Rachelle Hampton.

NatGeo’s sackcloth edition comes on the heels of The New York Times “Overlooked” series, which created obituaries for black women that it didn’t bother to run when they died. Hampton gives both publications a pat on the head for “seek[ing] 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.” But she worries those steps could “lead in the wrong direction.”

Which direction? Here’s a clue: The NatGeo cover has a picture of twin girls, “one black and one white.”

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.

NatGeo obviously doesn’t have a copy of Passing lying around the office. If it did, it would know that:

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.

And here’s the kicker to Hapton: “‘These twins are happy with their different skin colors. Can’t we all be?’ NatGeo blithely asks."

In a word, no. “That question,” Hampton writes, “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.” Ah. The wealth gap. Now we’re coming to the point. Hampton seems bemused that Nat Geo thinks “the end goal is harmony rather than equity.” Racism, she says, is “a system that benefits some and disenfranchises the other.”

If blacks are victims of racism, whites are its “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.”

So the proper direction, Hampton seems to be saying, leads toward further recrimination, retribution and reparation. It’s cultural Marxism -- a perpetual power struggle until one race or group of races vanquishes and dominates another. Repeat as necessary. Doesn’t sound like a very nice “lived reality.”