Zimbabwe-raised academic praises National Geographic for acknowledging racist coverage

National Geographic magazine admitted last week that for generations racism had influenced its reporting on the world — an admission that's praiseworthy and long-awaited, a Carleton PhD student from Zimbabwe tells CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

Carleton PhD student Andriata Chironda grew up reading the magazine

National Geographic acknowledged that its coverage was racist for generations. A local academic shares her thoughts about why this is so important. (Shutterstock)

Growing up in Zimbabwe, Andriata Chironda remembers flipping through the pages of National Geographic and marvelling at the imagery of far-flung places and people. 

But when it came to her home country, there was a "dissonance," said Chironda, a PhD candidate in history at Carleton University. 

"I was a suburban kid," said Chironda, who came to Canada in her 20s.  "It was only after arriving in Canada ... when I realized, 'Wait a minute, there's a different way that people [here] viewed us.'"

Last week, National Geographic admitted that for generations, racism had influenced its reporting on the world — an admission that received both praise and cynicism because of the long delay in admitting the wrong.

"I was awestruck!" Chironda told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning last week after hearing the news. "I was like, wow, this is fantastic. It's a fantastic counternarrative."

'Representation matters'

The National Geographic Society, a not-for-profit organization, published its first magazine in 1888.

The magazine now reaches 30 million people around the world, in 172 countries and in 43 different languages. It's well known for its coverage of history, science, culture and the environment.

The magazine, however, also has a long tradition of depicting people from Africa and the Pacific Islands using clichés and stereotypes, said Chironda, who's currently researching international migration and refugee protection policy.

"What's particularly admirable about this mea culpa, this introspective perspective — especially from the editor of the National Geographic — is the fact that they've brought a conversation that's been taking place in academia ... to the mainstream," she said.

"[It's] a recognition that representation matters."

National Geographic's April edition is titled The Race Issue, and it focuses on UK-based twin sisters Marcia and Millie Biggs — one of whom is black and the other white. 

In the edition, Susan Goldberg also identifies herself as the magazine's first female and first Jewish editor.

In this image provided by National Geographic, the cover of the April 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine, a single topic issue on the subject of race. (National Geographic via Associated Press)