National Geographic admits racist past
National Geographic’s past coverage was “racist” and misrepresentative of people of color in the United States, the magazine’s editor in chief has admitted.
Susan Goldberg laid out the mag’s flawed coverage in a mea culpa ahead of April’s issue that’s dedicated to race.
She said John Edwin Mason, a University of Virginia professor who specializes in the history of photography and history of Africa, helped analyze Nat Geo’s previous work — and found that it “did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in the white American culture.”
“What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s ‘National Geographic’ all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers,” Goldberg wrote. “Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages — every type of cliché.”
Goldberg pointed to a 1916 story about Australia that ran in the magazine, along with two photos of Aboriginal people and the demeaning caption, “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
Another example was pulled from two stories about South Africa the magazine ran in 1962 and 1977.
The earlier story was printed two and a half years after the Sharpeville massacre, when 69 black South Africans were shot by police during a protest — in a turn of events that stunned the world. The article was devoid of any mention of Sharpeville.
“’National Geographic’s’ story barely mentions any problems,” Mason noted. “There are no voices of black South Africans. That absence is as important as what is in there. The only black people are doing exotic dances … servants or workers. It’s bizarre, actually, to consider what the editors, writers, and photographers had to consciously not see.”
The magazine’s coverage of apartheid in 1977 was somewhat of an improvement, the professor said.
“It’s not a perfect article, but it acknowledges the oppression,” Mason said. “Black people are pictured. Opposition leaders are pictured. It’s a very different article.”
Goldberg, the magazine’s first female and Jewish editor in chief, also noted the magazine’s “excess of pictures of beautiful Pacific-island women.”
She said the magazine’s exploration of race in the April issue — coming out alongside the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — is just the beginning.
“In two years, for the first time in U.S. history, less than half the children in the nation will be white. So let’s talk about what’s working when it comes to race, and what isn’t,” she said. “Let’s examine why we continue to segregate along racial lines and how we can build inclusive communities. Let’s confront today’s shameful use of racism as a political strategy and prove we are better than this.”