After decades of publishing content that demeaned, overlooked, and stereotyped people of color, National Geographic is making an attempt to right its wrongs.
The century-old magazine, known for its exploration of geography, science, history, nature, and world cultures, announced last week that its April 2018 issue includes a scathing report about its own racist past.
“[U]ntil the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers,” wrote the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg in the issue’s editor letter. “Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.”
Goldberg, the first woman and first Jewish American to be named EIC at National Geographic, said it was necessary for the publication to confront its history of perpetuating racist ideas in order move forward. In her letter, she revealed that John Edwin Mason, a professor who teaches the history of photography and African continent at the University of Virginia, was asked to dig through the magazine’s 130-year archive. In turn, he discovered an overarching context of racism in the magazine’s coverage of minority cultures, from its articles and photography to its editorial tone and choices.
For example, a photo of Aboriginal people in a 1916 article about Australia included a caption that read, “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
Mason’s findings will be published in “The Race Issue” next month.
“That National Geographic should not do an issue on race without understanding its own complicity in shaping understandings of race and racial hierarchy,” writes Goldberg. “National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture,” she added.
In an interview with NPR, Mason noted that National Geographic often highlighted advancements in Western countries as forward-thinking and superior. On the other hand, the black and brown world was depicted as “primitive and backwards and generally unchanging,” he said. For instance, one photo portrays “uncivilized” native people seemingly fascinated by a white man’s camera.
“The photography, like the articles, didn’t simply emphasize difference, but made difference … very exotic, very strange, and put difference into a hierarchy. And that hierarchy was very clear: that the West, and especially the English-speaking world, was at the top of the hierarchy. And black and brown people were somewhere underneath,” said Mason.
He also pointed to an article on South Africa from the 1960s that barely mentions the murders of 69 black South Africans by police during the Sharpeville Massacre. “There are no voices of black South Africans,” said the professor. “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.”
Read Susan Goldberg’s editor’s note, “For Decades, Our Coverage was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It,” in full.