National Geographic acknowledges past racism

National Geographic magazine editors wanted to take a close look at the publication’s coverage of race over its 130-year history. Once they did, they discovered that their coverage of race relations was stereotypical and poor.

National Geographic’s most recent issue includes a letter from Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg that discloses the results of a study conducted by a University of Virginia history professor who examined the magazine’s history of race coverage.

The professor, John Edwin Mason, found that the magazine “all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic works.”

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“Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages — every type of cliché,” Mason found.


National Geographic magazine Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg during the Ellie Awards in New York on March 13. Ben Gabbe / Getty Images The Association of Magazine Media

Goldberg acknowledged in the letter that previous issues had surprising racist language and ideas. A 1916 edition, for example, featured two Aboriginal people with a caption that read, “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

Mason pointed to a story from 1977 about South African apartheid that ran with a photo of Winnie Mandela, a founder of the Black Parents’ Association and wife of Nelson Mandela, holding up her fist and speaking into a microphone. Mason said the reporting did not acknowledge any of the problems black people faced during that time. “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 of workers,” he said.

In an interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton, host of MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation,” Goldberg said the staff was motivated to look at its own coverage after releasing “Black and White,” the race issue and also the most recent one. “I hear from readers all the time that National Geographic was the first time that they ever were exposed to communities beyond their own,” she said. “So how we have presented race and people from other cultures really does matter.”


National Geographic and race
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Goldberg said in the interview that she hopes the decision to “acknowledge” the publication’s past will lead to conversations and inspire other media outlets to probe their own histories. “I do hope this will create a conversation and also raise awareness not just of the stories we’re covering, but making sure that we have a diverse staff covering a diverse world,” she said.

Each issue of National Geographic this year will be part of a series on racial, ethnic and religious groups and will include coverage of Latinos, Asian Americans, Muslims and Native Americans.

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