National Geographic addresses 'appalling' racist past

Remigio Civitarese
Marzo 13, 2018

The archival investigation was conducted by John Edwin Mason, who teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia.

With race at the epicenter of its April issue, National Geographic assessed the content of its past issues, which the magazine acknowledged revolved around reinforcing the message of discrimination that was already ingrained in the American white culture.

In National Geographic's April issue, Goldberg, who identified herself as National Geographic's first woman and first Jewish editor, wrote a letter titled "For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist". Meanwhile it pictured "natives" elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages-every type of cliché.

"We had to own our story to move beyond it", editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg told The Associated Press in an interview about the yellow-bordered magazine's April issue, which is devoted to race.

National Geographic first published its magazine in 1888.

Its coverage of race matters, according to Goldberg. "Our explorers, scientists, photographers, and writers have taken people to places they'd never even imagined; it's a tradition that still drives our coverage and of which we're rightly proud".

She said, "It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine's past". "But when we chose to devote our April magazine to the topic of race, we thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others".

Goldberg cited one example from 1916 in which a photo depicted two Aboriginal Australian people with a caption that read: "South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings".

Mason said this was mainly due to the magazine's policy to have "nothing unpleasant" weighing down its content.

He compared a piece covering apartheid-era South Africa in 1962 - which barely mentions any problems - and a second piece from 1977, which shows opposition to the regime by black leaders. The only black people are doing exotic dances ... servants or workers.

"It's also a conversation that is changing in real time: In two years, for the first time in United States history, less than half the children in the nation will be white", she wrote. "But it seemed to me if we want to credibly talk about race, we better look and see how we talked about race".

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