National Geographic admits to past racist magazine coverage
WASHINGTON (AP) — National Geographic acknowledged on Monday that it covered the world through a racist lens for generations, with its magazine portrayals of bare-breasted women and naive brownskinned tribesmen as savage, unsophisticated and unintelligent.
“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. An investigation conducted last fall by University of Virginia photography historian John Edwin Mason showed that until the 1970s, it virtually ignored people of color in the United States who were not domestics or laborers, and it reinforced repeatedly the idea that people of color from foreign lands were “exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages_every type of cliché.”
For example, in a 1916 article about Australia, the caption on a photo of two Aboriginal people read: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
In addition, National Geographic perpetuated the cliche of native people fascinated by technology and overloaded the magazine with pictures of beautiful Pacific island women.
This examination comes as other media organizations are also casting a critical eye on their past. The New York Times recently admitted that most of its obituaries chronicled the lives of white men, and began publishing obituaries of famous women in its “Overlooked” section.
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. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”
“I knew when we looked back there would be some storytelling that we obviously would never do today, that we don’t do and we’re not proud of,” she told AP. “But it seemed to me if we want to credibly talk about race, we better look and see how we talked about race.”
Mason said he found an intentional pattern in his review.
“People of color were often scantily clothed, people of color were usually not seen in cities, people of color were not often surrounded by technologies of automobiles, airplanes or trains or factories,” he said. “People of color were often pictured as living as if their ancestors might have lived several hundreds of years ago and that’s in contrast to westerners who are always fully clothed and often carrying technology.”