National Geographic addresses racist past in new issue

Danielle Fowler
Freelance Writer
Ahead of its issue on race, National Geographic has explored its own archives [Photo: National Geographic]

National Geographic has finally acknowledged that its past coverage of black people was ‘racist’.

Ahead of its April issue dedicated to race, editor Susan Goldberg published an investigative piece exploring the magazine’s archive of ‘appalling stories’ that did ‘little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture’. 

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

What Mason discovered was that up until the late 1970s, the publication used racist slur and demeaning images to depict black people within its pages.

According to Mason, “People of colour were often scantily clothed, people of colour were usually not seen in cities, people of colour were not often surrounded by technologies of automobiles, airplanes or trains or factories.”

He continued: “People of colour 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.”

For example, in a 1916 article on Australia, the caption on a photograph of two people read: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

And after 130 years in business, the magazine’s editor is finally acknowledging its controversial past for the first time.

“How we present race matters. I hear from readers that National Geographic provided their first look at the world,” Goldberg said. “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 added: “And it means we have a duty, in every story, to present accurate and authentic depictions – a duty heightened when we cover fraught issues such as race.”

National Geographic reaches over 30 million readers around the world and is published in 172 countries.

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