National Geographic magazine acknowledges its racist past

Lester Mason
March 14, 2018

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". After examining the National Geographic archives, Goldberg writes, Mason found that from the magazine's founding in the late-19th century through the 1960s, its coverage of non-white people was characterized by several obvious and persistent flaws.

Goldberg pointed to a 1916 story about Australia that ran in the magazine, along with two photos of Aboriginal people and the demeaning caption, "South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings".

In an article published by editor Susan Goldberg, the magazine said its examination of its past reporting of black people revealed a collection of "appalling stories" that "did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture".

A policy of printing only agreeable, non-controversial content meant that National Geographic often steered clear of deep (or any) coverage of major racial issues and atrocities in the United States and overseas, including, according to NPR, events such as the "Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 black South Africans were killed by police" in the early 1960s.

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 brown-skinned tribesmen as savage, unsophisticated and unintelligent. No black South Africans were interviewed for the essay. The only black people are doing exotic dances ... servants or workers.


The magazine's coverage of apartheid in 1977 was somewhat of an improvement, the professor said.

Mason said he found an intentional pattern in his review.

In addition, National Geographic perpetuated the cliche of native people fascinated by technology and overloaded the magazine with pictures of lovely Pacific island women. Opposition leaders are pictured.

While National Geographic's decision to focus its April issue on race was based, Goldberg writes, on April 4 being the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the choice to examine the magazine's past marginalization of minority groups was something she took personally. "Let's confront today's shameful use of racism as a political strategy and prove we are better than this".

Other reports by Iphone Fresh

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