National Geographic Admits to ‘Decades’ of ‘Racist’ Coverage

National Geographic
National Geographic

In the 130-year-old magazine’s April issue, National Geographic takes a look at race — and in the mirror.

Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg addresses the venerated magazine’s mixed past in regard to the subject of race with a letter entitled “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.” In it, she explains that “when we decided 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 is both the first female and first Jewish editor of National Geographic, both of which she says would have faced discrimination within the organization. As part of their self-examination, she asked University of Virginia Photographic and African History Professor John Edwin Mason to take a hard look at their earlier work.

Goldberg says that Mason found that up until as recently as the 1970’s, National Geographic “all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States” while it “pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.”

He said that the publication was guilty of “reinforcing messages [Americans] already received” in regards to concepts of race informed more by caricature than fact. A 1916 issue described Australian Aboriginal people as “South Australian Blackfellows” and “savages” who “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

Further, Mason charged the magazine guilty of peddling its wares to young men looking for sexual gratification, consciously using pictures of topless native women as a selling point in the past: “Some of the bare-breasted young women are shot in a way that almost resembles glamour shots,” he said.

While this “exploration of race” begins with the entirety of April’s issue, Goldberg says in her letter that it will continue “throughout the year.” She says that she wants “a future editor of National Geographic to look back at our coverage with pride—not only about the stories we decided to tell and how we told them but about the diverse group of writers, editors, and photographers behind the work.”

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