National Geographic has acknowledged that racism that was present in its past coverage and admitted that for decades, it had failed to address people of color in the United States.
The acknowledgement comes by way of an apologetic editorial from the magazine’s new editor, Susan Goldberg. The editorial, titled “For decades our coverage was racist. To rise above our past we must acknowledge it,” looks back at decades of National Geographic coverage and recognizes the inherent racism that characterized the magazine’s written content, photography, and choice of coverage.
The editorial is part of the publication’s April issue, which is dedicated to race. The issue is the start of a series that will focus on racial, ethnic, and religious groups that will run throughout the year.
In poring through the history of the publication, Goldberg, who is the first woman and first Jewish editor of the magazine, enlisted the help of University of Virginia professor John Edwin Mason, who specializes in the history of African photography and African history.
After examining the publication’s archives, Mason found that until the 1970s, National Geographic did not pay attention to people of color in the U.S., rarely acknowledging them beyond being laborers or domestic workers. Meanwhile, the magazine often featured native peoples in other parts of the world as exotics, often picturing them unclothed.
According to Mason, National Geographic, for much of its history, depicted the Western world as dynamic and very rational, while portraying black and brown peoples as primitive and backwards.
“It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” said Goldberg. “But 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.”
The editor also noted that some of the past content of the publication may leave readers speechless, citing a photo of two Aboriginal people with the caption, “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”