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National Geographic admits past coverage was racist

The magazine used to portray brown-skinned tribesmen as unsophisticated and unintelligent.


NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HAS acknowledged that it covered the world through a racist lens for generations, with its portrayals of bare-breasted women and naive, brown-skinned 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 magazine’s April issue, which is devoted to race.

National Geographic first published its magazine in 1888.

An investigation conducted last autumn by University of Virginia photography historian John Edwin Mason showed that, until the 1970s, it virtually ignored people of colour in the United States who were not domestics or labourers.

The magazine also repeatedly reinforced the idea that people of colour 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 cliché of native people fascinated by technology, and overloaded the magazine with pictures of beautiful Pacific island women.

This examination comes as other media organisations 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 identifies 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 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 said.

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.

White teenage boys “could count on every issue or two of National Geographic having some brown skin bare breasts for them to look at”, Mason said.

“I think editors at National Geographic knew that was one of the appeals of their magazine because women, especially Asian women from the pacific islands, were photographed in ways that were almost glamour shots,” he added.

30 million people

National Geographic, which now reaches 30 million people around the world, was the way that many Americans first learned about the rest of the world, said professor Samir Husni, who heads the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi’s journalism school.

Making sure that kind of coverage never happens again should be paramount, Husni said, stating: “Trying to integrate the magazine media with more hiring of diverse writers and minorities in the magazine field is how we apologise for the past.”

Goldberg said she is doing just that, adding that, in the past, the magazine has done a better job at gender diversity than racial and ethnic diversity.

“The coverage wasn’t right before because it was told from an elite, white American point of view, and I think it speaks to exactly why we needed a diversity of storytellers,” Goldberg said.

“So we need photographers who are African-American and Native American because they are going to capture a different truth and maybe a more accurate story.”

National Geographic was one of the first advocates of using colour photography in its pages, and is well-known for its coverage of history, science, environmentalism and the far corners of the world. It currently can be found in 172 countries and in 43 languages every month.

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