World Media

National Geographic admits decades of coverage was 'racist'

National Geographic admits decades of coverage was 'racist'

A more cynical view of National Geographic's decision to dive into its own history might be seen as a preemptive reaction to what it could see coming: the Internet (the new "public") would naturally tear apart the magazine for confronting racial issues in such a head-on manner without confronting its own issues around the topic.

Susan Goldberg laid out the mag's flawed coverage in a mea culpa ahead of April's issue that's dedicated to race.

Asked to examine its coverage, University of Virginia associate professor John Edwin Mason said National Geographic had served only to reinforce racist attitudes in a magazine with "tremendous authority".

Mason found that the magazine virtually ignored people of color in the USA until the 1970s who were not laborers and domestic workers, and consistently perpetuated people of color from foreign lands as "exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages - every type of cliché".

She notes that some of the content in the archives will leave readers "speechless", like a photo of two Aboriginal people captioned: "South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings".

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One of Mason's remarks on the National Geographic archives stands out: "It's possible to say that a magazine can open people's eyes at the same time it closes them", Goldberg quotes him as saying. No black South Africans were interviewed for the essay. That absence is as important as what is in there.

"'National Geographic's' story barely mentions any problems", Mason noted. Often called "exotics", "savages", or even "noble savages", these same people were usually depicted hunting or performing exotic dances while they were regularly described as less capable or ignorant. "It's weird, actually, to consider what the editors, writers, and photographers had to consciously not see".

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 attractive Pacific island women. Opposition leaders are pictured.

Goldberg, the magazine's first female and Jewish editor in chief, also noted the magazine's "excess of pictures of handsome Pacific-island women". Let's not exactly say, "At least they're doing this now", but simply, as a matter of fact, "They're doing this now". In an editorial titled "For decades our coverage was racist".


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