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National Geographic comes to terms with its racist coverage

in Media & Journalism by

Racism, as part of American culture in any institution is far from an anomaly, but what happens when the standard bearer of international journalism comes to terms with its own contribution to the oppressive construct?

Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic, said she hopes the magazine’s examination of its own racist past will be the impetus of heightened awareness about race.

“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 wrote in her letter to readers.

The release coincides with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The timing, Goldberg said, “is a worthy moment to step back, to take stock of where we are on race.”

Goldberg commissioned the assistance of John Edwin Mason, a professor of African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia, to dig into the magazine’s archives.

“What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s, National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States,” Goldberg wrote. The magazine published its first edition in 1888.

When it didn’t ignore people of color, the magazine advanced stereotypes and used racial slurs to describe its subjects. One example from 1941 described California cotton workers waiting to load a ship in California as “Pickaninny, banjos, and bales are like those you might see at New Orleans.”

Another example Mason found in the archives was a caption underneath photos of two Aboriginal people. It read: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

Goldberg, NatGeo’s first woman editor, said, “It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past.  Unlike magazines such as Life, Mason said, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.”

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