National Geographic is acknowledging that its past coverage was "racist" and for decades failed to address people of color in the United States.
The magazine decided to take a tough look at its past coverage prior to the publication of its April issue, which is devoted to race. In an editorial titled "For decades our coverage was racist. To rise above our past we must acknowledge it," editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg writes that she enlisted the help of University of Virginia professor John Edwin Mason to take a look at decades of National Geographic coverage.
Mason, who specializes in the history of African photography and African history, pored through the National Geographic archives and concluded that for decades the publication was inherently racist in its written content, photos and choice of coverage.
"What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers," Goldberg says in a piece about the issue. "Meanwhile it pictured 'natives' elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché."
Mason points to National Geographic photos of “the native person fascinated by Western technology. It really creates this us-and-them dichotomy between the civilized and the uncivilized."
Goldberg, who acknowledges that she is National Geographic's first female and first Jewish editor and chief, said it "hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past, 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."
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."