National Geographic confronts its past: 'For decades, our coverage was racist'

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This image provided by National Geographic shows the cover of the April 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine, a single topic issue on the subject of race.

Months ago, when National Geographic set out to make race the sole focus of its April 2018 issue, it decided to engage in some soul-searching.

For much of its 130-year history, the magazine depicted people of color in crude stereotypes. Its archives are loaded with pictures of brown-skinned “natives” gazing in apparent awe at Western technology, articles referring to tribal peoples as “savages,” and of course many, many photos of bare-breasted Pacific island women striking vaguely seductive poses. Those glossy Geographics, stacked up in attics and basements, were favorites of more than a few curious young boys – with little interest in New Guinea or Polynesia.

So in preparation for its examination of race, National Geographic editor in chief Susan Goldberg tapped John Edwin Mason, a University of Virginia professor specializing in the history of photography and the history of Africa, to dive into the magazine’s past. On Monday, she discussed his findings in an editor’s note.

“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 wrote. “Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages – every type of cliche.”

The title of Goldberg’s piece put it more bluntly: “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”

It was an extraordinary concession from the magazine. Renowned for its photography and its coverage of science, history, anthropology and the environment, National Geographic has also faced criticism over the years for reporting on the world through a narrow white, Western lens.

Breanna Edwards of the African American-focused news and culture site The Root called the move “the first step to righting a long-overlooked and perhaps even taken-for-granted wrong.”

“Bluntly acknowledging its own past in this way is indeed powerful, but it is not necessarily something, I think, that we should applaud, as much as we should expect,” Edwards wrote, “especially at this time in our lives when race and discussions of racism and even general cultural insensitivity can be volatile, tense and perhaps even deadly.”

Others were more critical, including Vox’s Kainaz Amaria, who tweeted that the magazine’s “colonial visual legacy” had, in effect, trained nonwhite, non-Western people to allow themselves to be “exploited and otherized.”

Mason, the professor, touched on a similar point in an interview with NPR on Monday. He said a number of African photographers were drawn into photography by what they saw in National Geographic’s pages, even though it was racially and culturally insensitive.

“They knew that there were problems with the way that they and their people were being represented,” Mason told NPR. “And yet the photography was often spectacularly good, it was really inviting, and it carried this power. And as young people, these men and women said, I want to do that. I want to make pictures like that.”

Goldberg noted that she is the first woman and the first Jewish person to serve as editor in chief, so she’s sensitive, she said, to the magazine’s legacy of discrimination.

“It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” she wrote. “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 on others.”

She highlighted several examples of racist content the magazine published over the course of several decades. In one instance, National Geographic in 1916 ran an article that called Aboriginal Australians “blackfellows” who “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.” A 1941 piece used a racial slur to describe black California cotton workers. And a 1962 photo depicted a white photographer showing his camera to a group of Timorese men.

“The native person fascinated by Western technology” was a recurring theme, Mason told National Geographic. “It really creates this us-and-them dichotomy between the civilized and the uncivilized.”

Goldberg and Mason also found that National Geographic was racist in what it omitted from its coverage. A 1962 story on South Africa quoted no black South Africans, nor did it mention the massacre of 69 black people by police in Sharpeville two and a half years earlier.

“That absence is as important as what is in there,” Mason said in Goldberg’s piece. “The only black people are doing exotic dances . . . servants or workers. It’s bizarre, actually, to consider what the editors, writers, and photographers had to consciously not see.”

Until the 1970s, National Geographic did little to challenge stereotypes in white American culture, Mason found.

“National Geographic wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority,” he said. “National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism, and the world was divided into the colonizers and the colonized. That was a color line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”

As for the bare-breasted island women the magazine regularly featured in glossy, full-color photos: “I think the editors understood this was frankly a selling point to its male readers,” Mason told NPR.

Goldberg said the magazine has improved in recent years – in part by putting cameras in the hands of the people who were often on the other side of the lens. In one project in 2015, for example, the magazine gave cameras to young Haitians and asked them to shoot pictures of their world. That would have been “unthinkable” in National Geographic’s past, Mason said.

Goldberg said she wants to continue on that course by hiring more diverse journalists at the magazine.

“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 told the Associated Press. “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.”