National Geographic magazine acknowledges its racist past

Sharbat Gulla on National Geographic magazine

U.S. magazine National Geographic says its past coverage of people around the world was racist.

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".

"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.

The April issue of National Geographic "explores how race defines, separates, and unites us".

The myriad examples of racism remind us that how race is constructed and presented matters. As Robert M. Poole, who wrote Explorers House: National Geographic and the World It Made, put it, "African Americans were excluded from membership-at least in Washington-through the 1940s". "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".

Goldberg is both the first female and first Jewish editor of National Geographic, both of which she says would have faced discrimination within the organization.

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.

Writing as the first woman and Jewish person to helm the magazine, Ms. Goldberg introduced the April issue which focuses on race by stating "when we chose 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".

A photo caption for one of the magazine's 1916 stories about two Indigenous Australians actually said, "South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings".

They discovered in the magazine's early years, it published very little to push readers past stereotypes.

Mason also noted that these failures were likely related to the circumstances of National Geographic's founding.

He compared a piece covering apartheid-era South Africa in 1962 - which barely mentions any problems - and a second piece from 1977, which shows opposition to the regime by black leaders. That absence is as important as what is in there.

In addition, National Geographic perpetuated the cliche of native people fascinated by technology and overloaded the magazine with pictures of attractive Pacific island women. "It's freakish, actually, to consider what the editors, writers, and photographers had to consciously not see".

The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination will be on 4 April.

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