I was never a regular reader or subscriber to the National Geographic magazine but it is famous for its photograph-filled articles from all over the world. But it has faced charges that its portrayal of many countries and its peoples were at best condescending and at worst racist, reinforcing stereotypes of people who did not conform to western standards of looks and living as being somehow inferior. It was particularly famous among schoolboys in Sri Lanka as the place to see photographs of bare-breasted women, and the fact that they were exclusively of color from the developing world was a subliminal message.
Its new editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg decided that it was time to take an unflinching look at the history of the magazine’s approach to race both in the US and abroad and she commissioned an outside person to pore through its archives and bring to light what he found. Goldberg explains why she decided to do this and what they found.
I’m the tenth editor of National Geographic since its founding in 1888. I’m the first woman and the first Jewish person—a member of two groups that also once faced discrimination here. 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.
We asked John Edwin Mason to help with this examination. Mason is well positioned for the task: He’s a University of Virginia professor specializing in the history of photography and the history of Africa, a frequent crossroads of our storytelling. He dived into our 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, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers. Meanwhile it pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.
Unlike magazines such as Life, Mason said, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.
“Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures,” he said. “Segregation was the way it was. National Geographic wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority. 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.”
Some of what you find in our archives leaves you speechless, like a 1916 story about Australia. Underneath photos of two Aboriginal people, the caption reads: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
Although coverage has improved in recent decades, Goldberg has to be commended for her unflinching exhumation of her magazine’s history. Other publications would do well to follow her example because, as she quotes Michelle Norris, “It’s hard for an individual—or a country—to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones.”