Published: Wed, March 14, 2018
People | By Neil Grant

National Geographic Admits to Past of Racist Coverage

National Geographic Admits to Past of Racist Coverage

One trope that he noticed time and again was photographs showing native people apparently fascinated by Westerners' technology. "Meanwhile it pictured "natives" elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages - every type of cliche".

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".

While National Geographic's statement may, to some, seem like pandering to a particular cultural moment, you can't deny that for a magazine that has otherized non-European and American cultures for decades, outright calling your past coverage "racist" - with no included caveats - is progress. I'm the first woman and the first Jewish person - a member of two groups that also once faced discrimination here.

"There are no voices of black South Africans", Mason told Goldberg. That absence is as important as what is in there.

"It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine's past", she writes.

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.

"We had to own our story to move beyond it", editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg told The Associated Press in an interview about the yellow-bordered magazine's April issue, which is devoted to race. While some acknowledgements of these checkered pasts may seem more earnest than others, they do offer some hope that change is coming - at best because people really care, and at least because some media companies need to save face. "It's weird, actually, to consider what the editors, writers, and photographers had to consciously not see".

He said that the publication was guilty of "reinforcing messages [Americans] already received" in regards to concepts of race informed more by caricature than fact.

National Geographic, which now reaches 30 million people around the world, was the way that many Americans first learned about the rest of the world, said professor Samir Husni, who heads the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi's journalism school.

National Geographic was one of the first advocates of using colour photography in its pages, and is well known for its coverage of history, science, environmentalism and the far corners 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. That would have been "unthinkable" in National Geographic's past, Mason said.

Its coverage of race matters, according to Goldberg. "Our explorers, scientists, photographers, and writers have taken people to places they'd never even imagined; it's a tradition that still drives our coverage and of which we're rightly proud".

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