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National Geographic magazine owns up to ‘racist’ past

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA - OCTOBER 22: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.) Magazines in Arabic sit on display in the library of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, also known as "Gitmo" on October 22, 2016 at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The face of the green-eyed girl on the cover of National Geographic had been scratched by a prisoner, according to the librarian. The U.S. military's Joint Task Force Guantanamo is still holding 60 detainees at the prison, down from a previous total of 780. In 2008 President Obama issued an executive order to close the prison, which has failed because of political opposition in the U.S. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

As part of a special issue on race, National Geographic magazine decided to examine its own coverage.

The results show the iconic, 130-year-old publication has a history of racist storytelling.

Editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg wrote about those findings in a letter from the editor titled “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”

Goldberg wrote that the magazine enlisted John Edwin Mason, a University of Virginia professor who has expertise in African history and photography, to examine its archives.

Since 1888 the magazine has been showcasing history, science, geography, and cultures around the world through vivid photography and unique storytelling.

“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 cliché.”

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

Its coverage of race matters, according to Goldberg.

“I hear from readers that National Geographic provided their first look at the world,” she wrote. “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.”

Goldberg is the publication’s 10th editor as well as the first woman and Jewish person to hold the job. She wrote that her background makes her “a member of two groups that also once faced discrimination here.”

“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 to others.”

Goldberg cited one example from 1916 in which a photo depicted two Aboriginal Australian people with a caption that read: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

Mason also found problems with some of what was not covered in the magazine.

He found that a 1962 story about South Africa failed to mention the police killing of 69 black South Africans, several of whom were shot in the back as they fled.

“National Geographic’s story barely mentions any problems,” Mason said. “There are no voices of black South Africans. That absence is as important as what is in there. 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.”

April 4, 2018 marks the 50-year anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., and Goldberg wrote that “It’s a worthy moment to step back, to take stock of where we are on race.”

“It’s also a conversation that is changing in real time: In two years, for the first time in US history, less than half the children in the nation will be white,” she wrote. “So let’s talk about what’s working when it comes to race, and what isn’t.”