National Geographic: 'For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist'

National Geographic: 'For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist'

As National Geographic prepared to look at race in its April issue, the company had to take a hard look at its own history in how it told stories and portrayed differences in both skin tone and culture. After enlisting the outside help of John Edwin Mason, a professor of African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia, they found that indeed, for decades, their coverage was racist.

At times, it can be difficult to confront our past. A more cynical view of National Geographic's decision to dive into its own history might be seen as a preemptive reaction to what it could see coming: the Internet (the new "public") would naturally tear apart the magazine for confronting racial issues in such a head-on manner without confronting its own issues around the topic. Naturally, not looking into its own past and continuing with such an issue would unavoidably come across as placing the magazine in the same position of superiority it is now accusing itself of having reserved only for white, western, modern people with its one-sided coverage of people of other races.

In his review of National Geographic's 130-year-old history, Mason found evidence of a long-standing pattern of media coverage that perpetuated a variety of racist and presumptive stereotypes regularly throughout and up to the 1970s. Indigenous peoples were often shown in a state of awe and bewilderment when presented with Western technologies. Often called "exotics," "savages," or even "noble savages," these same people were usually depicted hunting or performing exotic dances while they were regularly described as less capable or ignorant. But rarely — if ever — did National Geographic show African Americans or anyone not Caucasian at home or abroad in positions as much else than laborers or "workers."

A policy of printing only agreeable, non-controversial content meant that National Geographic often steered clear of deep (or any) coverage of major racial issues and atrocities in the United States and abroad, including, according to NPR, events such as the "Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 black South Africans were killed by police" in the early 1960s.

While a better-late-than-never absolution is hardly appropriate, a more accurate better-as-soon-as-possible or anytime-now-would-be-great approach to expecting the members of our society who have at any time perpetuated harmful, racial stereotypes through any media coverage or organizational policy might be a better, less cynical way to look at National Geographic's recent revelations about and interest in looking into its own past. Let's not exactly say, "At least they're doing this now," but simply, as a matter of fact, "They're doing this now." Regardless, plenty of critics are likely unsurprised, not-so-dumbfounded by these revelations, and trying very hard not to say, "I told you so."

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daya dee's picture

The article as a whole talked about Africans quite a bit so I’m not sure why you spoke of African Americans specifically. No where in the article are African Americans explicitly mentioned.

“But rarely — if ever — did National Geographic show African Americans or anyone not Caucasian at home or abroad in positions...”

You probably didn’t mean to but this a small part of the problem. Black people exist outside of America.

Adam Ottke's picture

I think I referred to people of all kinds of races outside of the United States that the article was referring to quite a bit. To add some context, the part you are referring to was not a quote, but was instead simply a sentence discussing the fact about people of color both at home (African Americans) and abroad not being depicted as much other than laborers in the magazine for years. No, the original article didn't discuss all parts of this exactly. But it's true, and I was simply stating this.

michael buehrle's picture

but that doesn't sell the papers.

Michael Aubrey's picture

Let's not forget the white on white murder!

You'd almost think that there's some weird causal relationship between living in racially homogeneous communities and attackers and victims having the same skin color...

So weird.

Deleted Account's picture

I'm not agreeing with his point but I think the percentage of crime per capita, as opposed to the percentage of crime by and toward various races, is significant.

Adam Doroziński's picture

White on white -> 2500 cases
Black on black -> 2250 cases

African americans -> 13% of the population
Whites -> 77% population

Simple math says that when you are black, chances that another black is going to kill you are over 500% higher than for someone white to be killed by white.

Scott Haddow's picture

Um, actually it means that roughly 90% of murdered blacks are murdered by other blacks. The same reports says 83% of murdered whites are murdered by other whites. Not a huge difference. More importantly, what does this have to do with NatGeo?

Anonymous's picture


Michael Aubrey's picture

Adam, you're so bad at numbers!

Adam Doroziński's picture

Prove me wrong :-)
Show your calculations.

Michael Aubrey's picture

Uh...did you not see Scott Haddow's comment above?

I'll add that you're bad at numbers because you don't look at enough of them. You don't account for income, geography, or the effects of redlining, blockbusting and other phenomenon.

Anonymous's picture

National Geographic states that previous issues were racist (mostly against tribal societies), and black on black murder is what you comment on? "What about black on black crime?" is like an ignorant tick for some people whenever racism is discussed.

If you had a point, it's lost in this simplistic knee-jerk regurgitation of a talking point.


Anonymous's picture

Not going down your BS straw man rabbit hole too, Bob.

Anonymous's picture

huh. deep.

Studio 403's picture

So let's see.....So if I go back far enough my forefathers may be called racist. It seems to me any culture at a given time period and the norm of our society was normal. Example A black girl marries a white guy or vice versa. Unheard of until starting 1970's and now the norm. When first married in 1965, my wife did not want to work nor did I want her too. That was the norm. Not saying that the "normal" (and of course wrongs were committed) right or wrong, just the norm. I remember blacks sitting up in the balcony at movies, whites in the main area. The norm at that time. I have no view on NG article. I think its a time when I (we) give up all hope of having a better past. Admit my wrongs, change (repent) ask for forgiveness if warranted, and move forward to improve race relations. I have had my share of guilt and shame, and accept no more from my past. Now, today is a different view

David Cannon's picture

This all just seems to be a bit absurd. National Georgraphic’s readership for decades upon decades consisted almost exclusively of white Americans. So showing other cultures, indigenous tribal people, etc., to that readership was a way of exposing what was in our world, beyond our borders. Is it immoral to show tribal cultures reacting to seeing a camera for the first time? I have experienced this in Bangladesh. Was that racist? Is it immoral to say that someone is ignorant, not meaning that they are stupid, but there is knowledge they don’t possess? I’m ignorant of many tribal ways of life, so am I now racist against myself for admitting that?
The only issue I see is the assertion that these tribals were “less capable.” Obviously, that is racism/ethnocentrism.
Even the word “savage,” which sounds deplorable in our context, was a word in those days that meant the same thing as what we mean today when we say “tribal:” a non-modern people. In a time when racism was openly flaunted and fashionable, NG was way ahead of its time. To apply today’s standards to those decades is to spit in the face of racial progress. We wouldn’t be where we are today we’re it not for people and organizations pushing the boundaries on racial equality, and to hold them to our standard today, after decades of struggle, is to curse those who laid the foundation. Oh NPR...

Michael Aubrey's picture

You should really take the time to read through the lexical entry and historical usage of the word "savage" in the OED.

David Cannon's picture

I have read plenty of history and am familiar with the usage of the word. Under these pretenses we should strike Teddy Roosevelt from the historical record, denounce him, and undo all that he did. Even though he spoke with great respect, for example, of the “savages” he lived and explored with in the Amazon near the end of his days.

Anonymous's picture

Reductio ad absurdum

That description of Teddy Roosevelt and your response is an unnecessary overreaction. Not one NatGeo editor, NPR journalist, or commenter on this thread for that matter, are arguing to strike anything from the historical record (whatever that means. Is there some big ledger on a dust shelf somewhere that we plan to tear pages out of?).

If anything, they are reviewing their own history and adding a more nuanced and complex understanding of it. They're not removing stories or photographs–they're not even apologizing for them (which they shouldn't). They're acknowledging what they and others have concluded–after far more review of the material than you or I have done–that some of their coverage was racist.

They're addressing their history, not striking it from the historical record.

And don't simplify and disrespect Roosevelt just to prove a point. He's far more complex than one or two instances or statements. Whether you do so to praise or vilify a historical person, reducing them to a single action does them a grave disservice.

Anonymous's picture

Try a new catchphrase. “Madness and lie of political correctness” is baselesss and getting old.

And what the heck am I talking about? You quote what the heck I’m talking about right after you ask me. If you weren’t so blinded by your ego and myopic beliefs you might have the mental capacity to understand it.

Think before your respond and read more carefully.

And I didn’t “resort” to calling you a POS. Why are you making this about you anyway? What do you have to do with this?

Anonymous's picture

Wow you really don’t get it. You’re slipping, old timer. This is all weak. Nothing even to respond to.

Now I really pity you. Sad.

Deleted Account's picture

"Political correctness is all about avoiding the truth"

Conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated - Merriam Webster.

hmmm.... Which dictionary should I be using?

Deleted Account's picture

You don't seem to enjoy it when I say that people who seek to make fat people feel uncomfortable about themselves asses right? If I cant say that, isn't it avoiding some sort of truth?

Deleted Account's picture

How do you feel about the Special Olympics?

Homer Simpson's picture

Thanks for your wisdom Allen.

Everything is becoming clear.

Anonymous's picture

Sure thing, Bob.

Deleted Account's picture

National Geographic is just acknowledging it's past.

"Under these pretenses we should strike Teddy Roosevelt from the historical record, denounce him, and undo all that he did"

Not equal to what Nat Geo is doing and they're doing it to themselves.... I don't see your connection.

Deleted Account's picture

To the extent NG was/is racist, everyone was/is. It's natural to have biases based on how someone looks. In their case, add cultural differences and voila!

Deleted Account's picture

That's true but does that make it wrong to try and get rid of a bias strongly connected to race?

Deleted Account's picture

Of course not. I meant they had a strong bias in years past just as most people did. The fact they looked into it indicates a much weaker bias in recent years which also reflects the little bit of lingering bias among the majority of people. The problem with admitting error is it's too often ascribed to malice rather than ignorance which is also bias.

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