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."

See the full article at NPR.org.

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58 Comments

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Anonymous's picture

While your statement is generally true, I haven’t read anything from Nat Geo (including their editors statement) that posits what they did in the past as coming from a place of malice.

If we have to choose from your two options on admitting errors coming from either malice or ignorance, it looks to stem more from the later here.

I guess I wasn't clear in my wording. I don't believe there was any malice on their part. I also don't believe most racial bias, not to be confused with racism, from any quarter is attributable to malice. Real hate is more common than I'd like but much more rare than most people think.

Anonymous's picture

Ah I see. Important distinction between racial bias and racism.

Thanks for the clarification.

William Howell's picture

I always looked at National Geographic for the boobies. They still have those photographs, right?
But they never showed Sami people’s boobies, wished they had though.

Anonymous's picture

Most Sami people don't walk around topless, probably because it's sorta cold in Norway.

William Howell's picture

Dude, I never thought of that, in next month’s Nat Geo, Sami girls gone wild in Bimini, excellent idea Allen!

Anonymous's picture

You seem like a kooky guy, William.

Michael Aubrey's picture

These are important stories.

But the comments...my god...the comments are invariably terrible.

Anonymous's picture

Welcome to the internet!

I'm genuinely curious. Which stories are you talking about? In the magazine or this article or ???

Ben Perrin's picture

If the comments are invariably terrible does that mean that your comments are terrible as well??? Lol.

William Howell's picture

I agree with you Mike, no one talks about boobies, and I for one am offended!

Anonymous's picture

That’s not true. We were talking about them.

Michael Holst's picture

How's that crusade going Bob?

Michael Holst's picture

Don't get triggered over a simple question Bob. Just seems like you think everything wrong in the world is because of political correctness.

Michael Holst's picture

I'm just waiting for you to ask me out! Now that you've noticed me "heeeey!"

Anonymous's picture

He constantly posts about the perceived ills of society on a photography forum online.

So the crusade is not going that well, lol.

Oh, the irony, Allen.

Anonymous's picture

Are you serious with these fake accounts and random comments? You've gone off the deep end, Bob/Homer/Vlad/etc.

Actually it’s pretty easy to read articles completely and then skip the comments section. Martyrdom will get you nowhere.

Don't worry Nat Geo, I won't stand by while you smear your own good name, I'll stand for you against -yourself.

Michael Holst's picture

Actually laughed out loud.

Stephen Kampff's picture

Part of me thinks they're going to call out some sort of entity as racist, where NatGeo has previously been on their side (decades ago).

If we judge everyone by the context of our time rather than their time, we'll inevitably be disappointed more often than not.

I love my forefathers, despite their flaws. I hope my descendants will celebrate the good that I've tried to do and forgive me of my flaws.

Racist is the last adjective I would have ever used to describe Nat Geo.

I'm going to shamelessly use this every chance I get! I'll try to remember your name to give you credit. :-)

Przemek Lodej's picture

This stupidity is getting seriously out of control.

Mixing photography with politics isn't a good ideea. And photographs can't be racist. Can be good or bad. NG is just another magazine who became crap.