National Geographic Confronts Its Own history of Racism

“For decades, our coverage was racist. To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it.” This began the words of Susan Goldberg, editor-in-chief of magazine and channel, National Geographic, renowned for its photography and its coverage of science, history, anthropology and the environment.

National Geographic has set out to make race the sole focus of its April 2018 issue, deciding to engage in some soul-searching after 130 years of publication. The magazine is reckoning with its past, saying its coverage of people of color both and in and outside the United States was for generations “racist.”

Marcia (left) and Millie Biggs, 11 year old fraternal twins featured on The Race Issue. Credit: National Geographic

In preparation, Susan Goldberg engaged John Edwin Mason, a University of Virginia professor specializing in the history of photography and the history of Africa, to dive into the magazine’s past after which she discussed his findings in an editor’s note on Monday. The acknowledgment comes ahead of Nat Geo’s April “Race Issue,” which was the product of collaboration among historians, journalists, and photographers.

“What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s, National Geographic all but ignored people of colour who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers,” while “it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages — every type of cliche.”

With The Race Issue which also includes a story about how scientific ideas of race originated, and a video-driven feature documenting the phenomenon of black men getting stopped by police while driving, National Geographic recognised that it 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.”

Marcia (left) and Millie Biggs. The Race Issue. Credit: National Geographic


Goldberg, who is also the first female editor of the magazine, said Aboriginal Australians were called “savages” in a 1916 story; California cotton workers were dubbed offensive slurs like “pickaninny”; and admitted that Haile Selassie’s coronation as Ethiopia’s king in 1930 wouldn’t have been covered if he was a black man in America.

Defined by its yellow-bordered covers and stunning photography, the magazine has been a window to the world for many Americans, featuring culture, travel, science, and geography.

Yet academic criticism of the publication—and others—has existed for decades, Toussaint Nothias, a lecturer in the Center for African Studies at Stanford University, says, key among them a 1993 book titled Reading National Geographic, which scrutinized its depictions of Third World cultures.

“In Africa, this selective framing and wrongful representation continue to date with western outlets, who use Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a guide to the Congo, or Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa as the arbiter of pre-colonial Kenya.” These racist generalizations are also rearing their head in Chinese television too.

Nothias says Nat Geo’s admission is part of a broader social momentum regarding questions of diversity and representation in cultural production and the media. “And this is why, not only do we need monitoring and critical appraisal of past coverage, but also ongoing monitoring of media content and frank discussions about the current state of the industry.”

This month’s issue is just a starting point for National Geographic as they are doing stories on the evolving identities of key ethnic, religious, and racial groups throughout 2018.