National Geographic acknowledges decades-long coverage was racist  

US magazine National Geographic has acknowledged that its “appalling” past coverage of different cultures was racist and reinforced stereotypes about ethnic minorities. 

The esteemed 130-year-old publication, which has a global circulation of more than six million, laid bare its bygone disparaging attitudes towards non-white Americans in the April issue of National Geographic magazine, a single topic issue on the subject of race. 

Up until the Seventies, the magazine “all but ignored” minority groups in the US, mainly showing them as labourers or domestic workers, while using “every type of cliche” when presenting other nationalities from smaller nations as “happy hunters” or “noble savages”. 

One shocking example in a National Geographic story published in 1916 on Australia featured a photo two Aboriginal people with the caption: “These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

In an editorial titled ‘For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist’, editor Susan Goldberg wrote that some of the archive material left her “speechless” and was “not easy to read”. 

“It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” explained Ms Goldberg, the magazine’s first female editor. “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.” 

The magazine, who says its aim is to help “increase our understanding of various cultures”, asked preeminent historian John Edwin Mason, an expert on the history of Africa at the University of Virginia, to delve into its problematic past. 

In an article from 1941, he found a slavery-era slur used to describe California cotton workers: “Pickaninny, banjos, and bales are like those you might see at New Orleans,” read the caption. While in editions from the Fifties and Sixties Professor Mason he found an “excess” of pictures glamorously depicting Pacific-island women. 

A 1962 issue pictured photographer Frank Schreider showing men from Timor island in south-east Asia his camera creating a “us-and-them dichotomy between the civilised and the uncivilised”, he added. 

Professor Mason said the National Geographic, which was first published in 1888, did little to fight stereotypes ingrained in white American culture. 

“Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures,” he said. 

“Segregation was the way it was. National Geographic 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 colonisers and the colonised. That was a colour line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”

Professor Mason also compared the coverage of stories on South Africa, one published in 1962 and the other in 1977. 

He explains the story published in 1962, two and a half years after the Sharpeville massacre in which 69 black South Africans were killed by police, “barely mentions any problems”. 

“There are no voices of black South Africans. That absence is as important as what is in there,” he said. “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.”

In the article from 1977, following the US civil rights movement, Professor Mason says the National Geographic’s coverage has changed. 

“It’s not a perfect article, but it acknowledges the oppression,” he says. “Black people are pictured. Opposition leaders are pictured. It’s a very different article.”

Concluding her editorial, Ms Goldberg urged readers to “confront today’s shameful use of racism as a political strategy and prove we are better than this”.

The cover of its latest issue features “one in a million” 11-year-old twins Marcia and Millie Biggs who have different skin colours. 

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