In a nation that generally has a hard time grappling with slavery and other wrongs of the past, National Geographic just flipped the script. The magazine has a shameful history of racist coverage of people of color and published an explosive editorial for its “Race” issue that laid bare its demons on Monday.
There are a lot of racist skeletons that were spotlighted by the NatGeo team and University Of Virginia professor John Edwin Mason. The magazine often presented folks of color as stereotypes, when and if they were mentioned in its coverage, that is. People of color in other countries were mostly summed up by racially charged cliches such as “savages.” By National Geographic Editor-In-Chief Susan Goldberg‘s own admission, the magazine “all but ignored people of color leaving in the United States” and “pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics.”
A photo caption for one of the magazine’s 1916 stories about two Indigenous Australians actually said, “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
The myriad examples of racism remind us that how race is constructed and presented matters. How we talk about race is also crucial.
It’s important to examine the magazine separate from its pages, too. The publication admitted that Black folks would “almost certainly have been denied entry to [their] lectures in segregated Washington, D.C.” in the early 1900s. The magazine also “might not have allowed” African-Americans to become National Geographic members. As Robert M. Poole, who wrote Explorers House: National Geographic and the World It Made, put it, “African Americans were excluded from membership—at least in Washington—through the 1940s.”
Folks on social media have appreciated NatGeo’s honesty about its past.
The absence of Black voices within its pages will likely have to be a focus moving forward, as gleaned by Goldberg’s words. There will also perhaps be a push for more voices of color on its staff.