‘National Geographic’ Reckons With Its Past: ‘Our Coverage Was Racist’


((Commentary from: Oldpoet56) During my lifetime I probably read articles within National Geographic Magazines about a dozen times. Because I only read spot articles here and there I never realized that they had been this racist. Their history on race is disgusting, and this does disappoint me greatly. I do commend them though on finally recognizing this glaring fault and for having the guts to ‘call themselves out’ on this issue. Hopefully in their future they will eliminate this fault. I know that any of their magazines that I come across in the future I will be looking to see if their racism has stopped.)  

‘National Geographic’ Reckons With Its Past: ‘For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist’

In a full-issue article on Australia that ran in National Geographic in 1916, aboriginal Australians were called “savages” who “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.” The magazine examines its history of racist coverage in its April issue.

C.P. Scott (L) and H.E. Gregory (R)/National Geographic

If National Geographic‘s April issue was going to be entirely devoted to the subject of race, the magazine decided it had better take a good hard look at its own history.

Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg asked John Edwin Mason, a professor of African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia, to dive into the magazine’s nearly 130-year archive and report back.

What Mason found was a long tradition of racism in the magazine’s coverage: in its text, its choice of subjects, and in its famed photography.

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The April issue of National Geographic is all about race.

National Geographic

“[U]ntil the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers,” writes Goldberg in the issue’s editor letter, where she discusses Mason’s findings. “Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.”

Unlike magazines such as Life, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture,” Goldberg says, noting that she is the first woman and first Jewish person to helm the magazine – “two groups that also once faced discrimination here.”

To assess the magazine’s coverage historically, Mason delved into old issues and read a couple of key critical studies. He also pored over photographers’ contact sheets, giving him a view of not just the photos that made it into print, but also the decisions that photographers and editors made.

He saw a number of problematic themes emerge.

“The photography, like the articles, didn’t simply emphasize difference, but made difference … very exotic, very strange, and put difference into a hierarchy,” Mason tells NPR. “And that hierarchy was very clear: that the West, and especially the English-speaking world, was at the top of the hierarchy. And black and brown people were somewhere underneath.”

For much of its history, the pages of National Geographic depicted the Western world as dynamic, forward-moving and very rational. Meanwhile, Mason says, “the black and brown world was primitive and backwards and generally unchanging.”

One trope that he noticed time and again were photographs showing native people apparently fascinated by Westerners’ technology.

“It’s not simply that cameras and jeeps and airplanes are present,” he says. “It’s the people of color looking at this technology in amusement or bewilderment.” The implication was that Western readers would find humor in such fascination with their everyday goods.

Then there’s how the magazine chose its subject matter. Mason explains that National Geographic had an explicit editorial policy of “nothing unpleasant,” so readers rarely saw war, famine or civic conflict.

He points to an article on South Africa from the early 1960s that barely mentions the Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 black South Africans were killed by police.

South African gold miners were “entranced by thundering drums” during “vigorous tribal dances,” a 1962 issue reported.

Kip Ross/National Geographic Creative

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

Then there’s the way women of color were often depicted in the magazine: topless.

“Teenage boys could always rely, in the ’50s and ’60s, on National Geographic to show them bare-breasted women as long as the women had brown or black skin,” Mason says. “I think the editors understood this was frankly a selling point to its male readers. Some of the bare-breasted young women are shot in a way that almost resembles glamour shots.”

Mason says the magazine has been dealing with its history implicitly for the last two or three decades, but what made this project different is that Goldberg wanted to make reckoning explicit — “That National Geographic should not do an issue on race without understanding its own complicity in shaping understandings of race and racial hierarchy.”

Although slave labor was used to build homes featured in a 1956 article, the writer contended that they “stand for a chapter of this country’s history every American is proud to remember.”

Robert F. Sisson and Donald McBain/National Geographic

For those of us who have spent long afternoons thumbing old issues of the magazine and dreaming of far-off lands, Mason wants to make clear that looking at foreign people and places isn’t a bad thing.

“We’re all curious and we all want to see. I’m not criticizing the idea of being curious about the world. It’s just the other messages that are sent—that it’s not just difference, but inferiority and superiority.”

So where does the storied publication go from here?

One good step would be to invite the diverse contributors to the April issue to become part of the magazine’s regular pool of writers and photographers, Mason suggests.

“Still it’s too often a Westerner who is telling us about Africa or Asia or Latin America,” he says. “There are astonishing photographers from all over the world who have unique visions – not just of their own country, but who could bring a unique vision to photographing Cincinnati, Ohio, if it came to that.”

He notes that the magazine’s images have so often captivated, even when they were stereotypical or skewed. Mason says a number of African photographers have told him that it was magazines like National Geographic and Life that turned them onto photography in the first place.

“They knew that there were problems with the way that they and their people were being represented,” he says. “And yet the photography was often spectacularly good, it was really inviting, and it carried this power. And as young people, these men and women said, I want to do that. I want to make pictures like that.”

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Is U.S. Government Sanctioned Monthly Racism A Good Idea

Is U.S. Government Sanctioned Monthly Racism A Good Idea


For those of you who do not know me, I am a person that despises all forms of racism. I believe that it is a sin against God and man, one that will definitely get the possessor of this dark heart condemned at their Judgement after their death. I do not wish for anyone to be condemned to the fires of Hell and I am very thankful that I am not the one who has to make such a judgement. Scripture tells us that “he who hates his brother without a cause is condemned already”. Scripture is very plain that we are all brothers in God’s eyes and if I hate anyone because of something that they have absolutely no say so in like what color our skin is when we come out of the womb, then we are sinning against God and man. If I, you, or anyone else hates another because of what skin color they happen to be then we are an empty shell, we are dead though we live, we are just fodder for the fires of Hell. “If we say we love God, but hate our own brother then we are a liar”, so says the Apostle Paul.


I am old and disabled and no longer able to be out in the work force but I would like you to think about where you work or of places you have worked in your past okay. If you are employed in a factory or office of some kind and the company has a policy where if you are lets say a Hispanic person that you are given the first Monday of each month off with pay what would you think about that? I would bet that most people, if they are Hispanic, would think, hey cool. But, what if you work in that factory and you are not Hispanic and the company had no like policy for all of its other workers, what would you think about their policy then? Should not the company be required by some kind of a law to either not allow the Hispanic employees this recognition or at least to have a like policy for all of the other employees and their nationalities? If not, wouldn’t you feel like the company was being racist for the Hispanic employees, or maybe it should be considered as a racist employer against you because you are not Hispanic? In a case like this wouldn’t you think that the ACLU and other legal entities including the Federal Department of Justice would be suing the company and its top brass?


What if the Hispanic employees got all mad at you, making physical and verbal threats toward you because you wanted to have a paid day off each month because you are, let us say, an American Indian, or maybe Oriental, or how about a mutt like me (I’m at least four mixtures of blood)? What if you were being called a racist by a lot of your Hispanic coworkers because you wanted the same rights to the same recognition that they receive? Who do you think is the real racists? When we as a company or as a Nation divide ourselves into race classes all we do is cause hurt feeling and or anger! Since the beginning of the Human Race any military leader knows that one of the best ways to defeat a tribe, city, or nation, is to divide its people. Divide and conquer, certainly you have heard of this strategy since grade school Social Studies classes haven’t you? The reason this strategy has continued to this day on the battle field is because it works!


If we as a Nation designate let us say, one particular month as special for just one of the many races within that Nation, then why would it be wrong to not make all twelve months designated as a special month for the different races? Would that be racist against that one race of people who already had a designated “special month’?  Why would that one race of people scream racism at everyone else for them getting a “special month” designated to them each year? Honestly, I can really only think of one legitimate reason, they need to seriously look in a mirror when they are wanting to find someone to call a racist!


I really don’t have as big a problem with a “special month each year” being so designated as long as all people’s of your Nation also have such a designation. But honestly, it is probably better if no special attention is paid toward one race of people at all because it does divide and cause more race issue problems then what it could ever help in making things better. But, if our Nation does insist on this dividing policy then at least that one race that gets its own month each year really needs to quit calling other people a racist because they want exactly the same thing for their race. If a Nation is to be strong it needs to be One People, the policy or way of thinking that people should be “equal but separate” not only condemns their own Nation to collapse, they condemn their own Souls to the Fires of Hell along with their racist ideology.