National Geographic tackles its racist past

National Geographic tackles its racist past

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 archival investigation was conducted by John Edwin Mason, who teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia.

National Geographic magazine has admitted its past coverage of people around the world was racist.

Goldberg says that Mason found that up until as recently as the 1970's, National Geographic "all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States" while it "pictured "natives" elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages-every type of cliché".

In an editorial entitled For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist, editor Susan Goldberg said the U.S. publication had in the past ignored non-white Americans and depicted different groups as exotic or savage, propagating "every type of cliche".

The myriad examples of racism remind us that how race is constructed and presented matters.

But the latest National Geographic offers sobering news for long-time readers.

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White teenage boys "could count on every issue or two of National Geographic having some brown skin bare breasts for them to look at, and I think editors at National Geographic knew that was one of the appeals of their magazine, because women, especially Asian women from the pacific islands, were photographed in ways that were nearly glamour shots".

In 2015, they handed the camera over to a Haitian photography to document the reality of the world through their lens.

In a nation that generally has a hard time grappling with slavery and other wrongs of the past, National Geographic just flipped the script.

"National Geographic's story barely mentions any problems", Mason said.

For more than a century it has offered a bracing view of the wider world: of Aboriginal tribes, of African ceremonies and of far-flung Pacific islands where young women swam naked. That absence is as important as what is in there.

While National Geographic's decision to focus its April issue on race was based, Goldberg writes, on April 4 being the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the choice to examine the magazine's past marginalization of minority groups was something she took personally. "But it seemed to me if we want to credibly talk about race, we better look and see how we talked about race".

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