Before the magazine National Geographic dedicated its April issue to the subject of race, it made a bold move and dragged itself for succumbing to decades of racist reporting.
In an article for the race issue, National Geographic’s 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 investigate the racism in the magazine’s 130 year archive.
Based on Mason’s research, the magazine’s coverage of people of color tended to portray them in stereotypical situations without exploring their individual struggles.
"[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."
In one particular piece about South Africa in 1962, the article did not mention a massacre wherein 69 Black South Africans were killed by police.
“National Geographic’s story barely mentions any problems,” Mason said. “There are no voices of black South Africans. 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.”
"For us this issue also provided an important opportunity to look at our own efforts to illuminate the human journey, a core part of our mission for 130 years. I want a future editor of National Geographic to look back at our coverage with pride—not only about the stories we decided to tell and how we told them but about the diverse group of writers, editors, and photographers behind the work," Goldberg wrote.
(Photo: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)