‘For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist’

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.

“[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…

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