National Geographic Admits Their Coverage Has Been Racist For Decades

In their latest issue, the National Geographic addressed something a lot of people have said about them for years: our coverage is racist. It’s not hard to see that this storied publication, which was intended to educate the masses did a lot more harm than good. The magazine has been around for 129 years and it was, in many ways, the only way people could experience how other people around the world lived. But rather than document actual facts, the magazine instead exploited these differences.

Susan Goldberg, Editor in Chief at the National Geographic, called out her publication in an editor’s note in their “Race Issue” titled: For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It. But in order to uncover their racist past, Goldberg needed to remove herself from the situation and get an unbiased expert to dig into their stories and report their findings. She asked John Edwin Mason, a University of Virginia professor specializing in the history of photography and the history of Africa, to look into what they had published.

“What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers,” Goldberg said in her letter. “Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages — every type of cliche.”

In one story from 1941, the magazine even used a “slavery-era slur” to discuss cotton workers from California. In another story from 1956, when talking about slave-built homes, the writer said that they: “stand for a chapter of this country’s history every American is proud to remember.”

It may be difficult to see the damage they caused but one way to illustrate how they’re narrative warped people’s minds is by seeing the result of it. Rachel Dolezal — the white woman who pretended to be black for years — feels as if she is black. In her book, Dolezal writes about how National Geographic influenced her reframing of her own identity.

“I’d stir the water from the hose into the earth…and make thin, soupy mud, which I would then rub on my hands, arms, feet, and legs,” Dolezal said in her book. “I would pretend to be a dark-skinned princess in the Sahara Desert or one of the Bantu women living in the Congo … imagining I was a different person living in a different place was one of the few ways … that I could escape the oppressive environment I was raised in.”

In an interview with the Associated Press, Goldberg said that the magazine’s coverage “wasn’t right before” as it was told from an “elite, white American point of view.” She says now, they need to diversify its writers and photographers.

“So we need photographers who are African-American and Native American because they are going to capture a different truth and maybe a more accurate story,” Goldberg said.

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