National Geographic Exposes Its Own Racist Past

Published: 13 March 2018

Region: Worldwide

By Eline Jeanne

National_Geographic_April_Issue_The iconic yellow spines of National Geographic’s magazines have graced the shelves of households around the world. Covering a range of topics from history to world culture, the magazine has been at the forefront of many important discussions in the past. Perhaps most significant is their upcoming April issue, which is a single-topic issue on race. Not only will this issue explore a variety of important topics related to race, but in it National Geographic explores its own racist past.

Titled “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It”, the piece shares the results found by a historian hired by National Geographic to investigate its coverage of people of colour, both in the US and abroad. The magazine’s reasoning behind running this feature is clear; by exposing their own racist past, they hope to be in the position to urge other to do the same.

Susan Goldberg, National Geographic’s Editor in Chief, explains in the piece: “I’m the tenth editor of National Geographic since its founding in 1888. I’m the first woman and the first Jewish person—a member of two groups that also once faced discrimination here. It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past. But when we decided to devote our April magazine to the topic of race, we thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others.”

Talking about race is very necessary in today’s society, which is why this National Geographic issue is such an important one. Explaining why the magazine chose to devote an entire issue to race, executive editor Debra Adams Simmons says: “National Geographic strives to deepen our understanding of the world and our role in it. It’s difficult to understand 21st-century America without exploring the issue of race. It’s the elephant in the room, permeating every aspect of our culture, neighborhoods, schools, businesses, politics, sports, arts, and relationships.”

National Geographic published its first issue in 1888 and has indeed published racist content in the past. John Edwin Mason, the historian in charge of the investigation, highlights some key examples. In 1916, National Geographic published a story about Australia. The piece included several pictures of Aboriginal people, captioned “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings”. Another examples Mason mentions in a piece about South Africa published in 1962, which completely overlooks the race issues in the country at the time, and instead only features the black population in the form of servants, workers or doing exotic dances. This was one case of many where National Geographic simply overlooked the struggle of black people.

National_Geographic_April_Issue_RaceBesides the self-investigation feature, the April issue includes a variety of interesting pieces on race. The cover story looks at twin sisters Marcia and Millie Biggs who were born with different skin colours, one white and one black, and how they have been perceived by society. There is also an article about historically black colleges, and a photo features on interracial marriage. The team behind the issue is one build on diversity, with a large amount of contributions from the black community. Alongside the issue National Geographic has also launched the hashtag #IDefineMe, which they hope will encourage people to share their own stories and “spark a global conversation about how race defines, separates, and unites us.

It is admirable for a large publication like National Geographic to take initiative and expose its own racist past. By running this feature, and the single-topic issue as a whole, National Geographic is opening itself up for discussion and debate. Racism is still very much an issue, especially in the magazine’s home country of the United States. One can hope that National Geographic is the first of many media publications that has a look at its past and is willing to evaluate it for racism. This is the only way to ensure more diversity-inclusive media coverage in the future.