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National Geographic is trying to reckon with its racist past

National Geographic is trying to reckon with its racist past
[Photo: Flickr user mrgarethm]

For over a century, National Geographic has been one of the most beloved American magazines. People look to it for stories about nature, the world, and other cultures–the things that exist outside the scope of many people’s everyday lives. But the publication’s past editorial decisions are littered with examples of stereotypes, racist imagery, and “othering.” And now the magazine is trying to make up for it.

The April National Geographic issue will be focused on race, and editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg writes that, in order to do justice to the topic, the magazine will have to face up to its own shortcomings. In preparation for this issue, the organization asked scholar John Edwin Mason to look into the magazine’s questionable past.

Goldberg writes:

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. Meanwhile it pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.

Goldberg felt it necessary to attack her own publication’s history head on before talking about the subject as a whole. It’s a lesson I hope others take note of.

You can read her write-up and introduction to the issue here.

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