National Geographic is trying to reckon with its racist past

A National Geographic magazine sits on the dashboard of a car in Dubrovnik Croatia Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

A National Geographic magazine sits on the dashboard of a car in Dubrovnik Croatia Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

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. National Geographic wasn't teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority.

John Edwin Mason, a historian of photography at the University of Virginia, found ethnic minorities were ignored in its coverage of the United States unless they were servants or labourers.

Its coverage of race matters, according to Goldberg.

National Geographic was one of the first advocates of using colour photography in its pages, and is well known for its coverage of history, science, environmentalism and the far corners of the world. She wrote that her background makes her "a member of two groups that also once faced discrimination here". "But when we chose 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".

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Ms Goldberg said some of the magazine's archive material left her "speechless", including a 1916 photo of Australian Aborigines with the caption "South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings". In 1962, an essay was published on South Africa's Sharpeville massacre where policemen killed close to 70 black South Africans, many whom were shot as they were retreating.

"National Geographic's story barely mentions any problems", Mason said. "People of colour were often pictured as living as if their ancestors might have lived several hundreds of years ago and that's in contrast to westerners who are always fully clothed and often carrying technology". "It's weird, actually, to consider what the editors, writers, and photographers had to consciously not see".

It chose to re-examine its coverage to mark 50 years since civil rights leader Martin Luther King was murdered.

"It's also a conversation that is changing in real time: In two years, for the first time in U.S. history, less than half the children in the nation will be white", she wrote. "But it seemed to me if we want to credibly talk about race, we better look and see how we talked about race".

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