March 13, 2018 01:27:50by

How National Geographic acknowledged its racist past

How National Geographic acknowledged its racist past

Name: National Geographic.

Age: 129.

Appearance: Yellow-edged, racist organ.

Is this a different National Geographic? No, the same one. The racist one.

Who says it’s racist? National Geographic.

It would know, I suppose. As part of a painful examination of its past, its editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg, commissioned a historian, John Edwin Mason, to dig through the magazine’s archives.

And he found racism? A long tradition of racism, taking many forms.

What sort of forms? For example, a 1916 article about Australia featured a photograph of two Indigenous Australians with the caption: “South Australian Blackfellows: these savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

That’s unbelievable. It’s not a one-off: the magazine routinely depicted non-white foreigners as exotic, primitive, noble savages, while virtually ignoring people of colour in the US. Bare-breasted “native” women were a memorable recurring feature throughout the 50s and 60s.

Should the photographers have told them to get dressed? It’s more to do with the way the images were presented. “I think the editors understood this was, frankly, a selling point to its male readers,” said Mason. “Some of the bare-breasted young women are shot in a way that almost resembles glamour shots.”

It looks terrible in retrospect, but wasn’t the magazine reflecting the prevailing attitudes of the day? To an extent, according to Goldberg. “It started at the height of colonialism,” she said, “and that is the lens through which it covered the world.”

I’m confused – was it racist on purpose, or not? The magazine’s coverage reinforced colonialist attitudes, rather than challenging them. And it tended to present race hierarchically, with white westerners at the top. Another trope featured people in native dress being fascinated by technology: cars, planes, cameras etc.

When, if ever, did National Geographic stop being racist? Things began to get better in the 70s.

So it’s OK to read it now. Of course – the magazine has reported reaching 30 million people globally across its various platforms.

And National Geographic has now fully repudiated its racist history? Certainly – this difficult reflective exercise ought to demonstrate that. It was commissioned for the April issue, which is devoted to race.

But in a good way. Yes.

Do say: “It is essential, however embarrassing, to acknowledge the errors of the past in order move forward.”

Don’t say: “The past is a foreign country, where the ladies don’t wear any clothes.”