National Geographic Delivers Mea Culpa: ‘For Decades Our Coverage Was Racist’

“It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” writes editor in chief Susan Goldberg in her piece for the April issue

National Geographic magazine is speaking out, acknowledging in stark terms in its April issue that “for decades, our coverage was racist.”

“It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” editor in chief Susan Goldberg wrote in an essay in the new issue. “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.”

Goldberg also noted, “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.”

The magazine employed historian John Edwin Mason to go through past issues with a critical eye.

“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 wrote. “Unlike magazines such as Life, Mason said, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.”

Among the other transgressions Mason identified was a pattern of National Geographic images depicting native peoples in various locations gazing in wonder at Western technology — like cameras.

“It really creates this us-and-them dichotomy between the civilized and the uncivilized,” said Mason in the piece.