The new editor of National Geographic has issued an apologetic editorial citing past transgressions that the century-old magazine now has determined were racist in nature.
Susan Goldberg, the first woman editor of the publication, made the editorial confession as part of an ongoing study of race undertaken by National Geographic. The commentary leads off a series on racial, ethnic, and religious groups that will run throughout the year and includes coverage of Muslims, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.
National Geographic was founded in 1888 as a society to expand scientific and geographic knowledge, and was long ruled by a family that traced its heritage to Alexander Graham Bell. The society and its glossy magazine companion funded expeditions and research by the likes of Jacques Cousteau and Admiral Richard Byrd. It later grew into television, first with specials and then its own cable channel, DVDs and other endeavors, becoming one of the leading nonprofits in the world devoted to scientific research.
Yet the body of work and good intentions also have a dark side, according to Goldberg.
“I’m the tenth editor of National Geographic since its founding in 1888,” wrote Goldberg. “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.”
To help with its self-examination, National Geographic enlisted University of Virginia professor John Edwin Mason. He specializes in the history of photography and the history of Africa, which the magazine called “a frequent crossroads of our storytelling.”
Mason examined the publication’s archives. His findings: until the 1970s, National Geographic ignored people of color in the US while focusing on on “natives elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.”
Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures,” Mason said. “Segregation was the way it was. National Geographic wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority. National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism, and the world was divided into the colonizers and the colonized. That was a color line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”
However, Mason also acknowledged the magazine’s role in exploring areas few other publications touched. “If I were talking to my students about the period until after the 1960s, I would say, ‘Be cautious about what you think you are learning here,’ ” Mason said. “At the same time, you acknowledge the strengths National Geographic had even in this period, to take people out into the world to see things we’ve never seen before. It’s possible to say that a magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time it closes them.”