National Geographic acknowledges its ‘appalling’ racist past

April's special race issue features twin sisters with very different features.

April's special race issue features twin sisters with very different features. Photo: National Geographic

After 130 years of publication, National Geographic has admitted to “appalling” racist coverage of non-white cultures, including indigenous Australians.

The iconic publication’s new editor, Susan Goldberg, penned an article on Tuesday in which she acknowledged some of the magazine’s past issues had left her “speechless”.

Ms Goldberg, who wrote proudly of being the magazine’s first female and first Jewish editor, said it was time to confront its dark past.

The article cited a US academic, Jason Mason, a professor of African history, who conducted an audit of National Geographic‘s archives.


A secretary inspects newly printed National Geographic magazines, with Africa on the cover, circa 1960s. Photo: Getty

Professor Mason found frequent use of racial cliches – such as ‘noble savages’, ‘happy hunters’, beautiful Pacific Islander women, and indigenous peoples ‘fascinated’ by Western technology – as well as more malicious depictions, including the shocking description of South Australian Aboriginals as ranking “lowest in intelligence of all human beings”.

The magazine also largely ignored the plight of poor African-Americans while relishing in the oddities of poor African tribes, he found.

“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,” Professor Mason wrote.

It also failed to report on the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa, he found.

“There are no voices of black South Africans. That absence is as important as what is in there.


The editor said she was “speechless” to learn that two South Australians, pictured above, were described by the magazine as “savages” of “lowest” intelligence in a 1916 issue. Photo: Getty

“The only black people are doing exotic dances … servants or workers. It’s bizarre, actually, to consider what the editors, writers, and photographers had to consciously not see.”

Ms Goldberg urged her readers to confront issues of race, just as her magazine had.

“We hope you will join us in this exploration of race, beginning this month and continuing throughout the year,” she wrote.

“Sometimes these stories, like parts of our own history, are not easy to read. But as Michele Norris writes in this issue, ‘It’s hard for an individual – or a country – to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones’.”


An array of National Geographic covers in various languages. Photo: Getty

In September 2015, Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox purchased a larger, controlling stake of 73 per cent in National Geographic for $US725 million.

The deal saw the magazine drop its not-for-profit status, held for its entire previous history, to become a for-profit venture. It also resulted in the firing of about 180 of the magazine’s 2000 employees – the largest layoffs in the magazine’s history.

In late 2017 it emerged that National Geographic would merge with Disney as part of the company’s $US52 billion purchase of 21st Century Fox.

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