The magazine admits it “all but ignored” people of color in the United States until the 1970s.
For its April issue, National Geographic set out to tackle the issue of race — and the first step was to publish an honest and frank examination of how the magazine itself has dealt with the sensitive subject in the past. In the issue’s letter from the editor, Susan Goldberg stated, “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.”
Following an exhaustive review by an African history professor, National Geographic and the auditor, John Edwin Mason of the University of Virginia, were both quick to admit that the magazine had come up short in providing equal and fair coverage across racial lines. The magazine was quick to take ownership of its shortcomings and use the study as a tool for progress, rather than something to be denied or ignored.
“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. Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.”
Many are applauding the outlet for focusing on their own practices before taking a broader survey of the social landscape.
However, amid those praising the self-evaluation are those who seek to ensure that the magazine takes responsibility and agency for its past mistakes, rather than chalking their practices up to the climate of outdated cultural relativism that spawned the very practices they’re now denouncing.
Beyond the magazine’s audit of its own practices, some of the findings discussed in April’s race issue may take the discussion in directions that some may find uncomfortable.
While many may remain skeptical even after reading the issue, the magazine clearly refused to waver on owning up to its own biases in the name of commerce, ethnocentrism, or racism. The magazine is certainly not alone in that regard, but they seem to be taking a clear lead in addressing the issue.