National Geographic Owns Up to Its Racist Past

Illustration for article titled iNational Geographic /iOwns Up to Its Racist Past
Image: National Geographic

National Geographic just showed the media industry what a good first step looks like when it comes to taking real accountability for a racist past.


The magazine’s April issue is centered around race, and as part of that, National Geographic took a frank look at itself.

“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,” National Geographic editor Susan Goldberg wrote in the issue’s editor’s letter.


Goldberg explained that the magazine sought the help of an African history professor who reviewed its articles and explained how National Geographic all but ignored people of color in the U.S. and “pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages.”

The editor’s letter included several concrete examples of how National Geographic stories have exoticized people and promoted racist views.

The letter also asked readers to think critically when looking at images, highlighting how pictures of a “native person fascinated by Western technology” can really create an “us-and-them dichotomy between the civilized and the uncivilized.”


The package is worth reading on its own, but it also provides an example for other organizations seeking to grapple with their bigoted past. For instance, The New York Times was celebrated last week when it published 15 obituaries of notable women the paper “overlooked”: The paper finally commemorated the lives of people like journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who died in 1931, and LGBTQ rights activists Marsha P. Johnson, who died in 1992.

The long-overdue obituaries were part of a meaningful project published on International Women’s Day, and it was great to see them. But unlike National Geographic, some of the Times pieces failed to explore how the paper was complicit in promoting or ignoring the issues that complicated the lives of the same women they were honoring with obituaries.


In an August 2, 1894 article, for instance, the Times discredited Ida B. Wells by referring to her as a “slanderous, nasty mulattress.” The belated obituary makes no mention of this.


There’s also a notable difference in the tone of the two revisionist history projects. National Geographic uses the word “ignored” to describe the stories and people the magazine didn’t cover. The Times, on the other hand, used the more neutral word “overlooked.”

The Times did not respond to a request for comment for this story but we’ll update if we hear from them.


It’s rare to see editors highlighting racist content and calling it what it is. Now, we have to wait and see if National Geographic puts its money where its mouth is by hiring more writers and photographers of color to tell stories about their own communities.

Senior staff writer

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