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National Geographic: "Our coverage was racist"

Susan Goldberg (third from left)

National Geographic have deemed their historical coverage of people of colour in America and abroad as racist.

Susan Goldberg, the magazine’s editor in chief, said that the decision to explore the publication’s own racist past came about due to it dedicating its April issue to the topic of race.

“We thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg, the magazine’s first female and first Jewish editor since its founding in 1888 said it hurt to share the appalling stories of National Geographic's past and that some of the archival content “leaves you speechless”.

The magazine invited John Edwin Mason, a University of Virginia professor, who specialises in the history of photography and the history of Africa, to explore their archives and analyse their work.

Mason discovered that National Geographic essentially ignored the existence of people of colour living in the US until the 1970s.

In comparison, its coverage of indigenous people outside America was overwhelmingly problematic and cliché. They were framed as exotic, happy hunters, noble savages – and frequently featured unclothed, something commentators have highlighted for years.

Mason said: “Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures.

“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.”

The historian’s research also noted a number of the publication's peculiar traits including the “native person fascinated by Western technology” and an “excess of pictures of beautiful Pacific-island women”.

African Americans were prohibited from becoming National Geographic membership throughout the 1940s.

The cover of the April issue of National Geographic features a pair of twins with the headline: "These twins, one black and one white, will make you rethink race."

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