The Current

How National Geographic upheld colonialist, 'primitive' view of Africa and Asia

For 130 years, National Geographic magazine concentrated its reporting and photography on locations and subjects it called "exotic." But it now admits in an editorial that its coverage was blatantly racist.
'National Geographic circulated internationally ... so people in Australia and people in Africa and people throughout Asia were well aware of how they were being pictured in the pages of the magazine,' says historian John Edwin Mason. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

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National Geographic has reckoned with its past, declaring in an editorial this month that "For Decades, Our Coverage was Racist.

For its latest issues, the magazine turned a critical eye on its own archives.

John Edwin Mason, an historian with a background in African studies and the history of photography, was commissioned by National Geographic to sift through the magazine's past and evaluate how it portrayed people of colour.  
The April 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine is devoted to race and racism. (National Geographic via Associated Press)

He found content that consistently stereotyped people of colour, used racial slurs and reinforced ideas about white superiority.

"People of colour tended to be portrayed as backward, as primitive, as lacking in technology and modern things, and as kind of stuck in the past living much as their ancestor might have lived 200 or even 500 years ago," Mason says, adding when it came to the U.S., African-Americans were characterized as menial labourers or as domestic servants and almost nothing else.

Most striking, however, was the lack of coverage representing the anti-colonial sentiment after the Second World War.

"There was almost a continuation of that backward and primitive view of Africa and Asia, even as these continents and these new nations are emerging," he says.

The urbanization of African nations was almost non-existent in the pages of the magazine, he points out.

"You almost never saw Africans dressed in Western clothes, Africans in cities, Africans with even modest technology like bicycles," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"It was almost always Africans in the countryside. Africans identified with nature. Africans often wearing few clothes at all.

"There was a real distinction that National Geographic was implicitly drawing between the modern western world and the backward world of people of colour."

Sociologist Victor Ray is pleased National Geographic is reckoning with its racist past, but says the magazine is still getting race wrong. (Shutterstock)

'Racial hierarchy'

In a 1916 issue of the magazine, a story about Australia included a photo of two Aboriginal people. The caption reads: "South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings."

Mason says National Geographic was reflecting a larger culture of that time.

"It's shocking to look at that in 2018, but we remember that America was a deeply racist nation in those days, and African-Americans [and] Native Americans were second-class citizens at best," he says.

But he argues the internal culture of the magazine — comfortable with the status quo — affected the scope of the content published. 

Until the 1970s, the men who controlled National Geographic were part of the American elite, says Mason.

"They saw the world from that sort of top-down vantage point... There was no questioning of white supremacy. There was no questioning of the racial hierarchy. There was no questioning of the assumption that the Western world ruled the globe by right because it was simply the best," he explains.

"Its only duty was to slowly uplift the world of colour, Asia, Africa, Latin-America, to slowly bring them into the light of civilization."

It was this mindset, Mason says, that was unchallenged until well after the Second World War.

The Race Issue

Victor Ray, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee who studies race and ethnicity, applauds National Geographic for confronting how it represented race in past coverage.

He says the magazine has the potential to shape the way we think about racial difference.

"It's largely been a sort of pop-cultural imperialist magazine," he tells Tremonti. "I'm happy to see them trying to address and face that history head-on."

Ray is a light-skinned mixed race person. His brother is darker skinned. He says after looking at the National Geographic's race issue, he feels the cover photo of mixed-race twins, one of whom has much darker skin than the other, was objectifying.

As a sociologist, Ray has an issue with the definition of racism in the magazine's cover article. When the twin girls were asked if they had dealt with racism, they said "no." Typically, 11-year-olds see racism as something that mean people do to other people because of the colour of their skin, Ray says, but that's just one part of it.

"When we think about what it means to be exposed to racism, we need to think big. We need to think about interpersonal interactions but we also need to think big picture and how it shapes people's lives in invisible ways."

With the resurgence of far-right white nationalism globally, Ray says the stakes are high for National Geographic and other publications to rectify the harm done.

"Outlets with a worldwide audience really need to get this right because ... there are profound risks to getting it wrong."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann and Idella Sturino.

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