In the April 2018 “special issue” of National Geographic, named “The Race Issue,” the opening letter from the magazine’s current editor-in-chief, explores the racist history of National Geographic.
The editor’s letter contains the following acknowledgments of the publication’s historic racism:
• African Americans were not allowed to be members of National Geographic, at least through the 1940s. (NOTE: National Geographic was established in 1888.)
• For the April 2018 issue, National Geographic got Professor John Edwin Mason to explore the magazine’s archives and make an assessment of the publication’s coverage of Black people. He found 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.
The Professor concluded, “National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.” He states: “Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan 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. National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism, and the world was divided into the colonizers and the colonized. That was a color line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”
• National Geographic printed a caption under a 1916 photograph of two Australian Aboriginals, “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
• The magazine was guilty of omitting national news that dealt with major injustices involving people of African descent. Referencing a “massacre” that occurred in South Africa in 1959 where 69 Black South Africans were murdered by police in Sharpeville, “many shot in the back as they fled,” Professor Mason states that a subsequent article about South Africa in National Geographic: “Barely mentions any problems. There are no voices of black South Africans. That absence is as important as what is in there. 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.”