US magazine National Geographic has acknowledged that its “appalling” past coverage of different cultures was racist and reinforced stereotypes about ethnic minorities.
The esteemed 130-year-old publication, which has a global circulation of more than six million, laid bare its bygone disparaging attitudes towards non-white Americans in the April issue of National Geographic magazine, a single topic issue on the subject of race.
Up until the Seventies, the magazine “all but ignored” minority groups in the US, mainly showing them as labourers or domestic workers, while using “every type of cliche” when presenting other nationalities from smaller nations as “happy hunters” or “noble savages”.
One shocking example in a National Geographic story published in 1916 on Australia featured a photo two Aboriginal people with the caption: “These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
In an editorial titled ‘For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist’, editor Susan Goldberg wrote that some of the archive material left her “speechless” and was “not easy to read”.
“It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” explained Ms Goldberg, the magazine’s first female editor. “But 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.”
The magazine, who says its aim is to help “increase our understanding of various cultures”, asked preeminent historian John Edwin Mason, an expert on the history of Africa at the University of Virginia, to delve into its problematic past.
In an article from 1941, he found a slavery-era slur used to describe California cotton workers: “Pickaninny, banjos, and bales are like those you might see at New Orleans,” read the caption. While in editions from the Fifties and Sixties Professor Mason he found an “excess” of pictures glamorously depicting Pacific-island women.
A 1962 issue pictured photographer Frank Schreider showing men from Timor island in south-east Asia his camera creating a “us-and-them dichotomy between the civilised and the uncivilised”, he added.
Professor Mason said the National Geographic, which was first published in 1888, did little to fight stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.
“Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures,” he said.
“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 colonisers and the colonised. That was a colour line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”