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National Geographic’s First Jewish Woman Editor Confronts Magazine’s Past Racism

National Geographic has, since it was founded in 1888, introduced people across the world to cultures different than their own. And, in doing so, it has been racist.

Thus writes Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic, in an editorial introducing the magazine’s April issue, which is themed around race.

“It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” Golderg writes. “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.”

In order to do so, National Geographic brought in a scholar who focuses on the history of photography and the history of Africa: John Edwin Mason of the University of Virginia. After examining the National Geographic archives, Goldberg writes, Mason found that from the magazine’s founding in the late-19th century through the 1960s, its coverage of non-white people was characterized by several obvious and persistent flaws. For one, people of color within the United States were overwhelming left out of the magazine’s coverage; when they were included, they were shown occupying menial positions. “Meanwhile it [the magazine] pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché,” Goldberg writes.

Mason also noted that these failures were likely related to the circumstances of National Geographic’s founding. “National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism, and the world was divided into the colonizers and the colonized,” Goldberg quotes him as saying. “That was a color line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”

While National Geographic’s decision to focus its April issue on race was based, Goldberg writes, on April 4 being the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the choice to examine the magazine’s past marginalization of minority groups was something she took personally. “I’m the tenth editor of National Geographic since its founding in 1888. I’m the first woman and the first Jewish person — a member of two groups that also once faced discrimination here,” she writes.

On social media, reactions to Goldberg’s editorial were largely positive.

Yet others thought the editorial, especially in context of the issue of National Geographic in which it appears, failed to go far enough.

One of Mason’s remarks on the National Geographic archives stands out: “It’s possible to say that a magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time it closes them,” Goldberg quotes him as saying. Important words for magazine writers, editors, publishers and readers to keep in mind, at National Geographic and beyond.

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