The “whiteness” stain of national geographic


I have in the past alluded to the National Geographic Magazine as one of the publications that influenced my yearning for knowledge in my youth. This week I delve into the history of the magazine and a controversial side that has only recently been spoken about in the public domain.

The National Geographic Magazine (often branded as NAT GEO) is a popular American monthly magazine published by the National Geographic Society. Known for its outstanding photojournalism, it is one of the most widely read magazines of all times.

It was founded in 1888 as a scholarly journal, nine months after the establishment of the society. In 1905, it began to include pictures, a style for which it became well known, with its first colour pictures appearing in the 1910s.

During the Cold War, the magazine committed itself to presenting a balanced view of the physical and human geography of nations beyond the Iron Curtain. In later years, the magazine became more outspoken about environmental issues, in particular the ever-present threats associated with global warming.

Controlling interest

Topics of features generally include science, geography, history, and world culture. The magazine is well known for its distinctive appearance, a thick square-bound glossy format with a yellow rectangular border.

Map supplements from National Geographic Maps are included in the subscriptions. It is available in a traditional printed edition and, more recently, in an interactive online edition. Since 2019, controlling interest has been held by The Walt Disney Company.

As of 1995, the magazine was circulated worldwide in nearly 40 local-language editions and had a global circulation of at least 6.5 million per month (down from about 12 million in the 1980s), including 3.5 million within the US.

As of April 2022, its Instagram page has 216 million followers, the most of any account belonging to a single celebrity. As of 2015, the magazine has won 25 National Magazine Awards.

The National Geographic was built in the image of its founders. The brainchild of the National Geographic Society, a non-profit outfit started by a group of elite white male professionals including geographers, explorers, teachers, lawyers, cartographers, military officers, and financiers with an interest in science and geography. One notable member was Alexander Graham Bell, the “inventor” of the telephone.

The result was a marriage of science, entertainment, photography, and advertising that would become the iconic, yellow-bordered magazine recognized for its picture-perfect “objective” window into the world.

In the course of a few decades after its 1888 launch, subscriptions soared from 1,000 to 2 million per month, with a readership that was predominantly white upper-middle-class American professionals.

Whiteness as 'civilised'

Articles in these early days were largely focused on defining geography and explaining complex surveying methods, but the magazine’s bias toward whiteness as “civilised” was clear from the beginning and a reflection of the larger ethos of colonialism at the time.

In the conclusion of an April 1889 article titled “Africa, Its Past and Future”, Gardiner G. Hubbard, the founder and first president of the National Geographic Society, wrote, “The Negro has never developed any high degree of (European) civilisation; and even if he has made considerable progress … when that contact ceased, he has deteriorated in barbarism.”

University of Virginia professor John Edwin Mason, noted in 2018 that “the magazine was born at the height of the so-called “scientific” racism and imperialism”, a time when the US was rapidly developing as a leading global industrial power, expanding its empire through wars, and acquiring new territories like Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

It was also birthing the American eugenics movement, which believed in the genetic superiority of Nordic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon people. It was this culture of white supremacy, Mason said then, that shaped the outlook of the magazine’s editors, writers, and photographers, who were always white and almost always men.”

You don’t have to look any further than the magazine’s mea culpa for evidence of this. In her editor’s note of April 2018, Susan Goldberg, the first woman to be the magazine’s editor-in-chief, publicly acknowledged the long history of racism in its coverage of people of colour in the US and abroad.

“Until the 1970s, National Geographic all but ignored people of colour who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging beyond labourers and domestic workers,” Goldenberg wrote in an editor’s letter introducing the issue. “Meanwhile it pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, famously unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages, and every type of cliché.”

As Goldenberg pointed out in her editor’s letter, National Geographic’s December 1916 issue on Australia is one example of the magazine’s failure to “push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.”

In an article titled “Lonely Australia, The Unique Continent,” the caption that appears below the photographs of two Aboriginal natives reads, “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in the intelligence of all human beings.”

These “primitive ancestors” are only discussed for their hunting prowess, barely considered people but rather described as “the Australian native stock.”

White colonizers, on the other hand, were depicted as adventurous, relatable, and generous. “The Australians’ ideal is a continent of whites with a “taint of colour,” geologist Herbert E. Gregory wrote. “They point to America as a horrible example of an unimaginable mixture of races.”

But change has been slow and difficult over the last three years, and many staffers deem it inadequate. The magazine is still struggling to make good on its promise of a new approach.

While noting Goldenberg’s admission of the magazine's shortcomings in the past, change takes a lot more than a single issue on race, more than a new residency program or event series, and certainly more than expecting junior staffers to educate their superiors on matters of race. It takes a sustained commitment to action coming from the highest level of senior leadership.