Since it launched in 1888, National Geographic magazine has typically covered people of color the same way it covered animals or trees: as objects. The magazine attempted to confront this history head-on in its April 2018 special issue on racism. But critics wonder if the people behind the magazine have learned anything at all.


Editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg explained in an introductory essay, “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It,” that the magazine commissioned historian John Edwin Mason to evaluate its archives for evidence of racism. Mason found many examples, ranging from outright racist portrayals of people of color (one 1916 story called Indigenous Australians “savages” that “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings”) to erasure of these communities’ struggles against White supremacy (a 1962 feature about South Africa did not mention how the apartheid government subjugated Black South Africans). Goldberg also acknowledged that the magazine frequently presents women of color as sexualized objects.

“How we present race matters,” Goldberg wrote. “I hear from readers that National Geographic provided their first look at the world. Our explorers, scientists, photographers and writers have taken people to places they’d never even imagined; it’s a tradition that still drives our coverage and of which we’re rightly proud. And it means we have a duty, in every story, to present accurate and authentic depictions—a duty heightened when we cover fraught issues such as race.”

The magazine apparently tried to carry out that duty in its new issue, which features headlines like “These Twins, One Black and One White, Will Make You Rethink Race”; “As America Changes, Some Anxious Whites Feel Left Behind”; and “There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It’s a Made-Up Label.”

These stories, many of which focus on how race is socially constructed, raised the ire of critics who saw the publication as promoting race-blind and Whiteness-centered rhetoric. Gene Demby, of NPR’s Code Switch, tweeted a thread that included the following critique:


Other users shared similar responses: