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'National Geographic' Looks At Its Archives To Reflect On Coverage Of Race


National Geographic magazine brought the world to readers through meticulous reports and gorgeous photographs. Now it's released an issue on race. It begins with a look in the mirror at how the magazine has portrayed different races and ethnicities over more than a century. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The bright yellow border signals, yes, this is National Geographic. But this special issue isn't inviting readers to visit Peru or Ethiopia in its pages. This time the coverage focuses specifically on race and the role the Geographic has played in its 130-year history in shaping Americans' views on race.

SUSAN GOLDBERG: What we really want to do is to create a conversation about something that is so central to, you know, understanding the United States in the 21st century.

BATES: That's editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg, National Geographic's first woman editor. Goldberg oversaw what most people are calling the race issue. In a letter she wrote for the issue, Goldberg said she felt the magazine couldn't cover race and diversity without acknowledging its own problematic past.

GOLDBERG: And it felt very much to me that if we were going to write about the subject of race, that to do so credibly we needed to look back at our own history.

BATES: John Edwin Mason is a historian at the University of Virginia. He's also African-American. And he was tasked with diving into the archives of the Geographic to see how it relayed the world to its readers. He found a hierarchy.

JOHN EDWIN MASON: And that hierarchy was very clear in the writing and in the photography that the West and especially the English-speaking world was at the top of the hierarchy and black and brown people were somewhere underneath.

BATES: And Mason is clear on why that is.

MASON: You know, it was a magazine that was editorially controlled almost exclusively by white men.

BATES: For more than a century, women, Jewish and black people were denied membership in the National Geographic Society. The race issue contains a scientific look at how and why skin color evolved over time, the rise in interracial and same-gender marriages, racial profiling and white anxiety as the nation gets browner. You'll hear about that in a moment. All this, says Goldberg, is an effort to move forward. But this work is still done by a largely white staff. Historian John Edwin Mason says the Geographic has made progress in the past few decades, but it has a way to go.

MASON: You still won't find very many voices from the Global South writing in the pages of National Geographic. You still see too few photographers of color.

GOLDBERG: We're not there yet.

BATES: But Goldberg says they're working on it. Next month, the Geographic looks at Muslims in America. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.