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How National Geographic is facing its racist history

National Geographic has long provided a unique lens to view the world -- one that has sometimes distorted the lives of people of color. Now the 130-year-old magazine turns the lens on itself, with an issue devoted to the topic of race and an apology for past portrayals by editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault sits down with Goldberg to discuss that reckoning.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to an important move by one of the nation's oldest magazines.

    "National Geographic" is reckoning with editorial decisions of its past at a time when other major media outlets are taking a critical look at their legacies.

    NewsHour special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports as part of our ongoing Race Matters series.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    During the 130 years of its existence, "National Geographic" has provided its readers with a unique lens through which to view the world.

    But it has been a lens that sometimes distorted some realities, especially those of people of color, from America, where the only images were of domestic servants, to Africa, where the only images were those of primitives, often unclothed or as savages.

    But now the magazine is turning that lens on itself, starting with it's April edition, devoted entirely to race, from its cover, to America's shifting demographics, to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 50 years after his assassination.

    That decision even involved an apology for the way "National Geographic" covered race in the past, made by its editor, Susan Goldberg.

    Susan Goldberg, thank you for joining us.

  • Susan Goldberg:

    Thank you so much.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    At what point did you realize there was something wrong about the portrayal of people of color?

  • Susan Goldberg:

    Well, I had certainly read stories over the years of some people feeling like the portrayal of African-Americans in this country and some people in other countries wasn't balanced, that African-Americans here and people of color here were all but invisible, that people in other countries were sort of held up as exotics, if you will.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Primitives.

  • Susan Goldberg:

    So — yes, exactly.

    So, when we decided to do an issue devoted to race, I didn't think that we could do that in a credible way without looking at our own history.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I read that, in America, they were portrayed as domestics, and not much else.

    Why do you think they were portrayed that way, both here and in Africa?

  • Susan Goldberg:

    We asked a historian to help us undertake this examination.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Why did you do that?

  • Susan Goldberg:

    Because I thought we needed some outside eyes. I thought it was very important to get an outside perspective on our archives.

    So, we invited in John Edwin Mason, who is a historian of Africa and also a historian who specializes in photography. And so he seemed like the perfect person to help us.

    So, one of his points was, "National Geographic" in 1888 came of age at a time of colonialism, and so it was, initially anyway, through that lens, the colonized and the colonizers, that some of these stories were told.

    You know, there's so much of our history that we're so proud of, that we have sent writers and explorers and scientists and researchers all over the world, but it did feel important to me, if we were going to look at race, that we look at some of the things we weren't quite as proud of.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    What made you think that was important?

  • Susan Goldberg:

    Well, I literally don't think we could have been credible.

    We live in an age of transparency. And we are at a moment of some reckoning in our society across many different subjects. And I truly thought that the only way we could have this conversation with our readers and seek to engender a conversation with our readers was first to talk a little bit about ourselves.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    What do you hope to achieve with this? I mean, we have a very interesting dynamic happening in this country today. Everybody's talking about the toxic atmosphere, the divisions.

  • Susan Goldberg:

    Well, I think there is a toxic atmosphere as well, and there are a lot of divisions.

    What I hope we can do through a magazine and through our digital coverage is to have a saner conversation about, what is race and what isn't race?

    That's why we have a great story about the science of race, which is to say, there is no science of race, everybody's the same under their skin, but really have a smart discussion about that, or look at why there's this propensity of humankind from the very beginning to put people who don't look like us in the camp of the other.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Do you have hope about what you're doing, that it's going to make a difference?

  • Susan Goldberg:

    I have hope because I do think things are better in our country than they were 20 years ago or 30 years ago, which isn't to say that there aren't flash points and still huge problems, and a lot of prejudice does remain.

    But one of the things I think is so interesting is how much the rate of intermarriage has grown. We actually have a story in the magazine about how now almost one in five marriages in the United States are to people across racial or ethnic lines.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I'm looking over your shoulder…

  • Susan Goldberg:

    Yes.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    … at the cover of a black child and a white child. Or at least that's how they appear. But they're twins.

  • Susan Goldberg:

    They're twins.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    How did you — who are they, and how did you happen to put them on the cover?

  • Susan Goldberg:

    These girls, because of how they present to the world, are the visual manifestation of the fact that race is skin-deep. They have the same parents. They have the same ancestry.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Father is black and mother's white?

  • Susan Goldberg:

    Father, I think, is of Jamaican descent. Mother is white.

    And they're sisters, yet they could have different issues in life because of their appearance. And that's something that we really need to work on.

    So one of the things we do in this issue is really lay out the disparities among people of color and white people in the United States, whether you're talking about education or health or longevity or income. There remain enormous disparities.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    And you also are going to do other editions that feature other people of color or different religions.

    Tell me very briefly about which ones those are going to be.

  • Susan Goldberg:

    In May, we're going to have a wonderful story about Muslims in America, and really looking at the diversity of Muslim people in the United States.

    And then we have got a large story about Latinos. We're going to look at Asian Americans, and also Native Americans and look at how they're trying to reclaim their culture.

    Then I think, because of intermarriage and because of the way actually people describe themselves these days, we're going to look at people of mixed race, and this whole growing phenomenon. If you look at the census numbers, more and more people describe themselves not as black, not as white, but as of mixed race.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    And you look in the street.

  • Susan Goldberg:

    And we're — so we're going to look at that as well.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    But at what point do all of those people become a normal part of your regular coverage, not that you're looking at them that month, but how do they get integrated into the whole?

  • Susan Goldberg:

    Well, now, these other stories are not special issues. These are stories within issues.

    But I think your point is incredibly well taken. When I looked at the diversity of contributors that we had to this issue, we had a majority of people of color as writers, a majority of people of color as photographers.

    What I thought was, hey, that's really great, that we did it for this issue about race. When we're going to be successful, when we're going to be where we should be is when we do that for a regular issue, not just a race issue.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    All right, you mentioned the changing demographics.

    And one of the stories — I'm looking at it now — "The Rising Anxiety of White America," because, apparently, of the growing demographic of people of color.

    How do you ease that anxiety?

  • Susan Goldberg:

    Well, the story is just a wonderful exploration of that issue, and talks about what fuels that anxiety.

    I actually think the only way that anxiety is eased is by people interacting with each other in real time, in real life, in those communities.

    So, the more people know each other, the better it is. I think I heard somebody say once, it's hard to hate up close. And I really do believe that.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, Susan Goldberg, thank you for joining us. It's a wonderful issue. And good luck with all the ones in the future.

  • Susan Goldberg:

    Thank you so much.

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