National Geographic and the question of Race

Contributor: S Roberson

I first read about the concept of fluctuating morality while studying industrial psychology at University. It was explained that human beliefs, once ingrained in a childhood, are difficult to change individually. However morality and generally accepted ideas of what is right and wrong do tend to fluctuate with the times as new ideas and concepts are adopted. This is why older people are often considered more behind the times or more conservative as they continue to cling to the beliefs and values that they learnt as children.

Great examples of fluctuating moral standards include slavery. 150 years ago this concept was widely condoned and accepted while the very idea is considered abhorrent today. Consider female suffrage, 100 years ago women were starving and dying for their right to vote while for most girls in Western society at least, their entitled expectation of this right is very rarely even questioned.

Which brings us to the topic of the National Geographic magazine… First founded in 1888 the magazine has been a primary source of information on culture and the wonders of the world for over 100 years, inspiring hundreds and thousands of young people’s desires to travel and explore.


Stephen Fry commends National Geographic for much of his understanding of the world and cultures in his third autobiography (and most self-indulgent to date), More Fool Me, and adds that much of his childhood understanding of human bodies was also learnt from the magazine which was renowned for featuring cultural images of near naked bodies.  He also references the impact of the magazine on children in his novel the Liar:

“Yet inside he remained the same Adrian who.. smelt his own farts and wasted hours skimming through National Geographic on the off-chance of seeing a few naked bodies.”
― Stephen FryThe Liar


Taking over as editor of National Geographic in 2014 Susan Goldberg came across past National Geographic coverage which her modern beliefs considered appalling.  As the first woman and first Jewish editor, a member of two groups that have faced discrimination from the Magazine in the past Susan said that it hurt to share some of the morally outdated stories from the magazine’s past.

“We thought we should devote our April magazine to the topic of race and examine our history before turning our reportorial gaze to others.  Many people tell us that National Geographic was their first experience with the world beyond their own community.  We take seriously our responsibility to present an accurate and authentic picture of the world.  We know we have not always excelled when covering stories of racial difference.”


Horrifyingly there is no scientific basis for race and yet its perceived divisions have had such devastating effects historically.  “Race is not a biological construct.  So Many of the horrors of the past few centuries can be traced to the idea that one race is inferior to another.  Racial distinctions continue to shape our politics, our neighbourhoods and our sense of self,” says writer Elizabeth Kolbert.


Some of the stories in the much anticipated edition of the Magazine includes a feature on a pair of 11 year old twins, Marcia and Millie Biggs who will make you reconsider everything you thought you knew of race.  Marcia looks like her English mother while Millie looks like her father who is of Jamacian decent.

Other stories include a piece on the dawn of the white minority in the USA, an article on the science of race and an examination of interacial relationships 50 years after the US Supreme Court legalised these in the case of Loving vs Virginia.

  • Sarah R


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