Can maps be racist? Aren’t maps just a reflection of reality? In this piece Nathan Palmer will show us how maps are actually a social construction and how they can lead us to think that anglo nations are bigger and more central to the world than nations of color.
A few years back I had the opportunity of seeing Jane Elliot speak at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln my alma mater. She was one of the boldest speakers I’ve ever heard before or since. She said, “The education system in the U.S. is racist and I’m going to prove it to you.” She then started to unfold a world map. “How many of you went to school looking at a map like this?” I raised my hand and so did most of the 400+ people in the room.
Elliot continued, “How many continents are there?” Someone shouted out that there were 7. “Okay, let’s all count them together”. She pointed at North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Antarctica and we all spoke their names aloud.
“Wait. Are there 8 continents?” We all looked at her with our crazy faces. “Don’t give me that look. You said that Africa was a continent, right?” We shook our heads and droned out a yes in unison. “Well look at greenland up there. It’s almost the same size as Africa. Why isn’t Greenland a continent?” Nervous laughter ran across the room.
Reading this doesn’t do it justice. Ms. Elliot was putting her finger right in the face of people as she walked up and down the audience. She was a small woman, but her presence was massive and at this point in the presentation I was really anxious and felt steamrolled by her.
“I’ve got another question for you.” She handed the map to a young man in the front row. “Here, you’re going to be my assistant. Can you fold paper?” Before he could even nod his head she said, “Good! Fold this in half- top to bottom. And put a nice crease in it.”
Elliot then turned to the rest of us. “Where is the equator?” No one spoke a word. “My god, what are they teaching you here at Nebraska! Isn’t there one geographer in the house?” A few people from around the room shouted at nearly the same time that the equator was the mid point from north to south. “Okay, great. You’re all not as dumb as I feared.”
“You people in the front row, where is the crease my assistant just put on the paper?” Everyone pointed to the line in the paper. Without missing a beat Elliot continued, “wait. This crease is a full three inches above the equator line on the map. Shouldn’t the equator be directly on the mid point of the map?” We all nodded in agreement. “Then why on earth is the line shifted down?”
Before anyone could answer she added, “why would we use this map? This map makes countries look like continents and it doesn’t even have the equator in the right place. Why on earth would they use this map?” There was a long pause as she slowly turned her head from one end of the room to the other.
“We use this map because it makes the United States and Europe look bigger than they actually are. It makes ‘The West’ look like it’s the center of the world, but it’s not.” Another long pregnant pause. “This map makes Africa and South America look smaller than they really are. This map makes the white portion of the earth look big and the brown and black portion of the earth look small. You’ve spent your whole life looking at a racist projection of the world. What they teach you in school is not ‘just the facts’. What they are teaching you is loaded with value judgments and in this case racism.”
Since that day, I’ve thought about Elliot’s talk every time I see a map. I left so affected by her words that I researched the map I looked at everyday of my K–12 education. The map is called a Mercator Projection. It was created in the late 1500s to help sailors. Because every longitude and latitude cross each other to form a right angle, the map made it easy for sailors to find a straight line of constant course (I’m not going to fake the funk here, I have no idea what that exactly means).
But this begs the question. Why do we use a nautical map? Why would we use a map that makes Greenland (a country that is ~836,300 sq miles) look almost as big as Africa which is (11.67 million sq miles)? Furthermore, there are maps that do a much better job of presenting the land masses of the earth like the Peters Projection Map. Why don’t we use that?
Our maps are a social construction. That is, when we all agree that Greenland is the same size as Africa, then for all intents and purposes it is. This affects how we understand the world we live. It’s easy to equate bigger things as more important and more powerful than smaller things. It’s easy to think that countries in the center of the map are metaphorically “the center of world”. At their best, schools are the places we go to learn the truth or at least truth as close as science can provide it. The Mercator Projection doesn’t come close to either.
- Why do people argue that the Mercator Projection map promotes white supremacy, imperialism, racism?
- After reading this do you feel that schools need to change their maps to the Peters Projection? Do you think your racial ethnic identity plays a role in how you see this issue?
- Watch this 3 minute clip from late 90s TV show The West Wing. After reading this post and watching that clip, tell me why maps are a social construction.
- Do you feel that a law should be passed requiring public schools across the nation to ditch the Mercator Projection map and adopt the Peters Projection world map?
I saw Jane Elliot speak approximately 7 years ago, so it should go without saying that I am a recounting my memory of the event. None of the quotations above are direct verbatim quotes from the event. It’s possible that I am mis-remembering her exact word choices. So please keep this in mind. ↩
For the record, I think that’s a good thing. It’s often when we are uncomfortable and we feel challenged that we are on the cusp of learning something. ↩