Are your maps racially biased?

Everyone has that one nerdy passion no one shares. I love maps. Maps of malls are super useful when I’m being dragged to one and can’t find the bathroom, and I use road atlases all the time when I’m driving across the country because my GPS doesn’t understand that I refuse to enter Nebraska. But above all others, I have a special affinity for geopolitical world maps. I’m not ashamed of the fact that my computer’s desktop background is a Hobo-Dyer Projection oriented South-North with Australia at the center. I love maps. All maps. Except for the Mercator Projection.

As you learned in eighth grade Geography, it’s impossible to represent Earth accurately on two dimensions, so cartographers have to choose how they are going to distort their map: usually size, shape, or distance. The Mercator Projection is the map you see everywhere that has Greenland the same size as Africa, despite Greenland being one-fourteenth as large as Africa in reality. This distortion holds across the map; the closer to the poles you are, the larger your country appears. This is actually a problem, despite how banal it sounds. Mercators are often found in classrooms, and children have been shown to think that larger things are more important (Source: science). To connect the dots: kids see North America and Europe as being much bigger than South America, Africa and South Asia; however, the opposite is true. This means children may be led by the Mercator Projection to learn that North America and Europe are more important than continents where white is not the most common skin color.

Gerardus Mercator may not seem to have cared much about black people, but he did care about sailors. The Mercator projection wasn’t designed to be subtly racist; it was designed for navigation. You can draw a straight line on a Mercator better than nearly any other map, which has made it an indispensable tool on ships since the 16th century. But the Mercator map was never meant to be hung on a high school wall. And while it is impossible to pin what caused this projection to become so common in a place it shouldn’t be, the effects in the present cannot be ignored.

Saying the Mercator projection is racist sounds like political correctness run amuck, but it points to an issue endemic within our schools: subtle eurocentrism. “Subtle” is the operative word here. We like to shelter our children from painful realities like racism and sexism for as long as possible, so any Native American sports mascots or “provocative” short-shorts get banned. These problems are easy to push aside because they are so obvious. These problems are easy to discuss when we feel that our children are ready to face them. But who has an open conversation with their child about maps? Who talks to their child about how they eat pizza, hamburgers, and mac & cheese in their cafeterias but never see any real ethnic diversity in food unless it’s part of a special “Indian/Mexican/whatever week” à la Explore in DS? It’s these kinds of subtle problems that encourage, or at least permit, eurocentric viewpoints, though no one ever says anything about them because “there are more important things to worry about.”

So, I’m taking a stand because I love maps and I don’t want them to contribute to racist undertones in schools or at large. If I never see a Mercator in another classroom, it’ll be too soon. Scratch that, let’s put a Mercator in every geography classroom, and let’s talk about its biases with our kids.

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