Print Friendly

Mona DomoshMany of us teach courses that are shaped by anti-colonial and antiracist scholarship. We include readings and topics in our classes that provide our students with frameworks for better understanding issues of inequality. We have compelling ‘how-to’ stories of what it means to incorporate race, ethnicity and anti-colonial perspectives into our classrooms.[1] We have monographs, edited collections, special issues, and a lengthy list of pertinent journal articles that explicitly and implicitly interrogate the social construction of race, black geographies, and anti-colonial struggles.[2] But I would argue that still, with all of this, for the most part, we are writing, teaching, and recreating white geographies: by ‘we’ I mean almost all of us (including me); by ‘white’ I mean ways of seeing, understanding, and interrogating the world that are based on racialized and colonial assumptions that are unremarked, normalized, and perpetuated.

From Angela Last's blog, "Mutable Matter."
T-shirts from the AAG Subconference For Black Lives Matter ‘T-shirt Book Bloc’ noted in Angela Last’s blog, “Mutable Matter.

I understand that what I am saying is provocative. According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, to provoke is, “to cause the occurrence of (a feeling or action): to make (something) happen,” and that is indeed what I hope this column will do. I want to raise the question of the whiteness of geography’s curriculum as part of the larger picture of geography’s whiteness, and to ask what we (as individuals, as geographers, as departments, as the AAG) have done about it and what we can do. As Audrey Kobayashi and Linda Peake noted 15 years ago, “no understanding of geography is complete, no understanding of place and landscape comprehensive, without recognizing that . . . geography, both as discipline and spatial expression . . . is racialized.”[3] I’m suggesting that we are still working with an incomplete and non-comprehensive understanding of geography, and I’m hoping to provoke us to change that.

I’ve borrowed the title of this column from an initiative based at University College London [4] that struck a deep chord with me for many reasons. First, we all know that demographically speaking geography is indeed a very white discipline,[5] and changing that fact – despite the whole-hearted and resourced efforts on the part of many folks through many years – has proven quite difficult.[6] As one of our AAG councillors noted at our recent meeting, there are many interlocking pieces that need to be addressed and it’s difficult to know where and how to intervene. But rethinking what we teach – an important piece of that puzzle – seems a very tangible and do-able thing; in fact, if we consider ourselves any good at all as teachers, this rethinking is something we do all the time. Second, the provocation of calling a curriculum ‘white’ works to shake up our notion of the purported objectivity of the scholarship we make and teach, of the unremarked and therefore normalizing assumptions built into our syllabi, and at least for me, serves to question how I’ve conceptualized my courses including my choice of topics and readings. And third, the timing is right; we now have a considerable body of scholarly literature within geography to draw on (in addition to literature in related fields), and, equally important, the energy and commitment to do the work from key parts of our discipline – from graduate students through academic leaders.

I’m certainly not the first person, of course, to raise this important issue. Drawing on an already active movement, the AAG diversity task force recommended in its 2006 report that “departments should review their curricula to determine the degree of commitment to diversity and, if necessary, create courses that make the curricula more relevant to today’s racially diverse society. Courses that address certain areas may be needed, for example:

  • Race and space in the maintenance of structures of domination, subordination, and inequality
  • Intersectionality and space (i.e. the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality)
  • The ideology of white supremacy and the use of space to maintain it
  • The spatialities of white privilege
  • Racial residential segregation and racial inequality: the causes and consequences
  • The ghetto, barrio and ethnic enclave: their origin, persistence, and consequences
  • The racialization of immigrants of color
  • Environmental racism
  • Critical race theory
  • Space-and race-based public policies
  • Race, concentrated poverty and economic restructuring”[7]

Following through on this recommendation, in conjunction with the others made in this important report, is vital to addressing the whiteness of geography and its curriculum. But since 2006, our departments and universities have faced severe financial and organizational challenges concomitant with the global recession and the increasing neoliberalization of academic life. As I’ve noted in previous columns, the pressures on us as teachers, scholars and mentors are often immense; academic success is counted in numbers of publications, not numbers of students that we’ve challenged.

And so we need help. We can start by sharing syllabi, readings, bibliographies, topics, relevant media, etc. But this alone won’t lead to change; we need assistance in learning to recognize our ‘white’ assumptions, and we need training in how to take those new understandings into the classroom. It’s been clear to me for a while that teaching/mentoring is by far the most political act – in the sense of enacting social change – that I can ever hope to accomplish. I will be able to accomplish more with a less ‘white’ geography curriculum. How should we proceed? I’m looking forward to hearing your responses.

DOI: 10.14433/2015.0015

[1] Ishan Ashutosh and Jamie Winders, “Teaching Orientalism in Introductory Human Geography,” The Professional Geographer 61, no. 4, October 1, 2009: 547–60 DOI: 10.1080/00330120903103122; Owen J. Dwyer, “Teaching about Race and Racism in Geography: Classroom and Curriculum Perspectives,“ Journal of Geography 98, no. 4 (July 1, 1999): 176–79 DOI: 10.1080/00221349908978877; Audrey Kobayashi, “‘Race’ and Racism in the Classroom: Some Thoughts on Unexpected Moments,” Journal of Geography 98, no. 4 (July 1, 1999): 179–82 DOI: 10.1080/00221349908978878; Kate A. Berry, “Projecting the Voices of Others: Issues of Representation in Teaching Race and Ethnicity,” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 21, no. 2 (July 1997): 283–89 DOI: 10.1080/03098269708725434; Richard H. Schein, “Teaching ‘Race’ and the Cultural Landscape, “Journal of Geography 98, no. 4 (July 1, 1999): 188–90. DOI: 10.1080/00221349908978881
[2] For the tip of the iceberg, see Andrew Baldwin, Laura Cameron, and Audrey Kobayashi, eds., Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature, and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011); Caroline Bressey, “Forgotten Histories: Three Stories of Black Girls from Barnardo’s Victorian Archive,” Women’s History Review 11, no. 3 (September 1, 2002): 351–74 DOI: 10.1080/09612020200200326; Caroline Bressey, “Looking for Blackness: Considerations of a Researcher’s Paradox,” Ethics, Place & Environment 6, no. 3 (October 1, 2003): 215–26 DOI: 10.1080/1366879042000200598; Caroline Bressey, “Cultural Archaeology and Historical Geographies of the Black Presence in Rural England,” Journal of Rural Studies, De-centring White Ruralities: Ethnicity and Indigeneity, 25, no. 4 (October 2009): 386–95 DOI:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2009.05.010; David Delaney, “The Space That Race Makes,” The Professional Geographer 54, no. 1 (February 1, 2002): 6–14 DOI: 10.1111/0033-0124.00309 ; Claire Dwyer and Caroline Bressey, eds., New Geographies of Race and Racism (Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2008); Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Fatal Couplings of Power and Difference: Notes on Racism and Geography,” The Professional Geographer 54, no. 1 (February 1, 2002): 15–24 DOI: 10.1111/0033-0124.00310; Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 2006); David Jansson, “Racialization and ‘Southern’ Identities of Resistance: A Psychogeography of Internal Orientalism in the U.S.,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100 (2010): 202–21 DOI: 10.1080/00045600903379109; David R Jansson, “‘A Geography of Racism’: Internal Orientalism and the Construction of American National Identity in the Film Mississippi Burning,”National Identities 7, no. 3 (2005): 265–85 DOI: 10.1080/14608940500201797; Audrey Kobayashi and Linda Peake, “Unnatural Discourse. ‘Race’ and Gender in Geography,” Gender, Place & Culture 1, no. 2 (September 1, 1994): 225–43 DOI: 10.1080/09663699408721211; Audrey Kobayashi, “Coloring the Field: Gender, ‘Race,’ and the Politics of Fieldwork,” The Professional Geographer 46, no. 1 (February 1, 1994): 73–80 DOI: 10.1111/j.0033-0124.1994.00073.x; Minelle Mahtani, “Interrogating the Hyphen-Nation: Canadian Multicultural Policy and ‘Mixed Race’ Identities,” Social Identities 8, no. 1 (March 1, 2002): 67–90 DOI: 10.1080/13504630220132026; Minelle Mahtani, Mixed Race Amnesia: Resisting the Romanticization of Multiraciality, Reprint edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015); Katherine Mckittrick and Clyde Adrian Woods, eds., Black Geographies and the Politics of Place (Between the Lines, 2007); Katherine McKittrick, “‘Black And’ Cause I’m Black I’m Blue: Transverse Racial Geographies in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye,” Gender, Place & Culture 7, no. 2 (June 1, 2000): 125–42 DOI: 10.1080/713668872; Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women And the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2006); Katherine McKittrick, “On Plantations, Prisons, and a Black Sense of Place,” Social & Cultural Geography 12, no. 8 (2011): 947–63 DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2011.624280; Sharlene Mollett, “Race and Natural Resource Conflicts in Honduras: The Miskito and Garifuna Struggle for Lasa Pulan,” Latin American Research Review 41, no. 1 (2006): 76–101 DOI: 10.1353/lar.2006.0012; Linda Peake and Richard H. Schein, “Racing Geography into the New Millennium: Studies of ‘Race’ and North American Geographies,” Social & Cultural Geography 1, no. 2 (January 1, 2000): 133–42 DOI: 10.1080/14649360020010158; Linda Peake and Audrey Kobayashi, “Policies and Practices for an Antiracist Geography at the Millennium,” The Professional Geographer 54, no. 1 (February 1, 2002): 50–61, DOI: 10.1111/0033-0124.00314; Laura Pulido, “Reflections on a White Discipline,” The Professional Geographer 54, no. 1 (February 1, 2002): 42–49, DOI:10.1111/0033-0124.00313; David J. Roberts and Minelle Mahtani, “Neoliberalizing Race, Racing Neoliberalism: Placing ‘Race’ in Neoliberal Discourses,” Antipode 42, no. 2 (March 1, 2010): 248–57 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2009.00747.x; Richard H. Schein, Landscape and Race in the United States (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006); Bobby M. Wilson, “Structural Imperatives Behind Racial Change in Birmingham, Alabama,” Antipode 24, no. 3 (July 1, 1992): 171–202 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.1992.tb00440.x; Bobby M. Wilson, America’s Johannesburg: Industrialization and Racial Transformation in Birmingham (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); Bobby M. Wilson, “Critically Understanding Race-Connected Practices: A Reading of W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright,” The Professional Geographer 54, no. 1 (2002): 31–41 DOI: 10.1111/0033-0124.00312; Jamie Winders and Richard Schein, “Race and Diversity: What Have We Learned?” The Professional Geographer 66, no. 2 (April 3, 2014): 221–29 DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2012.735941; Jamie Winders, “Changing Politics of Race zand Region: Latino Migration to the US South,” Progress in Human Geography 29, no. 6 (December 1, 2005): 683–99 DOI: 10.1191/0309132505ph577oa; Jamie Winders, “An ‘Incomplete’ Picture? Race, Latino Migration, and Urban Politics in Nashville, Tennessee,” Urban Geography 29, no. 3 (April 1, 2008): 246–63 DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.29.3.246; Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta (New York, NY: Verso, 2000); Derek H. Alderman and Robert N. Brown, “When a New Deal Is Actually an Old Deal: The Role of TVA in Engineering a Jim Crow Racialized Landscape,” in Engineering Earth, ed. Stanley D. Brunn (Springer Netherlands, 2011), 1901–16 DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-9920-4_105; Derek H Alderman, “Street Names and the Scaling of Memory: The Politics of Commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr within the African American Community,” Area35, no. 2 (June 1, 2003): 163–73 DOI: 10.1111/1475-4762.00250; Mark Ellis, Richard Wright, and Virginia Parks, “Work Together, Live Apart? Geographies of Racial and Ethnic Segregation at Home and at Work,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94, no. 3 (September 1, 2004): 620–37 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.2004.00417.x; Joshua Inwood and Anne Bonds, “On Racial Difference and Revolution,” Antipode 45, no. 3 (June 1, 2013): 517–20 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2012.01047.x; Joshua F. Inwood and Robert A. Yarbrough, “Racialized Places, Racialized Bodies: The Impact of Racialization on Individual and Place Identities,” GeoJournal 75, no. 3 (September 22, 2009): 299–301 DOI 10.1007/s10708-009-9308-3; Joshua F. J. Inwood, “Contested Memory in the Birthplace of a King: A Case Study of Auburn Avenue and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Park,” Cultural Geographies 16, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 87–109 DOI: 10.1177/1474474008097981; Laura Pulido, “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90, no. 1 (March 1, 2000): 12–40 DOI: 10.1111/0004-5608.00182; Laura Pulido, Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Richard Wright and Mark Ellis, “Race, Region and the Territorial Politics of Immigration in the US,” International Journal of Population Geography 6, no. 3 (May 1, 2000): 197–211 DOI:10.1002/1099-1220(200005/06)6:3<197::AID-IJPG183>3.0.CO;2-F; Richard Wright et al., “Crossing Racial Lines: Geographies of Mixed-Race Partnering and Multiraciality in the United States,” Progress in Human Geography 27, no. 4 (August 1, 2003): 457–74 DOI: 10.1191/0309132503ph444oa
[3] Audrey Kobayashi and Linda Peake, “Racism out of Place: Thoughts on Whiteness and an Antiracist Geography in the New Millenium,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 90, 2000, p. 392. DOI: 10.1111/0004-5608.00202
[4] This initiative was brought to my attention by a more-than-conference event at our annual AAG meeting in Chicago; see
[5] In 2012, 4.38% of AAG members identified as Hispanic and 3.15% as African-American.
[6] For an overview of diversity initiatives undertaken by the AAG, see:
[7] An Action Strategy for Geography Departments as Agents of Change: A Report of the AAG Diversity Task Force, October, 2006.