On Belonging, Action, and Accountability: An Update on JEDI at AAG

Person holding their hands in the shape of a heart with sunlight in background

By Risha RaQuelle

Photo of Risha BerryIt’s hard to believe that I will celebrate my first year at AAG in just a few months. As I close in on this eventful year of implementing AAG’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) plan, I’d like to offer an update on our work so far, and to explain how it connects with the creation of a Culture of Care at AAG and in the discipline.

JEDI Plan Implementation

At AAG 2023 in Denver, I had my first chance to meet many of you in person, and to hear about your experiences and hopes for AAG’s JEDI initiative. In collaboration with our Communications team we designed a JEDI Booth at the Annual Meeting with a comment board for members to use to scan QR codes to provide feedback in six areas:  Member Engagement, Virtual Repository, Truth and Reconciliation Task Force and production of Geography Videos to highlight JEDI scholars. We utilized this feedback to inform insights for incorporation into our implementation planning. A major milestone from that kick-off in Denver is that dozens of AAG members have volunteered for the seven JEDI working groups discussed below. I am grateful for your engagement.

Since April, the JEDI Committee has been at work creating and populating the seven working groups who are collectively activating the 32-point JEDI plan. We have created a framework for the work, called TLC GRAM, which stands for Training, Listening, Communications; and Governance, Reports, Advocacy, and Membership. These seven areas correspond exactly to the seven working groups. I’ll discuss those more in this article.

State of Geography and JEDI-Oriented Storytelling

AAG has woven action and education for JEDI values directly into its daily activities. Just a few highlights include the State of Geography report, which examined known and newer trends in the demographics and inequities of degree conferral; and the use of social media and website stories to showcase the diversity of our discipline through the voices of our members.


AAG also integrated JEDI principles into its programming and cohort selection for the new Elevate the Discipline program, which provides geographers with advocacy and media training. This year’s theme was Climate and Society; 15 scholars were selected from 11 U.S. states and Barbados to participate.

JEDI Approach to all AAG Activities

We are working with all AAG staff to elevate JEDI principles throughout the organization’s work, including membership, professional development, advocacy, and events.

For example, we have created internal checklists informed by various taskforces to guide staff as we improve member experiences at the Annual Meeting, incorporating feedback from the Mental Health Taskforce, and the Accessibility Taskforce to ensure a framework for reinforcing a harassment free AAG.

We have also worked closely with President Lave and Executive Director Langham to incorporate insights from the JEDI Committee into planning for our upcoming annual meeting, with awareness to inform our Culture of Care approach with this and subsequent Annual Meetings.

Our year-round webinar offerings often address JEDI topics, including the recent and popular webinar, in partnership with trubel&co, which introduced department chairs to the Mapping Justice workshop approach for high school students, focusing especially on providing students of color with GIS tools for mapping issues of consequence and importance to them, including public health, food justice, environmental justice, and more. So far, nine geography departments have approached trubel&co to work together on campus programming for high school students.

The seven JEDI committees’ work is growing in specificity daily; I anticipate much more progress to report in upcoming columns. In this one, I’d like to take another moment to say more about some of the terms we are using to describe our work on the JEDI plan.

Defining a Culture of Care

This year, I introduced the concept of “Culture of Care” into our discussions about achieving JEDI goals for the discipline and within AAG. The Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California-Berkeley offers this definition of Cultures of Care: “practices that create belonging in the context of othering. A Culture of Care is an affirmative, generative form of resistance and adaptation.”

In other words, a Culture of Care — whether at work, in a friendship network, or among members of an organization like AAG — creates a haven of care and inclusiveness, in contrast to othering and oppression. As AAG Lifetime Achievement winner and abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore has said, “What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, in experiments and possibilities.”

The closely related term “belonging” is also a key goal of our work. The Othering and Belonging Institute says, “The concept of belonging describes more than a feeling of inclusion or welcome. Its full power is as a strategic framework for addressing ongoing structural and systemic othering, made visible, for example, in the wide disparities in outcomes found across a variety of sectors and identity groups.”


TLC GRAM is more than a handy mnemonic (although with a 32-point plan, that function is appreciated!). It is also the frame on which a Culture of Care can be built by AAG.

No single part of TLC GRAM is more important than another. All must work together. Although the TLC part of TLC GRAM — Training, Listening, and Communication — is the heart of our efforts to be more just and inclusive, these efforts are only as good as our accountability. GRAM (Governance, Reports, Advocacy, and Membership) help AAG maintain our responsibility for equity and diversity, alongside inclusiveness and justice. These areas correspond exactly to the seven subcommittees now assembled to work on aspects of the JEDI plan.

Training – JEDI Subcommittee

(Chaired by Robin Lovell, Ph.D.)

This subcommittee will provide opportunities for JEDI learning through resources online, existing training opportunities, and AAG workshops. Specialty and affinity groups may organize programs in support of their own JEDI mission and goals.

Listening – JEDI Subcommittee

(Chaired by Debarchana Ghosh, Ph.D.; JEDI Committee Member & Council Liaison)

This subcommittee is already underway with JEDI Office Hours. JEDI listening sessions will be offered at key meetings, including the AAG Annual Meeting, regional meetings, and in other venues. AAG will assess opportunities to reach out to marginalized students, work with community colleges, and, potentially, connect with K-12 teachers and students.

Communications – JEDI Subcommittee

(Chaired by Caroline Nagel, Ph.D., Chair of the JEDI Committee)

This subcommittee is optimizing the website, AAG Newsletter, and other platforms to be more JEDI-focused, share more information, and provide more opportunities for interaction. The subcommittee is also examining ways to tell a more complete story about the discipline’s history and current realities, through multimedia storytelling, a proposed new Truth and Reconciliation Task Force, and a virtual repository of JEDI resources.

Participate in AAG’s weekly JEDI Office Hours. You can reserve a time to talk with staff about your ideas for advancing JEDI.


In the areas of accountability – GRAM – AAG has laid out these objectives:

Governance – JEDI Subcommittee

(Chaired by Joseph Wood, Ph.D.)

Among the subcommittee’s focal points are regular audits of AAG governance structures to identify and address systemic or structural barriers to achieving JEDI excellence. AAG will use the results of these audits to adjust and amend policies to reflect guiding JEDI principles, and foster collaboration among committees, task forces, and other entities engaged in JEDI work (e.g., Anti-Harassment Task Force, Accessibility Task Force). JEDI will also be a standing agenda item at all meetings of the AAG Executive Committee and the AAG Council.

Reporting – JEDI Subcommittee

(Chaired by Risha RaQuelle, Ph.D.)

Using voluntary information from members, the subcommittee will work with AAG to better understand the discipline’s representation of diverse identities, research specialties, departmental affiliations, and institutional affiliations. Working with the Healthy Departments Committee, the subcommittee will develop an evaluation tool for departments and programs to assess their own status, policies, practices, and progress toward JEDI success.

Advocacy – JEDI Subcommittee

(Co-Chaired by Mia White, PhD, and Meghan Cope, Ph.D. – JEDI Committee Members)

This subcommittee will advise AAG on advocacy issues at the intersection of geography and JEDI advancement.

Membership – JEDI Subcommittee

(Chaired by Russell Smith, Ph.D. – JEDI Committee Member)

This subcommittee will advise AAG regarding its membership fee structure, recruitment, and retention strategy to attract and increase the proportion of members from formerly excluded groups and institutions (e.g., MSIs, HBCUs, HSIs, Community Colleges, and Tribal Colleges) across professional and academic spheres. The subcommittee will also explore new ways of recognizing JEDI best practices and leadership through its awards program.

Each committee meets every other month. The next meetings will be held in September, with workplan deliverables due in December. We will unveil our updates and approach to operationalizing the workplans at the Annual Meeting.

Get Involved!

The TLC GRAM working groups are ongoing, and AAG welcomes participation. You can also sign up for a visit with AAG staff during JEDI Office Hours (any topic is welcome; AAG will set some topics this fall, for example research partnership opportunities with us will be discussed in October.) You can reserve a time to talk with staff about your ideas for advancing JEDI with any thoughts, questions, or ideas.

Find out more about AAG’s JEDI Plan implementation at AAG Culture of Care to find out more.


Supporting AP African American Studies through Geography: How Geography Instruction Can Be Strengthened in the New Course

Photo of the Seaview African United Church, credit: Dennis Jarvis for Flickr
Seaview African United Church, credit: Dennis Jarvis, Flickr

By Lisa Tabor, University of Northern Iowa, and John Harrington, Jr., Independent Scholar

In January 2023, the AAG spoke out against Florida’s decision to ban the College Board’s new AP African American Studies course, and subsequently called upon the College Board to resist political pressure and deliver the full curriculum that it had developed. While the politics of this situation are concerning, we are also concerned that the AAG may be missing an important opportunity to move forward, sharing the value of a geographic mindset on topics related to the teaching of African American studies. In our collective, and career-altering experience working with educators and education scholars, we have discovered that content is not the problem: the appropriate and accurate representation of our perspectives and use of best practices in geographic education pedagogies is the problem. Our thoughts are tempered by knowledge of the work of education scholars, over a decade of work with K-12 teachers in state geographic alliances, and supported by the process of Creating Significant Learning Experiences (Fink, 2013).

Here are some of our recommendations related to the development of the new AP class addressing African American studies and opportunities for geographers to make helpful contributions:

Strengthen geography’s role in curriculum development. To date, much of the emphasis in public discourse has been on political influence, overshadowing the iterative work of subject matter experts and education scholars working together to develop the new curriculum. From our experience, social studies education scholars tend to have a good handle on what topics/material will (or will not) work well with a high school student cohort, and should have access to high-quality resources that bring geographical perspectives and pedagogies to their lesson plans.

Support K-12 teachers in developing familiarity and expertise with geography. African American studies is like much interdisciplinary scholarship that builds course content from ideas that originate in multiple academic areas. Academic areas that AP African American studies build from include sociology, psychology, history, geography, political science, and gender and ethnic studies. A good class will be transdisciplinary, with ideas and examples that build from and merge content from individual academic areas. Teachers of these courses will naturally emphasize the material with which they feel most comfortable and confident. We ask, what can the AAG do to help K-12 teachers develop confidence and competence related to teaching the relevant topics for AP African American Studies. A cohesive, discipline-wide message could focus on addressing the accessibility of relevant content and methods for delivering the new curriculum. This will enable AAG and members to better collaborate and participate, establishing geography’s inherent ‘place’ within the larger boundaries of AP African American Studies.

Leverage the AP Human Geography knowledge base. A good number of topics are inherently geographic within the scope of AP African American Studies. A teacher with a good geography background can bring a great deal to teaching about redlining, patterns of migration from the South to urban centers in the North, the diffusion of jazz from several cultural hearths, how sense of place matters and is different for different cultural groups, and environmental racism. The spatial association between redlining, depleted tree canopy, higher levels of air pollution, and warmer high temperatures provides an example of important connections we want students to be able to make. We invite teachers and curriculum developers of AP Human Geography to share relevant lessons with teachers of AP African American Studies.

Create a clearinghouse of relevant teaching resources. AAG and its members can help fulfill the need for excellent content for this and other study areas. For example, K-12 teachers are supported by knowing that there is a go-to source for good content on climate change and energy in the CLEAN effort. The NSF GEO and EHR funding programs may be a source for such an effort by AAG and its members. There is also a need for relevant professional development for teachers who want to address the breadth of topics available for inclusion within AP African American Studies, and potentially other study areas.

To frame this entire discussion, we believe the topic of how to do a better job of teaching geography has been an under-emphasized area within the AAG. AAG policy principles include “Preserving the Arc of Geography,” which discusses sustaining “geographers from the beginning of education through retirement by bolstering institutions, advocating for funding, supporting programs, and utilizing assessments.” The AAG could do much more to address how to effectively share the academic subject that we care so much about. We believe that the AAG has followed in the footsteps of many other disciplinary organizations by leaving much of the educational aspects up to faculty in the colleges of Education and then wondering why those who are not experts in our field are not representing us well.

One path forward to bring more geography resources to the teaching of the AP African American Studies course is to call for information from geography teachers and geography educators on what role they have currently played in the new course, relevant to its spatial elements. With the College Board preparing to offer it to hundreds more schools, considerable attention to these questions could have significant impacts on students’ and teachers’ understanding of the geographies of the African American experience—an understanding that can certainly be promoted across many other AP courses invoking geographic knowledge. Building from the foundation of existing good practice could make the AAG a key place for moving forward.


Recommended Reading

Fink, L. Dee Creating Significant Learning Experiences (2013).
This text addresses the challenge of designing meaningful curriculum and classes. Fundamental Knowledge, Application, Integration, and Caring are four categories of Fink’s significant learning that we identify as vital for geographic lessons that support the AP African American Studies curriculum.

Background on the Photograph

From the photographer, Dennis Jarvis: “The Seaview African United Baptist Church was established at Africville on Nova Scotia in 1849; it joined with other black Baptist congregations to establish the African Baptist Association in 1854. The community’s social life revolved around the church. Demolished in 1969, [it] was rebuilt in the summer of 2011 to serve as a church and historic interpretation center.

“Africville was a small community located on the shore of Bedford Basin, in Halifax. During the 20th century, the City of Halifax gradually took over this community through municipal amalgamation. Africville was populated almost entirely by Black Nova Scotians from a wide variety of origins. Many of the first settlers were former slaves from the United States [and] Black Loyalists who were freed by the Crown during the American Revolutionary War and War of 1812.

“[Africville] has become an important symbol of Black Canadian identity and the struggle against racism. The site was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1996 as being representative of Black Canadian settlements in the province and as an enduring symbol of the need for vigilance in defense of their communities and institutions. After years of protest and investigations, in 2010 the Halifax Council ratified a proposed “Africville apology,” under an arrangement with the federal government, to compensate descendants and their families who had been evicted. In addition, an Africville Heritage Trust was established to design a museum and build a replica of the community church. A commemorative waterfront park has been renamed as Africville.” Image used under a Creative Commons license.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0133

Perspectives is a column intended to give AAG members an opportunity to share ideas relevant to the practice of geography. If you have an idea for a Perspective, see our guidelines for more information.


Advanced Placement Human Geography: Time for a Reappraisal?

By Michael Solem, Ph.D.; Dr. Richard G. Boehm, Ph.D.; and Joann Zadrozny, Ph.D.
Gilbert M. Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Texas State University 


Two decades on, the Advanced Placement Human Geography (APHG) course continues its upward trajectory in student enrollment. In recent years, well over 200,000 high school students took the APHG exam, marking an impressive period of growth since it was first offered in 2001 (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Growth in the number of students taking AP Human Geography exams. Source: American Association of Geographers (2019).
Figure 1: Growth in the number of students taking AP Human Geography exams. Source: American Association of Geographers (2019).

Even geographers who have paid cursory attention to APHG are likely to be familiar with this growth curve from the high publicity it receives. The immediate takeaway is of a College Board program providing tens of thousands of students with the opportunity to take a rigorous geography course in high school. 

Much has been written about the purported benefits of student participation in APHG. In practical terms, students can receive college credit hours with a passing mark on the APHG exam (a score of at least 3 on a 5-point scale).1 APHG students are considered by many geographers to be recruitable majors, or at least likely to take more geography courses as an undergraduate. Given the perennial stress placed by low undergraduate course enrollments on many geography departments, it is a small wonder that the growth in APHG is commonly viewed by geographers as a success story.  

Yet as former AAG President Dave Kaplan notes in a recent article appearing in The Professional Geographer, this growth coincided with a 12.4% decrease in conferred undergraduate geography degrees from 2013-2018.2 At present, we do not know how many students receiving APHG credit take additional geography courses across the country. A national tracking study would be challenging to execute, but it would certainly provide some clarity about one of the potential benefits of offering APHG in high schools. 

Until then, one of the things we can be sure about is the considerable amount of revenue generated by APHG’s skyrocketing growth. In the U.S. the exam cost per student is $96, though lower fees are available for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Additional revenues are associated with supplemental exam prep and tutorial fee payments. APHG’s growth curve must also look good from the perspective of textbook companies and authors whose works are adopted by schools offering the course.  

There are other facts about APHG that we believe should be openly and honestly discussed among geographers and the leadership of our organizations. The conversation we need requires a shift in perspective from growth metrics to quality metrics, so that we begin to acquire a clear understanding of the things that really matter: the extent that APHG is effective for the students who participate in the course and whether APHG is delivering on its potential for geography in higher education.  

In this column, we would like to initiate this conversation by sharing a preview of research currently underway here in the Gilbert M. Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education. Earlier this year, we organized a team of researchers to help us analyze APHG exam score distributions by geographic setting (state by state as well as by urban, suburban, and rural school districts), student demographics, and grade level over the entire history of APHG. For comparison, the team is also analyzing student exam scores for cognate courses in the AP program.  

APHG, growth, and inequality in student outcomes

In 2019, 50.8% of all students who took the APHG exam failed to earn a passing score; only the AP Physics I course has a lower success rate in the entire AP program. In his PG article, Kaplan explains (p.614),3  

One of the reasons behind this relatively low rate of success comes from the fact that two thirds of all students take APHG in ninth grade. This is highly unusual for AP exams; no other exam comes even close.  

Indeed, no other AP course has over 10% of 9th graders except for Computer Science Principles (11%) and Chinese Language and Culture (16%). In fact, most other AP courses have less than 1% of tests taken in the 9th grade.4 In his article, Kaplan explains that “schools have decided that human geography is a good stepping-stone to the AP experience and provide the exam with little competition at that grade level” (614). 

What are the educational consequences of an administrative decision to make APHG a warmup course for high school students? Michael Scholz, an Associate Professor at Winona State University, is the lead author of a study that investigated the relationship of taking APHG in high school with college students’ relative interest in majoring or minoring in geography and pursuing a geography career.5 In a survey completed by 2,397 undergraduate students at Texas State University, Scholz found an association between higher interest in geography and taking APHG in 11th or 12th grade, especially when students also took other geography and honors-level geography courses in high school. Interest levels in geography and geography careers were much lower among college students who took APHG in the 9th grade.  

Citing research indicating a students’ self-efficacy in a subject is an important predictor of their interest in that subject, Scholz argues: 

Since 9th grade students do not perform as well as students in higher grade levels on the APHG  exam, it is more likely that 9th grade students’ self-efficacy is negatively impacted and therefore  they are less likely to be interested in geography, taking geography courses, majoring or  minoring in geography, or pursuing a career in geography (77). 

In his article, Kaplan also discusses the persisting underrepresentation of women and minorities in the geography discipline and workforce. This is another area where APHG could potentially make a big difference for students and geography departments, especially given recent research that confirms most 8th graders are not proficient in geography and that there are widespread gender and racial gaps in geography achievement.6 Few states require geography for high school graduation, which raises the stakes for APHG to act as a crucial and positive point of student engagement with geography. 

However, it appears APHG as presently organized and implemented is doing little to reduce disparities in student outcomes in U.S. geography education. Compared with White and Asian students in the 9th and 10th grades,7 the failure rate (percentage of students scoring 1 or 2) in APHG is 20% higher among American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander students (Figure 2). Apart from Black male students, male students outperformed female students in APHG within every racial and ethnic group (Figure 3).  

Another way to look at the inequality in APHG is to compare the demographics of 9th/10th grade APHG students with the proportion of students who scored 1 or 2 on the exam in those grades (Table 1). The proportion of APHG exams taken in 2019 by White and Asian students was higher than the fraction of those students who scored a 1 or 2 on the exam. In contrast, Black and Hispanic/Latino students comprise a higher percentage of students who scored a 1 or 2 on the APHG exam relative to their composition of the test takers in 2019.  

Figure 2. APHG 9th/10th grade score distribution by race and ethnicity, 2019.
Figure 2. APHG 9th/10th grade score distribution by race and ethnicity, 2019.

Figure 3. APHG score distribution for all students by gender, 2019.
Figure 3. APHG score distribution for all students by gender, 2019.

Table 1. APHG participation and outcomes by race and ethnicity in the 9th/10th grades, 2019. 



Number of 9th/10th grade APHG students  Percent of total 9th/10th grade APHG exams  Percent of total 9th/10th grade APHG exam scores 1 or 2 
American Indian  708  0.4  0.5 
Asian  22,980  12.0  8.1 
Black  14,787  7.8  10.9 
Hispanic/Latino  47,808  25.1  33.4 
Native Hawaiian/ 

Other Pacific Islander 

314  0.2  0.2 
White  90,219  47.3  39.6 
Two or more races  8,700  4.6  4.3 
No response  5,195  2.7  2.9 

Allowing students who lack the prerequisite knowledge, writing ability, and other necessary preparation to take a college-level geography course is something we wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) tolerate in our own departments, yet this is exactly what has been happening in high schools for years. And now, by parting the unparted curtains of APHG, we begin to see how the unfettered and often applauded growth of APHG plays out in the form of a lower and inequitable rate of student success.  

We recently shared these observations with the education editor of a major newspaper, who responded that 9th grade students may still benefit academically from experiencing an AP course even if they score a 1 or 2 on the exam. Other educators remain deeply concerned about the insufficient number of highly qualified AP teachers and the defeatism observed among students who fail the exam.8 

In our view, the AAG and other geography organizations should ask schools to scale back APHG offerings in the 9th grade to a level that is consistent with other AP subjects. The priority moving forward should be research into student outcomes and how we can effectively provide equitable access to the support systems that foster student success in  APHG. 

The Grosvenor Center’s APHG research team will present the full results of their studies at the 2022 AAG Annual Meeting in New York. We hope you will join the conversation there and we thank you for considering our perspective. 

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0105


  1. These credits are only accepted at higher education institutions where the equivalent introductory human geography course is offered.
  1. Kaplan, D.H. 2021. Geography’s position in education today, The Professional Geographer, 73:4, 608-618, DOI: 1080/00330124.2021.1906922 
  1. We excluded 2020 APHG scores in our analysis because COVID-19 related AP examination changes complicate direct comparisons with earlier years.
  1. College Board Program Summary 2019. 
  1. Scholz, M.A., R.W.Scholz, and R.G. Boehm. 2017. Investigating grade level impact of the Advanced Placement Human Geography course and student interests in pursuing geography in higher education. Research in Geographic Education, 19(1): 67-81. 
  1. Solem,, P.W. Vaughan, C. Savage, and A.S. De Nadai, Student- and school-level predictors of geography achievement in the United States, 1994 – 2018. Journal of Geography, https://doi.org/10.1080/00221341.2021.2000009 
  1. The College Board reports APHG exam scores as separate statistics only for 11th and 12th graders, making it necessary to calculate 9th and 10th grade score percentages by subtracting 11th and 12th grade scores from the overall national totals. 
  1. “AP’s Equity Face-Plant.” Ann Kim, Washington Monthly

Perspectives is a column intended to give AAG members an opportunity to share ideas relevant to the practice of geography. If you have an idea for a Perspective, see our guidelines for more information. 


Invisible and Silent No More: The Necessity of Centering Anti-Racism as We Address Inclusion and Access for Disabled Community Members

By Gretchen Sneegas, PhD, Texas A&M University and Arrianna Planey, PhD, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Editor’s Note: This month, we present a Perspective from AAG members Dr. Gretchen Sneegas and Dr. Arrianna Planey. Their commentary on the intersectional nature of marginalization and discrimination in terms of disability and anti-Blackness is a response to the August 2020 President’s Column by AAG Past President Amy Lobben. In the first version of the column shared on social media, Dr. Lobben critiqued the lack of universal physical access at AAG headquarters by saying, “People who use manual or motorized wheelchairs cannot enter the front door – something that is reminiscent of the days of segregation.” In response to member concerns, AAG made the decision to remove the reference to segregation. 

We thank Drs. Sneegas and Planey for their perspective on the intersectional dynamics of ableism and anti-Black racism. Our thanks also to Dr. Lobben for being in dialogue with the authors and with us, as well as to our Strategic Communications Editorial Board for their independent review and input as we finalized this column.

Picture this: A disabled Black woman uses her cane to navigate dark, non-descript hallways as she attends the American Association of Geographers meeting. She nervously fiddles with her badge to make sure that it is visible so that no one polices her or questions her right to be present in the space. Unfortunately, her vigilance is for naught: an older white gentleman corners her and questions whether she’s really disabled. This is the third such incident at this conference – one experienced personally by one of this op-ed’s co-authors.

This woman is not disabled first. She is Black and disabled, experiencing racism and ableism simultaneously and cumulatively, not sequentially. Understanding this reality is the essential contribution of intersectionality, or how overlapping axes of privilege and oppression compound experiences of advantage or discrimination (Combahee River Collective, 1986; Crenshaw 19891991).

In her July 31, 2020 newsletter column, “The Invisible and the Silent,” AAG President Amy Lobben raised important questions on the culture of ableism in the AAG and academia, making numerous recommendations for improving inclusion for disabled AAG members and their families: applying universal design principles to the AAG’s website, improving conference accessibility, and promoting an Accessibility Task Force. However, these efforts must place racism – particularly anti-Black racism and white supremacy – at their forefront (Lewis, 2020).

We argue the AAG must explicitly address the intersections of racism and ableism, not to mention oppressions based on gender, sexuality, and socio-economic status. Any effort to address ableism is necessarily incomplete without simultaneously addressing white supremacy. We call on AAG to center its work against ableism around disabled geographers of color, especially those racialized as Black, because of how ableism is experienced by, and employed as a weapon against Black people particularly.

Confronting Ableism Means Confronting Racism

Nowhere is the racism-ableism intersection more starkly rendered than the violence perpetrated against Black communities at the hands of police and legal systems. A 2016 analysis of the Washington Post database on fatal police shootings found Black Americans to be 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans. Another study estimates that between one third to one half of all people killed by police are disabled (Perry and Carter-Long, 2016). Deafness, blindness, autism, mental illness, and physical or cognitive disabilities often register to police as ‘abnormal’ behavior or not following directions, resulting in far higher risk for violence, brutality, and death. Policing also produces disability, with survivors of violent police acts left with long-term physical and mental damage, creating an ongoing cycle of trauma. Disabled Black Americans are thus at some of the highest risk for police violence and discrimination in ways that are compounded by intersections between how they are racialized and their disability status, and not reducible to their Blackness or disability. The tragic and incomplete list of Black people with disabilities killed by police includes Marcus-David Peters , Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Anderson, Deborah Danner, Ezell Ford, Keith Lamont Scott, Alfred Olango, and Walter Wallace, Jr.

Dr. Lobben writes that “People with disabilities become invisible….Through able-ism, they are silenced.” Her claim can be deepened by a broadened focus on other axes of privilege, oppression, and power. The disproportionate police violence against Black people with disabilities transects the literal and metaphorical invisibility of disabled people with the hypervisibility of Blackness as a perceived threat to white supremacist “law and order,” while simultaneously erasing Black disabled peoples’ individuality and vulnerability. Not coincidentally, many such incidents turn on the misperception of disability, wherein “invisible” disabilities affecting mental and physical health (e.g., deafness, mental illness) are ignored in the white mainstream disability conversation, even as they figure prominently in police violence against Black communities.

The intersections of (in)visibility, racialization, and ableism are highlighted by a particular section of Dr. Lobben’s column. On our first reading, we were struck by a parallel comparison she drew between the lack of American with Disabilities Act compliance at AAG’s headquarters and the shameful history of racial segregation in the United States: “People who use manual or motorized wheelchairs cannot enter the front door – something that is reminiscent of the days of segregation.” The sentence was subsequently edited out of the column.

Defining ‘segregation’ as merely a form of spatial separation is widely seen in mainstream disability conversations. However, the term ‘segregation’ cannot be uncoupled from its history of state-sponsored domestic terrorism in the U.S. The weight of these cultural meanings makes comparing the seemingly “universal” challenges of a majority-white mainstream disabled community to racialized segregation insensitive at best. Separate accommodations for people with disabilities cannot be compared with racial segregation, defined as the racialization of space and the spatialization of race by means of policy, policing, and other informal and state-sanctioned practices (Lipsitz, 2007). The harmful effects of racial and ethnic segregation reverberate throughout Black American communities to the present day, including the disproportionate public health, economic, and regulatory impacts of COVID-19 on Black people (Summers, 2020).

While the segregation comparison may seem innocuous, not addressing the harm it causes to Black AAG members perpetuates the foundations of anti-Black racism that have long gone unaddressed in academic spaces and institutions, including the AAG. Countless Black scholars have written about such micro-aggressions – on Twitter with the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag, in essays and op-eds (Hamilton 2020aRoberts 2020), and via peer-reviewed scholarship (Eaves 2020bHamilton 2020b2020c) – which unambiguously inform Black academics on a daily basis that their safety and well-being are not respected, centered, or guaranteed.

How AAG Can Engage Fully in the Work to Address Ableism

Geography is an overwhelmingly white discipline – not only in terms of membership numbers, but also in its cultural norms and institutional structures, which function as gatekeeping tools to determine who is included (Kobayashi and Peake, 2000Gilmore, 2002Peake and Kobayashi, 2002Pulido, 2002Woods, 2002Kobayashi, 2014Eaves 2020aFaria and Mollett 2020Hamilton 2020cOswin 2020Roy 2020). Geography lags behind other disciplines in African American and Hispanic representation for student enrollment and degree conferral, and comprises less than 5% of all geography faculty compared to 10% of all higher education faculty (Faria et al., 2019). It is vital that the AAG act on the arguments which these and other BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) scholars have been making for decades if justice and inclusivity are truly its goals.

AAG must exert stronger leadership to have uncomfortable yet essential discussions about racism and colorism across all of its activities. We are glad to see President Lobben leveraging her access to AAG’s large platform to highlight the long-overlooked issue of suppression faced by disabled scholars. AAG’s efforts to do so must also explicitly center, not just include, disabled geographers of color who face unique and compounded challenges at the racism-ableism juncture.

One of the most critical actions AAG can take is for the new Accessibility Task Force to explicitly highlight the intersections of race/ethnicity and ableism, to address and avoid reproducing white supremacist power dynamics in the AAG. Some recommendations include (but are not limited to):

  1. Actively center disabled scholars of color across all stages of the Task Force’s activities and act on their suggestions. It is not enough to include BIPOC scholars with disabilities at the table – their needs must be prioritized.
  2. Create multiple avenues for formative feedback from the AAG membership, making sure to prioritize comments from disabled BIPOC AAG members.
  3. Develop relationships with AAG specialty/affinity groups that work with AAG members with increased risk of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and disability status, including the Disability specialty group, Mental Health affinity group, and Senior Geographers association.
  4. Work with the AAG Harassment-Free Task Force and COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force to address intersections of race/ethnicity, ableism, discrimination, and health.
  5. Highlight the racism-ableism relationship within this year’s Geographies of Access theme for the Annual Meeting, as well as future AAG conference themes, special AAG conference sessions, and/or proposed special issues in AAG journals.

We also encourage all AAG members to center the needs of BIPOC geographers with disabilities as they actively engage the Black Geographies Specialty Group’s call to “go beyond their statements [of solidarity] and work to transform the discipline by addressing its legacies of racism, imperialism, colonialism, homophobia, and sexism”.

Incorporating the intersections between ableism and racism in the AAG’s continued work on disability-based discrimination will benefit all AAG members. This is the only way to avoid deepening the unequal vulnerabilities faced by disabled geographers of color, while working towards restorative justice that centers those who have been most harmed. We ask the AAG leadership and all geographers to bring their energy and dedication to the concerns we articulate here, implementing them at the AAG; your institutions and departments; and in your teaching, research, and mentorship.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0096

Perspectives is a column intended to give AAG members an opportunity to share ideas relevant to the practice of geography. If you have an idea for a Perspective, see our guidelines for more information. 


Working Together for Racial and Social Justice: From Anti-Asian Racism and Violence to Anti-Racist Praxis in Geography

By Guo Chen, Associate Professor of Geography and Global Urban Studies, Michigan State University

This column is the first in a new section of the AAG News called Perspectives, which offers a platform for members to discuss issues of relevance to geography. A slightly longer version of this article was first published in April as a tie-in with related sessions sponsored by the Asian Geography Specialty Group and the China Geography Specialty Group at AAG’s annual meeting. Registered participants at the meeting may view the recordings of these sessions until May 11:

In June 2020, the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) issued an open call directed at putting an immediate end to anti-Black racism and advancing efforts toward global social justice. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd pulled a painful trigger for many Asian Americans. The Association clearly stated that “[the] fight against anti-Asian pandemic racism is rooted in a common struggle against white supremacy” and “[to] end global anti-Black racism, we must fight racism in our local communities and educate ourselves and others about the rich history of Black Americans and support, validate, and value Black lives now and always.”

Most recently, but not for the first time, the urgency of this shared struggle against white supremacy was highlighted by the horrific Atlanta-area shootings of eight people on March 16, 2021, including six women of Asian descent. In April, four members of the Indianapolis Sikh community were killed in a shooting at a FedEx warehouse. Anti-Asian racism in the United States has been more widely reported by the media lately than before (see LA Times coverage and NY Times, for example), and reports of anti-Asian hate crimes are rising around the world (see Time). In early 2020, Asian American communities and scholars were already well aware of this rise in anti-Asian racism. On a virtual panel in June 2020, the president of the AAAS, Dr. Jennifer Ho of the University of Colorado Boulder, explained why COVID-19-related anti-Chinese sentiment is essentially anti-Asian racism:

[w]hile China and Chinese people have been targeted and blamed for the coronavirus in the United States … the truth is all forms of racism against the Chinese in the United States are forms of racism against anyone who is perceived to be Chinese in the United States. It’s an Asian/Asian American issue … what it means to be an Asian American is the recognition that those particularities that happened in a natal homeland get diminished, get flattened when you arrive in the United States. Because someone who doesn’t know what your particular ethnicity is, your nationality, and only sees your Asian-looking face and is going to make certain assumptions of who you are, about your ability to speak English … one of the things we have in common, as Asian Americans, is this understanding that we are not benefiting from white privilege, that we have been on a receiving end of systemic racism, starting with the Chinese, extending into other Asian ethnic groups.”

Since January 2020, the lives of Asian-heritage people in the U.S. and probably also in many other countries have been violently shaken. Asian Americans were among the first to help local communities combat COVID-19, while racist attacks were increasing in cities like Los Angeles. The Stop AAPI Hate website received 3,795 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents nationwide between its launch on March 19, 2020, and February 28, 2021. In these reports, the Chinese were the ethnic group most targeted, but 60% of the respondents were non-Chinese. Incidents occurred in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Asian women reported significantly more incidents than did Asian men. The fatality rate for Asian women has continued to increase due to the combined effect of COVID-19 and a terrifying rise in hate incidents. In fact, the AAPI Data website reports that 13,620 more Asian Americans died than usual in the first seven months of 2020 (a 35% increase over the prior 5-year average). Over this long year, anxiety has also built up as many have been separated from their families or extended families and ancestral lands due to travel bans from both sides of the Pacific—a circumstance that has likely caused more stress to Asian women than to men, given that women are more likely to fulfill caregiver roles. As early as July 2020, studies were already finding a large percentage (40.3%) of Asian Americans with self-reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression (an 8-fold jump from the previous year) compounded by racism-related vigilance. These same studies warned of the serious and long-lasting negative impact of experienced and perceived racial discrimination on physical health and psychological well-being.

Despite discussions on the xenophobic sentiment stoked by the previous U.S. administration, we must also accept the historicity of our current crisis of racism and racial violence. As race scholars have commented, white supremacy is the root of all race-related violence in the U.S., and “race is a thread that connects all shootings.” Anti-Asian racism is racism, just like anti-Black racism and any other form of racism. Whenever an Asian country is perceived as a national threat, Asian Americans suffer. Asian Americans are all too familiar with the history of state-sanctioned discrimination.

Racism is like a river that affects everyone in the country, and it is deeply rooted in white supremacy in the U.S.
. . .

We have come to realize that our geographic scholarship is compartmentalized along national, experiential, and personal identity lines. Racialized identities and the angst and alterity experienced by diasporic scholars in North America often need some translation to the rest of our international colleagues. But the themes of our studies are universal. As one geographer wrote to me, “different forms of oppression are linked … nobody is free until all are free.” And, as a community of geographers, we need to continue our discipline’s strong tradition of studying how oppression and marginalization play out, within places and across space. As a former chair of a Specialty Group of the AAG, I have led open dialogues with Asian and China-heritage geographers, some of whom shared opinions and stories with me in June 2020. Most expressed pain arising from frustration with a cross comparison of the ways different nations had handled COVID-19, together with feelings including fear about the prospect of leaving their “anodyne” research areas to embrace a perceived “politicized” arena, such as addressing the legacy of anti-Asian racism and distant or near memories of being discriminated against or marginalized as a Chinese or Asian scholar within our institutions. I appreciate their sharing with me.

“[T]here is a rising anti-Asian sentiment because of the [previous] U.S. leader’s rhetoric and the hawkish advisors and media he listens to … it is easier to blame the Other, versus looking clearly at the fault of not acting early, to respond to the pandemic, and doing the necessary steps to have masks, etc. We can see the … examples of Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand and even many African nations that have low infection rates, and VERY low fatalities [by June 2020 during the first wave] … I get emotional almost weekly because of the current situation … I will stop writing about this.”

“I’m not a China-study scholar and I was never an active member as I almost never went to those AAG happy hours. But I do care about the study subjects … I used to think politics and politicization should be separate from academic endeavors, however, it becomes increasingly difficult, if not possible at all, to be like that. And even further, being a social scientist, I started asking myself whether it’s responsible not to face the challenges from the political side. I guess it’s a learning process for me.”

“I grew up in post-colonial Africa and have a very low level of tolerance for racism in any form. Even if I am not genetically Asian, I too could say a few words on bigotry and prejudices. But is this enough? Should we try to publish our personal opinions if this helps us discover our own identity and the originality of our own contributions as transnational geographers? We are a tiny minority but maybe it is easier for us to articulate or advocate than it is for a vast majority of people.”

“[One can] in no way ignore the anti-Asian/Chinese racism and discrimination that exist around the world, not just in the US … the diasporic Chinese scholars’ life experience …matter, and … the research on Asian (im)migration and racism … matter.”

“As a Mainlander based in Hong Kong, I can totally relate to [the] feeling … [about] racial prejudices against Asian scholars.”

“[I] would like to reach out to say that I feel [I am] being discriminated [against] in my job.”

In 2021, these messages from nine months ago look so distant, but the concerns are even more relevant today. As we sojourned in the Zoom world of scholarly exchanges in the past year, the fluidity has afforded us connectedness and made us academic refugees striving for existential relevance. The interruption of COVID-19 in our customary lives also provides an opportunity to change. It is time to prioritize anti-racist praxis in Geography, like in other disciplines, and to ensure that our being anti-racist advances a resolution to “challenge structural racism and other intersecting oppressive systems—e.g., ableism, classism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia—by shifting power—e.g., funding and other critical resources, policies, processes, leadership, culture” in our discipline and subdisciplines. For area geographers (those whose research has been largely framed regionally rather than systematically or globally), some clear goals are to continue to interrogate the assumptions and privileges embedded in area-bound expertise, to continue to problematize our positionalities and the dominant narratives in our research field, and to continue to privilege the scholarship that has long been considered “marginal,” such as work on transnational migration and migrants, underprivileged people, race, ethnicity, and social justice, to name a few. There is also an urgency to develop anti-racist learning and teaching praxis in our discipline.

Many challenges are ahead, but the most dreadful time is when we are in silence. We should continue to intervene with dialogues to break this silence. The research field is there to be defined and redefined.
. . .

Guo Chen (PhD, Penn State), Associate Professor of Geography and Global Urban Studies at Michigan State University. She is the recipient of a Wilson Center Fellowship in 2017-2018 and an Outstanding Service Award from the China Geography Specialty Group of the AAG in 2020. At MSU, Guo serves as an elected faculty representative on the Asian Studies Advisory Council, a founding member of the Geo Diversity Committee, a newly appointed faculty member on the President’s Advisory Committee on Disability Issues, a SWIG faculty advisor and a core faculty member of the Asian Pacific American Studies Program beginning fall 2021. Guo thanks Christian Lentz, Ken Foote, Shaolu Yu, Jennifer Ho, and Lisa Schamess for their reading of this piece, and the many anonymous colleagues for their emails, warm words, and generously shared resources, which led to this op-ed. The opinions expressed here are solely her own.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0089

Panel resources:

Ho, J. 2020. Anti-Asian racism, Black Lives Matter, and COVID-19. Japan Forumhttps://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09555803.2020.1821749 .

Japan Forum Podcast 8 With Prof Jennifer Ho – Anti-Asian Racism, BLM, and COVID-19. https://soundcloud.com/soas-university-of-london/japan-forum-podcast-8-with-prof-jennifer-ho-anti-asian-racism-blm-and-covid-19 .

Teaching resources for Anti-Asian racism and COVID-19. www.colorado.edu/asmagazine/2020/04/08/anti-asian-racism-and-covid-19.

To be an Asian woman in AmericaCNN opinion.

For an understanding of white supremacy as the root of all race-related violence in the US, read https://theconversation.com/white-supremacy-is-the-root-of-all-race-related-violence-in-the-us-157566

Read Ben Barron (PhD student in Geography at CU Boulder) article about the Boulder and Atlanta shootings: https://www.boulderweekly.com/opinion/guest-columns/race-is-a-thread-that-connects-all-mass-shootings/

Anti-Racism Resources for Asian Americans. https://tiny.cc/AntiRacistAsAmResources .

Alberts, Heike C. and Helen D. Hazen. 2013. International Students and Scholars in the United States: Coming from Abroad. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Please note: Perspectives is a new column intended to give AAG members an opportunity to share ideas relevant to the practice of geography. If you have an idea for a Perspective, see our guidelines for more information.