Why is our Geography Curriculum so White?

Many 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.

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