How I Combat Racism in Guest Lectures (K-12)

As I’ve mentioned previously, I frequently guest lecture in K-12 classrooms both in-person (pre-pandemic) and virtually (pandemic times). Although all of my material for these presentations is typically introductory Geography & GIS level, I am actively making choices to address racism through it. As someone who is actively being anti-racist, addressing internalized racism and other biases, I recognize that this type of reflection and constructive critique is necessary in all avenues of my life. This includes my own education, and the educational opportunities I offer to others.

What does this mean for the material I share for students? Well, let’s note some common Geography misconceptions that are often shared in K-12 (and even university!) education:

  1. This map is an accurate representation of the size of these countries (it’s not):
Mercator projection - Wikipedia
Image of the world map in Mercator projection. From Wikipedia.

2. “Africa” looks mostly like the set from Lion King (it doesn’t – please see map below of African vegetation zones):

Map of African vegetation, showing the Miombo woodlands in dark green (Source: White, 1983).  
from book chapter by Ribeiro 2015

3. The physical environment is entirely (or mostly) responsible for the societal development of various human populations (otherwise known as environmental determinism, found recently in the work of popular author Jared Diamond – read a critique here).

4. Geography is about memorizing capitals, GIS is just about making maps. Nope! There’s so much more to Geography – analyzing the systems and structures and their spatial impacts in society is one of them. GIS is actually the complex storage of spatial information and their relationships to each other in the world, and critically making the cartographic choices in mapping them.

There are more, but the general point is that there are threads of racism, sexism, and other biases underlying many of the misconceptions taught in the K-12 education system. Teaching them in class can lead to the confirmation of common stereotypes students may encounter in their daily lives, and lead them to think they are “right” because they were learned in school.

Flattened understandings of Geography and GIScience also allow for the potential of the critical work that goes on in Geography and GIScience to be more easily ignored and hidden. This creates a vacuum where students lack a vocabulary to help them put to words the critiques of the social structures (health care access, policing, education) that impact their daily lives. Meanwhile, GIScience is a STEM field they could absolutely view as a viable career opportunity, but the lack of Geography and GIScience K-12 education puts low-income and students from minoritized communities at a disadvantage to those predominantly white students attending private and highly funded schools. Ultimately, this leads to a real issue in Geography and the Geosciences at-large – a heavily white student population, often entering predominantly cisgender male spaces, at institutions unprepared to support them.

Okay, so how do I combat this in a 10-30 minute presentation to a classroom of young students in the middle of their school day? Well, as you’ve no doubt heard, it’s all about the basics. Let’s return to those 4 misconceptions I mentioned above, and see some screenshots from the 10-minute presentation I gave to second graders a few weeks ago:

  1. Any Geography student will tell you that there are a number of ways to map the Earth, focusing on different aspects of how the area mapped is represented. Shoot, if you’re a fan of The West Wing, you might even remember this clip where we learn about an alternative to the Mercator projection (there are so many more though – don’t stop with Galls-Peters). So, in this presentation, I started by explaining the concept of projections and how we create them. Thus, maps are interpretations that can take many forms, which is the point of this slide.

2. I’ve already shown you how I countered the false homogeneity of Africa the continent as one big country with no differentiation in flora, fauna, or even culture and societies. Showing the vegetation map as I flashed through a series of maps portraying all kinds of data is one way to contribute to the general geographic knowledge of students about countries poorly described in racist and imperialistic ways. This false portrayal is so common that I even saw it described on Twitter within the week of me presenting the map of vegetation in Africa, seen from this set of tweets:

Tweets by user @RavenclawSoc23, Dr. Jenn Sims, at the University of Alabama in Huntsville

3 & 4. While I don’t necessarily dig into detailed critiques of environmental determinism in this presentation, addressing the issue of number 4 is part of how I address number 3. Below you’ll see the many types of maps I show in the presentation, some of which are part of explaining those complex systems we mentioned. When Geography and GIScience are represented as fields of study that are expansive and intriguing because of what they study and perspectives they bring, students are shown an educational space where they can look more intently at the world. Bright, colorful, and engaging maps are one great way to display that.

At the end of the presentation, I showed an animated map of COVID-19 spread over the world. I emphasized that Geography and GIScience have a clear, direct impact on issues we are dealing with daily, then called for those students to work hard and join us in our efforts. When I present accessible material covering the basics of the field to students who rarely are offered a Geography and GIScience education, I am making sure to thoughtfully include examples that are countering stereotypes I know they may encounter.

I also make sure to ask questions to the students, name the problems that occur because of structural racism in my own research, and name them for what they are. I also ask students questions that get them thinking about these structures (depending on the grade level and time), so that way they are pushed to think about the why behind the structures they see day-to-day.

I hope that regardless of the field you are in, you take some time to present some basics of your field to your class, with examples that can also address problematic concepts in our societies too. Science, like everything else, is political, and if you look for the biases in your field, you’ll find them. Put your critical researcher skills to the problem, and you’ll figure out ways to address them as well. Good luck, and remember, this is only one of the ways to address racism and other biases!

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