Decolonising Geography

Before I start, all my education work via the Geogramblings’ “Life Geographic” blog is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by ‘buying me a coffee. Thank you!

First and foremost, I need to acknowledge my own limitations of knowledge and understanding, and of course any inherent or subconscious biases I may have. Both the issue and discussion surrounding decolonising the curriculum is so deep and complex that I cannot hope to cover all bases. This will certainly be ‘Decolonisation 101’, and will only skim but a few molecules of the surface! But I do hope it gives a fair introduction and overview. NB: Please ensure to take a look at the ‘corrections and addendums’ section at the bottom of this post. Do get in touch if you feel there are any other things that need pointing out 🙂

The Context

Many see the killing of George Floyd and the very visible Black Lives Matter protests as the ‘tip’ of the iceberg. Here are a couple of visual interpretations of that sentiment.

What is seen above the surface are thought of symptoms of underlying structural and institutional issues. I’m not going to dive into historical contexts here, simply because they are ranging and many.

Now these structures ‘below the surface’ didn’t appear organically, they are constructed, maintained, developed and molded by us: our experiences, attitudes and worldviews. Many may not be malicious by intent, but still may end up by subconscious design. Questions we could ask are: why is it some people see or experience what’s below the surface and others don’t? Why do we have people who are kind, caring and compassionate but cannot see how some of their views may be considered racist, or that their quality of life comes, from some extent, from a measure of privilege? Why should it even matter?

In a Geography curriculum context, the rise in popularity of geography as a subject, historically, came with the rise in colonialisation. In their second editon of Political Geography, published in 2009, Painter and Jeffery summised that “while the extent in which geography as an academic study is implicated in colonialism is contentious, geographical tools such as cartography, shipbuilding, navigation, mining and agricultural productivity were instrumental in European colonial expansion. Colonisers’ awareness of the Earth’s surface and abundance of practical skills provided colonisers with a knowledge that, in turn, created power.” (ref). Today in modern Geography curicula, we need to ensure that we’ve completely turned this ‘on its head’, and that the subject is a way to appreciate, protect and nurture our planet’s diversity rather than, as perhaps was originally, a way to wield power.

Our students can then continue the decolonisation process by helping them see the world and interpret it as empathetically as they can through the prism of huge diversity that co-exists on this planet.

What do we mean by ‘decolonisation’?

When we look at the current dictionary definition of ‘decolonisation’ e.g. “the action or process of a state withdrawing from a former colony, leaving it independent”, it is pretty inadequate in the context we’ll explore.

And even so, it’s meaning can differ according to location, perspective and relationship with colonisation. Fran Martin from the University of Exeter supported Fatima Pirhabi-Illich and Shauneen Pete as the third editor of the book Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. Fran gives some examples of the meaning of colonisation to different groups:

“…for First Nations and American Indians is about giving back the land. For settler countries, decolonising for white settlers will be different from what decolonising in a UK context might mean for white people and PoC.”

Fran Martin, University of Exeter

It even can mean different things to educators, whether it be decolonising a curriculum, decolonising disciplines, and decolonising pedagogies. Fran and her colleague Fatima Pirbhai-Illich from the University of Regina, wrote an article putting ‘decolonisation’ in the context of primary geography education, for instance.

As I was finalising the preparation for this blog article and the video, very timely, this news story from The Guardian popped up into my feed, giving an example from just one point of view, in this case the Esselen tribe in the western USA.

“History is written by the victors”…?

This famous ‘quote’ used for this subtitle is in itself a rewriting of history. This quote, so often attributed to Churchill, actually can be found derived from sayings from at least hundred years earlier. And as Matthew Phelan puts in his Slate article from November last year: “We have rewritten history to credit the saying to one of the 20th century’s greatest victors.”.

In other words, from a ‘to the victor, the spoils’ way of putting it, the spoils are those with the power, privilege and authority to determine how others see the world and those who occupy it. A classic example from Geography is the world map itself, particularly the commonly used Mercator projection.

Mercator produced this map in the 16th century for the primary purpose to aid navigation, so we should ask ourselves why do we continue to use this map in the age of gyro compasses, radar and GPS, when (a) it puts the UK and Europe front and centre of the map, and (b) it’s distortion maps Europe and the ‘global north’ look larger?

Nothing best illustrates why colonial powers favoured the Mercator projection better than the The Imperial Federation Map of 1886. And if you want to take a deeper dive into the map and its frame, then Tariq Jazeel’s Postcolonial spaces and identities’ article in the Geography magazine’s Summer 2012 issue is a great read.

We should be free to use not just whatever map projection fits the topic of study (akin to choosing the appropriate graph or chart to present our data), but we should also think about the focus of the map. The world is round and space is three-dimensional, after all! NB: If you’re interested in having a play around with the large number of map projections, have a look at this cool website by Jacob Wasilkowski.

Sticking with maps, many teachers have observed that when it comes to learning about ethnicity and cultures of places, it often does not go much further beyond mapping where different groups live, providing simple push-pull migration factors which may fail to recognise wider structural and historical reasons for these patterns.

From Mangomap.com

An example of how mapping has led to racial discrimination has been the policy of ‘redlining’ in the United States. This 2014 article from Detroitography about a redlining map of 1939 gives a very good summary of the issue.

One of the wonders of teaching Geography is the incredible diversity of people, places and processes. As a subject, it really is a pick-n-mix lovers dream! So textbook pages such as this one is not just problematic, but massively unrepresentative. Do only these views on climate change matter?

From “Progress In Geography, Key Stage 3” (Hodder Education, 2018)

Examples can even be seen in exam questions. This particular question from Paper 2 of the 2018 AQA GCSE Geography exam has a number of issues. In an analysis presented in June, Dr Christine Winter from the School of Education at the University of Sheffield pointed out the term ‘War against Terrorism’ as problematic. Firstly, the term is actually a political slogan introduced by President George W Bush Since after the 9/11 attacks. Also ‘terrorism’ is not part of the GCSE Geography syllabus, and unlikely to been covered deeply at Key Stage 3, students knowledge of the concept is gained from media, family or community sources, and studies have shown that the dominant discourses particularly from the tabloid press associate terrorism with Muslims and Islam (Sharma and Nijjar, 2018; Younis and Jadhav, 2019).

While a display of racial prejudice may not have been intentional, this does call into question the checks and balances various educational establishments, including exam boards, have in order to mitigate implicit biases.

Africa

But certainly a prime example is the almost universal misconceptions and stereotypes children have of the continent of Africa. Exploring this further, including reasons why this may have come about would take a series of dedicated videos itself. But one great read in summary the essay “How to write about Africa” by the late Kenyan author and journalist, Binyavanga Wainaina.

Here a some paritcular passages which might reasonate with either how you’ve been taught, or could be teaching about the continent:

“If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.”

“…treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving”

 “African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.”

Our narrow and stereotyped depictions of Africa, and relying on single stories not just fuels misconception and lack of knowledge, but in-turn forms a ‘rotten core’ of misunderstanding, disrespect and prejudice. In this TED talk “The danger of a single story”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recalls the time when she was 19 at university in the USA. An American roommate was ‘shocked’ by Chimanada, asking questions such as ‘How did you learn English so well?’, ‘Can I listen to your ‘tribal’ music? And was surprised that she could use a stove. Chimamanda said that her roommate ‘felt sorry’ for her before getting to know her – a patronising ‘well meaning’ pity. Do make sure you check out this brilliant TED talk.

It’s worth noting here, going back to earlier on regarding the different views on what is meant by ‘decolonisation’, Adichie herself takes space as her class and ethnicity have power within Nigerian society. This is another example that defining decolonisation varies in many different contexts and experiences.

Of course, Africa is a vast and exceptionally diverse continent. One attempt to visualise this through mapping has been Harvard University’s map based on a book edited by anthropologist Marc Leo Felix.

You can explore this map yourself by going to http://worldmap.harvard.edu/africamap/ and treat yourself to displaying dozens of datasets that attest to Africa’s diversity, whether it be language, ethnic groups, ecosystems.

How to ‘Decolonise’ Geography

What us educators can do to address these issues is a major topic itself, something to perhaps dive deeper in a future follow-up. But before actions are taken to say, update curriculum or think about pedagogical approaches, reflection is a useful first step. I’m part of one network of teachers, academics and students working on how to support ‘decolonising’ Geography education. Members of the network are putting together a guide for teachers “Decolonising and postcolonialism in a nutshell”, and in that document are a set of reflective questions that teachers can ask themselves when starting on a journey to decolonise their classrooms. Questions such as:

  • For whom do you design your curriculum? Who is your ideal, imagined student and what assumptions do you make about their backgrounds, culture, languages and schooling?
  • How do you relate to the cultures, languages and lived experiences of all students? Do you draw on these valuable resources in your teaching?
  • How do you build a learning community in your classroom where students learn actively from each other and draw on their own knowledge sources?

I will leave a greater focus on ‘how to’ perhaps for a future update. In the meantime, you should definitely check out Rach Robinson’s GeoTeach blog, and her “How can we decolonise geography?” article from a few weeks ago.

Acknowledgements & Further reading

To help mitigate my thin layer of knowledge and understanding, and to counter my potential implicit and subconscious biases, I had help and input from the folks on the ‘Decolonise Geography’ working group set up by David Rees; a team of teachers, academics, students and other interested parties collaborating to support educators in their decolonising efforts. Special thanks in particular to David Rees, Trisha Kavanagh, Hafsa Garcia, Chantal Mayo-Hollaway, Christine Winter and Fran Martin for their contributions and suggestions. Most of the ideas on this article either came from them, or were certainly at least refined and enriched by them!

  • Pirbhai-Illich, Pete & Martin (Eds.) Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: Working towards Decolonization, Indigeneity and Interculturalism. ISBN 978-3-319-46328-5 (link)
  • Martin, Fran & Pirbhai-Illich, Fatima. (2017). Places, spaces and boundaries: A critical look at the relational in geography classrooms. 140 – 146.
  • Jazeel, Tariq. (2012) Postcolonial spaces and identities. Geography magazine (Volume 97, Issue 2)
  • Sharma, Sanjay & Nijjar, Jasbinder. (2018). The racialized surveillant assemblage: Islam and the fear of terrorism. Popular Communication. 16. 72-85. 10.1080/15405702.2017.1412441.
  • Younis, T., Jadhav, S. Keeping Our Mouths Shut: The Fear and Racialized Self-Censorship of British Healthcare Professionals in PREVENT Training. Cult Med Psychiatry 43, 404–424 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-019-09629-6
  • Winter, C. (2020) Is the school GCSE Geography curriculum in England white? Presentation to the Decolonising Geography Collective, 18 June, 2020.
  • Wainaina, Binyavanga. How to write about Africa. ISBN 9789966700827 (link)
  • Rach Robinson’s GeoTeach Blog: How can we decolonise geography? (3rd July 2020) https://geoteach.co.uk/decolonising-geography.html

Corrections and addendums (updated 3rd August 2020)

Apologies for some mispronunciation of names in the video, particularly Fatima Pirbhai-Illich’s name (5:14). Usually and under better circumstances, I’m more careful about this, and certainly more articulate than I was in this video! I’ll aim to do better next time.

It also needs to be acknowledged that Fran Martin was the third editor of the ‘Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: Working towards Decolonization, Indigeneity and Interculturalism’ book, and although the correct citation is given above, more emphasis and acknowledgement should have been given to Fatima Pirbhai-Illich & Shauneen Pete in the video (4:40). It has been rightly pointed out that if Fran Martin is the only one who is name-checked, then it could be misconstrued as her benefiting from the work of scholars of colour (Pirbhai-Illich) and Indigenous scholars (Pete).


All my education work via Geogramblings is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by ‘buying me a coffee. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

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