You probably didn’t know that a map projection you’ve been familiar with all your life is a racist cultural institution. It’s the Mercator map projection – a projection method (one of many) that registers the spheroid globe on a rectangle – and it’s been undermining your morals for centuries now.
Boston’s public schools are going to change all that, starting this month. They are adopting a different map projection, the Gall-Peters projection, in order to “decolonize the curriculum” and cease to “perpetuate racism.”
Boston schools have an assistant superintendent in charge of the Office of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps. It’s a Mr. Colin Rose, and he has some pretty strong sentiments on this:
“So this is about maps, but it isn’t about maps,” Rose said. “It’s about a paradigm shift in our district. We’ve had a very fixed view that is very Eurocentric. How do we talk about other viewpoints? This is a great jump off point.”
Replacing the Mercator map was at the top of the list, he said, because the map “is, in my mind, one of the most insidious examples of how schools perpetuate racism.”
The Mercator projection’s offense is that it makes the land masses close to the poles look relatively bigger, and the land masses close to the Equator look relatively smaller. So Europe, for example, looks bigger than it really is relative to Africa, and Africa looks smaller than it really is relative to Europe.
The virtue of the Gall-Peters projection, on the other hand, is that it makes the land masses close to the Equator look gigantically elongated, and the land masses close to the poles look squinched up and weirdly spread out on the viewer’s horizontal.
As you can see, I’m not kidding.
Note that neither map projection succeeds in making the land masses look accurately proportional to each other. This is a well-known, long-frustrating problem with map projections intended to produce rectangular presentations. There is no projection that produces a rectangle without distorting the land masses in proportion to each other.
The depiction of Africa on a Gall-Peters map looks just as silly and out of whack as Greenland looks on a Mercator. But make no mistake, as our old POTUS-in-Chief used to say. The Gall-Peters projection has been adopted for the Boston schools precisely because it makes Africa look unnaturally huge in proportion to – well, let’s just be honest, North America.
Congratulations to Boston, for paying people to think this stuff up.
If you’re old enough, you probably remember being taught as a kid that flat map projections distort the land masses. I know I was. My fourth-grade teacher had us do an exercise in which we formed teams of two, took tracing paper, and traced the outlines of countries on the classroom globe. We cut the outlines out and then overlaid them on other parts of the globe to see what it looked like when countries were compared accurately.
We learned from that what the Mercator projection does to our perceptions. It was a useful exercise, leaving an impression I’ve never forgotten. The big findings I remember were that India and the African continent are bigger than they look on a flat (Mercator) map, and Greenland and Russia are smaller.
There is nothing wrong with adopting a different map projection for use in the schools. But choosing a projection because it makes Africa look distortedly big, and the United States look distortedly small, is just stupid.
If the concern is about accuracy of perception, there are multiple options for choosing a projection that yields a flat but not rectangular presentation.
Here are a couple:
Why not choose one of those? They have the advantage of looking sensible, and not needing explanations like “We’re decolonizing, here, people, so you’ll just have to keep living with bizarrely distorted land masses for the next 50 years.”
In the meantime, if you could use a little mini-vacation from political lunacy, there are a couple of websites here and here where you can play with map projections and get a feel for what they do. They’re fun and educational. (Be sure to verify how comparatively small Antarctica really is. Few if any projections convey its proportions accurately.) Check out Ed Straker at the top link for other interesting and informative map presentations.
Exit point: none of this was ever about race.