Geographic Discrimination

What if... there was a large nation with many different regions. What if one region in particular was removed from the national conscience. What if, each region supposedly being equal, this one was still ignored. What if it was left off maps. What if, even when it was on maps, it was misplaced and made many times smaller than reality. What if most people knew not a thing about it, except perhaps a few degrading or condescending stereotypes, or perhaps a few recent negative newscasts about the region's backwards leaders or foolish enterprises. What if businesses in the nation cared not to transport goods to the region, sometimes considering it foreign, or charging exorbitant shipping rates all the same. What if the one national company bearing the region's name wasn't even based in it. What if I had ended all these questions with question marks. What if.

Maps are important. Little geo-whiz that I am, I appreciate cartography to no end, and I know its power. Long have I been a tireless enemy of the Mercator projection - a manipulatory and vile mockery of the world's true form. The Mercator map often turns the northern half of the earth into two-thirds; when this isn't done its insanity is even more obvious, as Antarctica is made huge in comparison to the rest of the world. The map bloats northerly regions of the developed world to many times their true size, especially compared to the downsized equatorial regions of the developing world. Some oft-cited examples are that it makes Alaska seem bigger than Mexico and Greenland seems bigger than the entire continent of Africa, and Scandanavia seems bigger than India. All these things, of course, are ludicrously false. And yet, the Mercator is still commonplace. Children grow up thinking of Europe and the northern developed world as large, and Africa, Latin America, and Southern Asia as small. Such subconscious feeding of untruths is extremely unhealthy.

Images: above, the grossly innaccurate Mercator; below, an accurate area representation (Gall-Peters). Surprising?

But that classic example is obviously not the case to which my introduction is leading. No, this case of cartographic discrimination is not primarily an issue of size - although that certainly plays into it. Firstly, it is an issue of mere recognition. Often as not, maps of the "United States" will omit the state of Alaska entirely. Hawai'i is omitted as well in these cases, obviously, but here I will address only my home state. Even in national news publications or Associated Press articles, diagrams of "U.S." statistics leave out the Union's largest member - and regardless of size, a member equal in worth to any other state.

When Alaska is included, it is almost always as an inset, and almost always the inset is downsized to the extreme and placed over what would otherwise be the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California. This is the case for all four of the images displayed when one searches "united states" on Google. If one does an image search for the same phrase, it takes til the fourteenth hit for Alaska even to be placed above the lower 48, and one must move to the second page and the 23rd hit in order to find the first location and area-accurate map. Before that point there were several maps that didn't include Alaska at all.

Alaska became a state 50 years ago. We are still not receiving the cartographic respect we deserve. Maps should not cater to notions of practicality or simplicity. If that were the case, we may as well draw boxes and put the names of the states on those. Cartography must reflect reality. That is the reason that this country must move beyond its childish ignorance and recognize Alaska (and Hawai'i) as they truly are. The 49th and 50th states (and I would say the 49th especially) are being oppressed in the mindset of the average American citizen. Images mold thought, and the images most people see of this country are absolutely disgraceful. Not only is Alaska's importance degraded by how it is shown (and not shown), but common representations of it further fuel the ignorance of this unique and wondrous land.

What I sought to seek in my introduction was to perhaps show how serious it really can be seen for an area to be treated in this way. No, this isn't all that serious of an issue, but all the same, it is serious when certain regions and peoples are ignored or misrepresented in a national culture. Moving beyond stereotypes and thinking about things as they are (rather than how it's funny to think about them) is a small step in a good direction. Learn a bit more about my home and I'll learn some more about yours.


  1. When I lived in NM, I was always asked by Tech "support" if we used the metric system or spoke English. Regionalism is rampant. But you are 100% correct about cartographic misrepresentation being criminal (or, at least, a darn shame)!


Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment!