Geoscientists Lead Efforts to Change Racist Place Names

Looking closely at maps can reveal troubling things

What happens when a map features a deeply racist place name?
Annie Spratt/Unsplash

You can easily lose yourself when looking at a map. A well-designed map can teach you plenty of things about a landscape you’ve never visited before, or reveal facets of a region closer to home. Unfortunately, sometimes maps can offer a different lesson — namely, that there are a lot of incredibly racist place names situated around the country. This isn’t unique to the United States, either; Australia has also had a reckoning with this in recent years.

In the last few years, a number of individuals and groups have been working tirelessly to draw attention to assorted hateful, offensive and racist place names. Isaac Stone Fish, in a 2020 editorial for The Washington Post, declared, “We have a naming problem” — and went on to enumerate examples across the country. A JSTOR Daily article by Matthew Wills, published earlier this year, offered more examples and probed the troubling history behind some of these names. As with anything dealing with racism in America, it’s an unsettling read.

A new article at Earther by Molly Taft focuses on a group of graduate students at MIT who are taking their own initiative to address racism in place names. Their efforts began when geologist Julia Wilcots was planning fieldwork, and caught sight of a racist term on the map she was using. Wilcots’s discovery led to a group effort to look for other similar phrases. Unfortunately, the scientists discovered plenty.

“We were shocked, and being four women of color in the geosciences, disconcerted that these are names that our fellow geoscientists of color could come across as they do their work,” glaciology postgraduate student Meghana Ranganathan told Earther.

The scientists have since created an open letter to address the issue. The introduction states, in part: “No geoscientist should be forced to contend with the violence of racist and offensive names, names that denigrate themselves and their communities, as they do their work.” There’s also a bill, currently before the House of Representatives, which would expedite the name-changing process. It’s a wide-ranging coalition addressing an issue that’s been left to linger for too long.

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