In 2017, Boston public schools changed the world—or at least, its map. Boston schools changed their world maps from the common Mercator projection to the Peters projection. The result? Europe and the United States appeared to shrink overnight. Understanding how this could be, requires diving into the connection between maps and racism.
Saying that maps and racism are connected doesn’t mean that the standard Mercator map is inherently problematic or less accurate than the alternative. In fact, both maps are accurate, just in different ways. It’s the overuse of the Mercator projection that distorts our understanding of the world.
• Consider these world maps. How do different projections influence your perception of the world? What surprised you about the differences between the two? Discuss your ideas with a friend or family member.
• Support a child, parent, or educator in getting a Peters projection map as an alternative to the standard Mercator projection.
It’s impossible to create a flat map of the surface of a round object without creating distortion, either in area or shape. That’s why it’s impossible to get an orange peel to lie perfectly flat on a table. The Mercator projection was created in 1519 for naval navigation. The north-south and east-west lines on a rectangular Mercator map cross at right angles and correspond with north-south and east-west lines on the actual globe. To achieve this, areas closer to the north and south poles are enlarged, while regions at the equator are made comparatively smaller (CNN, The Guardian).
Picture a standard Mercator map of the world with parallel vertical lines running north-south. In reality, all those parallel north-south lines meet at the two poles. To display those vertical lines as parallel to each other in a way useful to navigators, the top and bottom of the map must be stretched compared to the middle.
The maps in textbooks, on classroom walls, and on the mobile version of Google Maps are all the Mercator projection (The Verge). But nobody depends on any of these maps to conduct 16th-century seafaring. So why has it become the default?
Since the Mercator projection enlarges areas closer to the poles and compresses areas at the equator, North America and Europe are enlarged, giving European and North American mapmakers more room to fill in details of their home countries. But the fact that most people only ever see this map projection creates biases in our understanding of the world.
Here’s a Mercator projection compared to the actual relative size of countries. The light blue shows the size of each country depicted in the Mercator projection. The dark blue represents the actual size of each country. By analyzing the differences, you can see how an everyday person would believe that North America and Europe are far larger than other continents.
On a Mercator projection, Greenland looks as large as the continent of Africa. In reality, Africa is 14 times larger. Africa is larger than North America, India, Argentina, and Tunisia combined. Greenland is closer in size to the Democratic Republic of Congo (CNN, The Guardian).
“The world maps that prevail today have been embedded in Western imaginations since the British empire. They continue (to prevail) despite many challenges to their fairness and accuracy because they underpin the ongoing Anglo-Euro-American presumption that the world belongs to them, and pivots around these geo-cultural axes,” says Marianne Franklin of the University of London.
The Mercator projection exaggerates not only the size of the United States but also its rivals. “If you take the Mercator projection, where Russia looks huge, give it a bright red color and then compare it to the rest of Europe, you see how dangerous it can look,” says International Cartographic Association President Menno-Jan Kraak. And the standard map is always oriented with the north at the top, with wealthy and powerful North American and European countries conveniently sitting atop the rest (The Guardian).
Consider how different the Mercator projection appears compared to this Peters projection oriented with south at the top:
Because all maps of our round planet create distortions, the Peters projection isn’t more or less accurate than the Mercator projection. While the Mercator projection preserves parallel lines at the expense of distorting the area of shapes, the Peters projection distorts countries’ shapes to preserve their correct relative regions. Boston students are shown the two maps side by side to compare and contrast, enriching their understanding of geography and correcting misconceptions about the world. This shift allows us to better understand our world, maps, and racism, all at once.
• Some schools are changing from the Mercator to Peters projection for world maps.
• The Mercator projection greatly exaggerates the size of areas closer to the poles, like the United States, compared to those closer to the equator, like much of Africa.
• All maps create distortions, but the universal use of the Mercator projection distorts our understanding of the world.