Introduction to Geography: 101
My journey into ‘Geography’ was all things but straightforward. As I write this piece, I think to myself “what do I even mean by Geography?”. On the one hand, it’s the study of the natural environment and the human interactions with it, but on the other, it’s who I am. I was born into an Indo-Afro-Caribbean family in London. My heritage meant that was able to take my first steps in Trinidad, but my British culture ensured I read with Biff and Chip. I knew what the Caribbean Sea looked and felt like before I would ever experience snow. From young, I have navigated and experienced, unknowingly, many different physical environments and the dynamic social spaces they hold. I grew up on a solid diet of ground provisions – plantain, yams and cassava – fresh from Ridley Road market, but at the same time eagerly awaited my Sunday roast (I didn’t realise macaroni cheese wasn’t a traditional dish but that’s beside the point.)
You see, my introduction to Geography stemmed from my multicultural background. I was a product of colonialism and transatlantic crossings – both in the time of Slavery but also post-World War II and again in the 80s.
One of my favourite novels is Small Island by Andrea Levy. In English Lit, we studied the theme of ‘Journeys’ and specifically transatlantic journeys in homage to the majority of my class’ African and Caribbean heritage. In hindsight, Small Island is as much about Geography than it is about the History between the UK and its post-war Caribbean migration. After all, when in Jamaica, Michael Roberts did run to protect Mrs Ryder during a Hurricane; All Caribbean Islands are vulnerable to tropical storms and Jamaica is no exception despite that it experiences less than its neighbouring islands. The story takes places across the UK, Jamaica and India where their climates and landscapes, societal norms and stereotypes are explored through the experiences of 4 main characters. But more importantly, the book draws parallels between these different geographical places that despite oceans separating them, remain interconnected and mirror each other. The UK’s relationship with the Caribbean is complex; The Caribbean as we know it today was profoundly shaped by the Colonial empires of Europe.
I often think back to the book’s setting and how British people reacted to the migration of the colonies after the war – unwelcoming and racist. Then I think about now and how much of an issue things like migration still is. The cause resulting from wars over resources, climate change and simply the legacy of colonialism.
For this reason, in school, I had a desire to study History at university, as I so eagerly wanted to learn about Black History and for once understand the dynamics of race and colonialism. However, my quest to understand Blackness did not outweigh my curiosity for the other systems involved in systemic ideologies – white supremacy and the need to be powerful. I had to learn about the relationship between land and people. It never made sense to me the most impoverished people were most impacted by natural disasters like hurricanes and droughts. Also, that those affected by colonialism (the “Global South”) continue to suffer in many ways but are resource-rich.
I switched from BA History to BSc Geography during enrolment. Although I sound like a BA Geographer, as much of what I’ve talked about resonates with ‘Human/Development’ Geography, I thought, and still think, that understanding how the earth works in its natural form can provide insight into how humans interact with it. It can help explain the advantages the ‘winners’ in history had, but also why my grandmother complains about the of the lack of rain. This is why I chose BSc Geography – it’s multidisciplinary.
In saying this, to my surprise, I didn’t think about being Black and Blackness to the extent I do now. Attending King’s College London – a leading global institution – I could not escape from the fact that in my entire year, you could literally count the number of black students studying Geography, with one hand. It was not hard to miss there was not a single Black faculty member in the department either.
It was the first time in a long time that I felt out of place in a space that I thought I’d feel comfortable in – it was Geography, not dinner with the Queen! I battled with the natural transition into university accompanied by dealing with rich kids (class is, I would argue, Britain’s number one issue, and perpetuates systemic racism, ableism and other oppressive structures). I actually had to explain my identity, culture and heritage as if I was not born on the same very soil as my fellow course mates. It could be down to the fact that the majority of students weren’t from London, so weren’t exposed to multiculturalism to the same extent, so it’s not entirely their fault – London does have you in this ‘metropolitan’ bubble that’s not a reflection of the country.
Yet the complexities of race and class in the UK and the hush hush acknowledgement of the role it has played in countries recovering from Colonialism was one of the reasons I did not originally gravitate to BA Geog. I thought studying the physical environment would reduce my interaction with topics that would be less problematic if the effects of Colonialism and Capitalism were acknowledged, but I thought wrong.
The truth is, BA or BSc it’s all the same – the narrative is white, and you know, “if it’s white, it’s gotta be right”.
Before my masters, I was extremely interested in water resource management. I went to Nepal to participate in a ‘Water, Sanitation and Hygiene’ programme. I thought the Nepalese village needed us, but I needed them. It was here that I decolonised my mind. They showed me what my Caribbean culture always had – the connection between land and people was sacred and not as complicated as the West made it out to be. Resources didn’t need so much governance and individuality, but a community. I also felt and better understood the threat of climate change first-hand and decided to pursue an MSc in Climate Change at King’s.
Today, intersectionality is what is missing from environmental discourses. Black and Indigenous input has been erased. The climate and ecological crisis evidence to this. Understanding the specific issues relating to climate and environmental change cannot be done through the lens of the oppressor.
I went back to King’s to avoid the BS from another institution because of the course. Although studying an MSc in Climate Change, with the infrastructure still deep-rooted in white perspectives, my mindset was devolved from Western attitudes.
Today as I negotiate the working world, I remind myself of my experiences, my history and my knowledge. I remind myself of my Geography and continue to apply it where I can.
Environment and Sustainability Coordinator
Thanks Brianna, this is a good read.
A genuinely eye-opening read, the journey Bree describes is powerful and yet still finds time to reflect on such topics as class and ableism. Your comments on intersectionality are so correct it lead me to reflect on my own work/education in the environment sector.
This was a delightful read. You display a certain honesty,a comfort in narrating the uncomfortable, when reflecting on your identities through experiences. The ‘community’ approach to the environment from Black perspectives needs to shine through now more than ever.