This campaign was created by Julia Wilcots, Meghana Ranganathan, Rohini Shivamoggi, and Diana Dumit, Ph.D candidates at the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT, to raise awareness and support for bill H.R. 8455.
As geoscientists, we have unique ties to natural features and as women of color, we understand and have experienced the difficulties of navigating the geosciences with minoritized identities. One of these difficulties is the legacy of racism, colonialism, and oppression that is embedded in the geosciences and in the geographic features of the United States. 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.
In January 2021, while planning for a future geologic field season, we encountered an offensive, anti-Black racial slur used as a place name in a publication describing the geology of southern New Mexico. Caught off-guard by seeing this slur printed in a document that has been passed along and cited by numerous geologists since its publication in the 1960s, we began digging into the issue of racist, offensive terms used as place names in the United States. Aided by MIT Assistant Professor Kristin Bergmann, we worked quickly to redact the initial offending document and reached out to librarians and colleagues to ask them to do the same.
Soon, we realized this problem extends far beyond the one example we encountered in southern New Mexico; over one thousand natural features in the United States have racist names. We learned that many of the current, offical, government-recognized racist place names, before the 1960s, contained racial slurs -- words that are now, thankfully, explicitly banned.
Shocked, not only by the existence of these names, but also by the lack of attention they have received, we immediately sought to understand how to go about removing racist language from place names in the United States. This led us to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), which has a form we could fill out to request a name change. However, the BGN states themselves that they do not prioritize action on changing names. Furthermore, the BGN lists only two words as truly racist and offensive and requests that when you ask for a name change, you propose a new name that is in the same spirit as the original name. Unfortunately, this process seemed to us to be inefficient and potentially problematic (how do you choose a new name that is in the same spirit as an ugly and offensive name?).
We were very excited to learn that Rep.s Deb Haaland and Al Green have introduced a bill to expedite the name-change process. Their bill will create a committee within the government dedicated solely to re-evaluating the names of geographic features. In this way, individual citizens will not have to contend with the beaurocracy involved in changing offensive names one at a time, each with the possibility of the BGN rejecting the proposal on the basis of the old name not being offensive enough or on the new name not fully representing the spirit of the original name. Instead, members of Congress and the new committee would take charge, evaluating names themselves and working with communities to ensure that the features are renamed in a respectful, honorable manner.
Advocacy and this campaign
As geoscientists, we are in a great position to advocate for this bill, both because many of us spend our lives studying these natural features and because as we work to diversify the geosciences, racist and offensive names on public lands serve only as a barrier to our efforts. Thus, we created this campaign to give a centralized location for geoscientists to advocate for this bill, H.R. 8455. The first stage of this campaign is an open letter, encouraging others to support the bill, which is open to be signed by any member of the geoscience, Earth, and environmental sciences community (including students, researchers, teachers, advocates, activists, and anyone who considers themselves involved in environmental work and/or Earth science work) and anyone else who is interested in supporting the bill.