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10: North America

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    Re-Framing North America

    One goal of a world regional geography course is to offer students a new perspective—to “see the world with new eyes”. A foundational understanding is that a person’s perspective is situated in a particular time and place. This is true for the authors of this textbook, who are community college geography professors in California. In this textbook, each world region is presented from a spatial perspective that highlights the interconnectedness of people and places around the world. In doing so, it’s important to uncover the biased notions that we have about faraway places developed from misleading media, Eurocentric educational practices, and other sources of information that do not take into account the diversity of experiences in places we might never have direct contact with—what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls a “single story”. This chapter’s goal is to continue to dismantle preconceived ideas, challenge spatial heuristics, and provide a more inclusive spatial perspective. This effort is particularly demanding because of the pervasiveness of the ideas of American exceptionalism, the attempted erasure of Native Peoples in both the past and present, and the unresolved and contradictory histories of both Canada and the United States. This chapter on North America is an invitation to question previous narratives about the American experience, and if not to see North America with new eyes, to at least build a depth of understanding to perspectives that are often ignored.

    American exceptionalism refers to the beliefs and practices that the United States is superior to other countries. One policy example was “Manifest Destiny” which was used as a rationale to expand westward in the 1800s because God ordained it to be so with a complete disregard for the original inhabitants of the continent, causing genocide and dispossession of Native Americans. “Most statements of ‘American exceptionalism’ presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage”.[1]

    National pride is a common feeling experienced in countries all over the world,and that alone does not have negative outcomes, but the American experience of pride can be rooted in erroneous assumptions of how the United States compares with other countries. This hampers an understanding of world affairs. Certainly, there is no single perspective that could sum up how people in other countries view the United States, it’s government, it’s people, and it’s cultural exports. But it is important to note that “nothing is more vexing to foreigners than Americans’ belief that America is a shining city on a hill — a place apart where a better way of life exists, one to which all other peoples should aspire”.[2]

    Let’s consider how the United States and Canada rank in terms of key indicators provided by the CIA World Factbook, the United Nations, and other sources when compared to the more than 190 countries in the world (Table 10-1). In doing so, it is clear that while the United States might be first in the hearts of Americans, it does not rank first in some key international comparisons. By understanding these realities we can address the underlying societal issues and make a better world for the future.


    Table 10-1. Rankings of the United States and Canada on Selected Economic and Demographic Indicators.

    Indicator United States Ranking Canada Ranking Top Ranked Country
    Gross Domestic Product (GDP per capita)[3] 17th 34th Liechtenstein
    Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI)[4] 25th 14th Iceland
    World Press Freedoms Index[5] 42nd 19th Norway
    Maternal Mortality Ration (the number of female death per 100,000 live births)[3]


    (55th best)


    (39th best)

    Belarus, Italy, Norway, Poland
    Life Expectancy at Birth[3] 46th 6th Monaco
    Public Expenditure on Education as a percentage of GDP[3] 66th 48th Marshall Islands
    Voter Turnout[6]


    (among OECD countries)


    (among OECD countries)

    Democracy Index Score[7] 30th 12th Norway
    Environmental Performance Index[8] 43rd 49th Denmark
    World Happiness Index[9] 15th 16th Finland


    As we consider these indicators and how they challenge the narrative of American exceptionalism, we invite you to reflect on a quote from the renowned writer James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually".[10] Born in Harlem in 1924, James Baldwin made important and lasting contributions to American literature and social history (Figure 10.1). As a gay Black author, civil rights activist, and social commentator, Baldwin shaped discussions about race and sexuality. He was active and influential in literary, political, and social circles. Due to racial tensions in the United States, and especially to his personal experiences, Baldwin moved to France. He described himself as a “transatlantic commuter,” traveling often between the United States and France. His work continued to focus on America’s ongoing struggles with race. He wrote and spoke extensively about the Civil Rights movement and the reality of Black lives in America.


    Baldwin holding book If Beale Street Could Talk; Mural with black, red, and yellow tiles extending outward behind him
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): [left] A 1974 photograph James Baldwin in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, with a Dutch translation of his novel If Beale Street Could Talk (CC0 1.0; Rob Croes / Anefo via Wikimedia Commons). [right] A mural in 167th St. Station in New York memorializes James Baldwin. Murals are important windows to studying geography because they communicate important cultural and historical information as well as struggles, values, and aspirations of the local communities and the icons they celebrate in their public spaces (CC BY 2.0; Drasky via Flickr).


    Notes of a Native son: The World According to James Baldwin - Christina Greer

    Learn more about the biography of James Baldwin, his rejection of the label “an ambassador for Black Americans”, and his impact on the national fabric of the United States in this video. To access the FBI’s file on James Baldwin, visit the webpage provided by the FBI based on Freedom of Information Act requests.


    The World Geographies Atlas: Navigate each world region through maps

    For each of the world regions, our original atlas provides detailed maps to help you navigate the places discussed in this book. These maps are meant to be explored before and during the reading of this chapter. These maps are best enjoyed enlarged. Click on each map for an enlarged view, and zoom in to see the prominent biomes, physical features, and population centers of Middle and South America. We recommend that you download these for reference as you read this chapter's content and hope that you enjoy this original compilation.

    Biome and physical features map of North America
    Countries, capitals, and population sizes map of North America
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): [left] This physical map shows the geographic distribution of biomes in North America and prominent physical features, like peaks, rivers, lakes, oceans, plateaus, mountains, and tectonic boundaries (CC BY-NC-SA; Wallace via Flickr). [right] This map depicts internationally recognized countries, capitals, major cities, and population distributions of North America (CC BY-NC-SA; Sellers via Flickr).




    [1] Walt, Stephen M. 2011. The myth of American exceptionalism. Foreign Policy.

    [2] Kohut, Andrew & Stokes, Bruce. 2006. The problem of American exceptionalism. Pew Research Center.

    [3] CIA World Factbook. 2022. Real GDP per capita, Maternal Mortality Ratio, Life expectancy at birth, Public Expenditure on Education.

    [4] UN Data. 2022. Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI).

    [5] Reporters without Borders. 2022. World Press Freedoms Index.

    [6] Pew Research Center. 2022. Turnout in U.S. has soared in recent elections but by some measures still trails that of many other countries.

    [7] Economist Intelligence Unit. 2023. Democracy Index 2022.

    [8] Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy. 2022. Environmental Performance Index.

    [9] Sustainable Development Solutions Network. 2022. World Happiness Report.

    [10] Baldwin, James. 1955. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon.


    “Re-Framing North America” is adapted from James Baldwin Residence, New York City by the U.S. National Parks Service (public domain).

    10: North America is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Waverly Ray.