Wikipedia serves as a subtle form of information warfare against colonized populations. The colonial act of erasing cultures includes the psychological condition of feeling as if you cannot and should not “disrupt” the information architecture. – Alexandria Lockett in Wikipedia @ 20
Wikipedia is the world’s largest reference work, and it has also become the most freely accessible one. But its size and universality comes at a cost if people end up with the mistaken belief that Wikipedia is relatively complete. As an organization that helps others improve Wikipedia, we know this is not the reality. Wikipedia reflects the interests and unconscious biases of the people who create it, and those people aren’t reflective of the world as a whole. Groups like Women in Red and Art + Feminism have worked for years to improve the representation of women on Wikipedia, as have our own partnerships and projects that aim to increase Wikipedia’s coverage of women in STEM. There’s still a long way to go. While Wikipedia’s representation of race is more difficult to track than gender, it looks like we’re making less progress on that front.
Yet intuitively, most of us know how much representation matters. In A Promised Land, in response to Michelle’s question “why you Barack? Why do you need to be President?” Barack Obama replies:
I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be President of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country — Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in — they’ll see themselves differently too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded.
If you can’t see yourself in a certain role, it’s really difficult to aspire to it. A Black president matters. A Black and South Asian and woman Vice President matters. Is this enough to inspire Black and brown kids? If we’ve shattered these ceilings, should we redirect our attentions, having accomplished such feats? No, it’s not enough, because realistically, most of us are never going to become a head of state. Without an achievable path through the middle tiers, there was no way for a non-white person to envision how to get to these kinds of positions, even though people of color have long done the work without recognition.
We strive toward a Wikipedia that represents the world, telling everyone’s stories. Without that, white supremacists will always be able to look at history and say, “See: we did this.” Not because it’s true, but because the history of human achievement has been written to buttress that perception. The rest of us aren’t interlopers in their history, we are full participants in a world we, too, have shaped. As I have written in the past, “For me, Wikipedia has always been about empowerment. My first edits were about claiming the right to have a say in the way our own stories are told.” Not only do we need to better represent communities of color within Wikipedia’s encyclopedic content, but we need to create space for communities to tell their own stories.
Organizations like AfroCROWD, Black Lunch Table, and many of the instructors running classes in our Student Program are actively working to make Wikipedia more like what it needs to be, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Come join us!