Improving Wikipedia’s coverage of racial justice

Wikipedia remains the product of the world in which it is created. A recent survey of US-based contributors to the English Wikipedia found that only 0.5% of editors identified as Black or African American. Making the contributor base more closely resemble the world at large is an important step toward a more equitable Wikipedia. And Wiki Education’s ability to attract a body of student editors who are substantially more representative of the population at large plays an important part in our ability to begin to address the issue of racial justice in the way Wikipedia articles are written.

Over the last few years, the tragedy of Kalief Browder, an African American boy who was imprisoned without trial on Rikers Island for three years (and later died by suicide) has gotten more of the attention it deserves, but in Spring 2017 it was still possible for a student in a Wiki Education-supported class to make important changes ot the way he was presented in Google searches by adding 26 words to the lead section of the article.

Because of Wikipedia’s ubiquity, changes like this can be transformative. And student editors who improve Wikipedia articles as part of a Wiki Education-supported class are in an excellent position to address racial justice issues while making articles better for all readers.

In addition to creating and expanding articles about Black anthropologists like Donna Auston and John L. Jackson Jr., students in Hanna Garth’s BlackLivesMatter class created an article about the Museum of Black Joy and expanded the Black Lives Matter art article. Another group of students expanded the school discipline article to add to and expand coverage of disparities in the ways that school discipline impacts Black students.

When faced with a broad topic like school discipline, it’s easy to focus on the median. The task of trying to cover an entire area of knowledge like this can be overwhelming, and it’s entirely natural to start with what’s broadly applicable to all groups. But when you create a framework about the median, the next editor who comes along and tries to expand the page is likely to be guided by what’s already there. Over time, as a page is expanded and revised, you can end up with a page that seems complete, but actually elides important information. By adding topics like these to an article, student editors can fill important gaps. And when the experience of Black and other minoritized communities are added to Wikipedia, they become that much more visible to the world.

Students in Laura Gutierrez’s Hispanic USA class focused on a number of articles related to racial justice, in particular the Sterilization of Latinas articles, adding a lot of information about policies in California and the eugenicist organization that spearheaded them, and about the treatment of women in Puerto Rico. Striking in their additions was this quote:

the Immigration Act of 1924 further developed the idea that labor-migrants were needed, but women and children were not as there was a fear of Latino and Immigrant invasion

Another group of students in the class expanded the Bracero program article. By adding information about the wives and families of the men employed in this program, the students added humanizing dimensions to an article that previously covered the program in mostly economic and labor history terms. The class also created a new article about the 1970 takeover of the Lincoln Hospital in South Bronx by the Young Lords. The goal of the takeover was to raise awareness of the disparities in health care and health outcomes experienced in this primarily poor, primarily non-white community.

Topics related to the health of Black and minoritized communities were also addressed by a student in Carwil Bjork-James’ Biology and Culture of Race class who created an article on race and maternal health in the United States and by students in Diana Strassmann’s Poverty, Justice, and Human Capabilities class who created articles about medical racism in the United States and environmental racism in the United States. Other students in this class also expanded the racial disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States article and the racial capitalism article, among many others.

The article on discrimination based on skin color attracted edits both by a student in this class and by a student in Coleman Nye’s Feminist Approaches to Research class.

While Wikipedia policy does a good job of addressing deadnaming, the issue of slave names is only indirectly handled through the guidelines related to changed names. This mirrored in a comparison between the encyclopaedia’s 1000-word deadnaming article and the slave name article which covers the common meaning together, the practice in Ancient Rome and Sinéad O’Connor’s conversion to Islam, all in a little over 300 words. This, in a large part, reflects the way that Wikipedia reflects the composition of its editing community. Student editors are part of the process of making that editing community more representative.

Interested in adding a Wikipedia assignment to your class? Visit for more information.

Image credit: August Schwerdfeger from Minneapolis, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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