Written by:
David Jesudason

Tackling racial disparities on Wikipedia

Read time:
7 minutes

Tackling racial disparities on Wikipedia

One of the world’s most popular websites, Wikipedia is a vital resource for people across the globe, yet marginalised communities remain underrepresented in terms of both entries and editors. Campaign groups and volunteers are working hard to address the imbalance, writes David Jesudason.

To trace the racial disparities on Wikipedia you have to go back to 1911, as well as to its founding year of 2001. When the fourth-most popular website in the world was created nearly two decades ago volunteers bulked out articles by using out-of-copyright sources, including the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. If you want to get a flavour of the attitudes to race of this book of ‘knowledge’, look up the entry for ‘negro’, which it says is a person who is ‘distinctly dark-skinned, as opposed to the fair, yellow, and brown variations of mankind’.

As well as using these outdated materials, Wikipedia tends to accept sources that typically disfavour marginalised communities for citation of facts: it does not permit oral history to be used for this purpose and instead gives higher regard to newspapers from Europe and North America. 

This has prompted the establishment of campaign groups such as News on Wiki and AfroCROWD. ‘Wikipedia relies on sources that already have a significant amount of bias and racism,’ says Kelly Foster, open-knowledge advocate and founding organiser of AfroCROWD UK, which aims to improve information about Black culture and history on the site.

As well as using these racist building blocks, Wikipedia has marginalised people of colour and women since it launched, even though it is billed as a democratic platform that allows anyone to become an editor. It does so because 0.5 per cent editors in the US are Black (the figure is even lower in the UK); the vast majority are white males who, it appears, are more likely to be interested in military history rather than telling the stories of marginalised communities.

‘One of the most organised communities on Wikipedia is the military history community,’ says Foster. ‘This is why there are so many articles on different types of tanks and battleships.’

‘Various entries were deleted for spurious reasons’

It’s profoundly frustrating. I’ve been researching the colour bar in Britain, which is where Black and Asian people were barred from jobs, housing, toilets, dance halls, restaurants and even sections of pubs where only white people were allowed. It operated in public view and became illegal from the mid-1960s although prosecutions in the 70s, 80s and 90s for this type of racial segregation were rare.

Wikipedia tells a different story: before I created a page in March 2022 it said there was no ‘legally sanctioned system of racial segregation’ in the UK and failed to mention the thousands of cases of the colour bar operating around up and down the country well into the 1980s. (If someone protested against the colour bar, they were often arrested instead of the racists barring them.)

Creating this page was a voluntary pursuit – I had to turn down paid writing work to do it. Despite having been a journalist for more than two decades, various entries were deleted for spurious reasons. If you quote directly from a publication you can have your work deleted for ‘plagiarism’, even if you include an attribution, which is what happened when I quoted a Guardian article that investigated the Buckingham Palace colour bar. As it was original journalism I felt it would be wrong to just cite the information, yet a Wikipedia editor disagreed with this approach and deleted the information.   

But I’m stubborn and know how to game a system created by white people – I’m British-Asian and work in a white-dominated industry (92 per cent of journalists in the UK are white). So I’ve befriended a Wikimedian who works for the science museum and library the Wellcome Collection – she oversees my work and gives me tips on how to get it past the editors. It has worked, but it doesn’t feel like a pursuit anyone on the street can do.

‘The more time you spend on [Wikipedia],’ says Foster. ‘The more you realise the impact that one person can make.’

‘Look at how people from all around the world aren’t represented on Wikipedia’

I discovered how bad things were by accident after writing an article about a prominent British-Indian anti-racism campaigner, Avtar Jouhl Singh, who changed history by showing Malcolm X the colour bar in the West Midlands town of Smethwick in 1965. Despite this great work and being honoured by the Queen for standing up for employment rights, Singh doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, making him less prominent than a tank that’s been obsolete for a century, a sunk battleship or a footballer for a third-tier club.

‘People in England would love to know more about him,’ says Foster. ‘Extrapolate that globally and look at how people from all around the world aren’t represented on Wikipedia. It’s an online community that doesn’t escape the foibles of a multitude of different attitudes and approaches, but I have a buffer of people who are doing similar work and that’s what drives me.’

The ‘buffer’ Foster speaks about is a network of like-minded people who can support you to become an editor and ‘game Wikipedia’s white system’, as I have done. Luckily, this is something that AfroCROWD offers and needs more people to sign up to help its cause in making Black history more prominent on Wikipedia.

I tell Sherry Antoine, executive director of AfroCROWD, about my frustrations of working hard to create pages only to have them deleted by faceless editors, and she’s keen to offer solutions to my plight. ‘Our main purpose is to amplify and champion the Black community on Wikipedia,’ she says. ‘We not only train editors and get more people involved, we also ally with different groups to enlarge our footprint.’

‘There’s no escaping the reach of Wikipedia’

One of the positive practical steps AfroCROWD has taken to change these systemic problems are to run 'edit-a-thons' (a subject where there are gaps is chosen, like this one on Black comics, and novice editors are mentored on how to create pages). ‘We want to take away the intimidation, which is a big factor,’ Antoine says. ‘And we want to engage with communities who are already there and expand what they are doing.’

There’s no escaping the reach of Wikipedia: it’s such a powerful tool that it can’t be ignored by people of colour. So one of the only ways to help commemorate our past is to become an editor and meet a bunch of like-minded people who are fighting the same fight. I especially implore anyone from a diverse background, who wants to preserve social history, to do the same.

David Jesudason is a British-Asian freelance journalist whose book Desi Pubs: A Guide to British-Indian Pubs, Food & Culture has been hailed as ‘the most important volume about pubs for half a century’. He writes for BBC Culture, the Guardian and Pellicle and has a Substack newsletter, Episodes of My Pub Life.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo © iStock/zmeel

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