This paper examines the politics of knowledge on Wikipedia through a Black feminist lens, with particular attention to Patricia Hill Collins’s concept of Black women as “the outsider within” in intellectual spaces. We present an assignment in which a class of predominantly Black, female undergraduate students were tasked with analyzing and then improving content on Wikipedia. Wikipedia strives to be unbiased through a transparent writing and editing process that draws on reliable, published sources. These protocols regularly help catch and fix hoaxes and content vandalism. Nonetheless, we build on existing scholarship to show that Wikipedia has other kinds of biases that result in racist and sexist knowledge gaps, euphemisms, stereotypes, and misrepresentation. These problems are a result of (1) the personal experiences and opinions of Wikipedia editors, who are predominantly white and male; (2) the requirement for subjects to be deemed “noteworthy” through citing multiple sources that meet Wikipedia’s standards of reliability; and (3) gatekeeping practices by the existing editors. As a result, we argue that Wikipedia can not only extend but also exacerbate pro–white male biases present in the source materials that Wikipedia draws on. We note the potential for more diverse editors to improve Wikipedia content, but we also offer cautionary observations on this strategy. Last, we suggest that college instructors can teach students to better understand racialized and gendered knowledge processes through assignments to contribute to Wikipedia that are paired with supportive readings.

Internet proponents of the 1990s put forth a vision of the internet that would flatten power hierarchies through connecting people around the world and promoting the free transfer of knowledge (Turner 2006). Wikipedia was born out of such a utopian vision in 2001 (Konieczny 2014). Indeed, its makers still encourage users to “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge” (Wikimedia Foundation, n.d.).

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia managed by the NGO Wikimedia Foundation. It is written collaboratively by people around the world; the English-language Wikipedia has 122,000 registered users who have performed an action on the site in the last thirty days (Anon., n.d.-i). The editors contribute new content, assess each other’s work, create and enforce behavior norms and content policy, and adjudicate disputes (Jemielniak 2014; McDowell and Vetter 2021). The editors are called Wikipedians, and they contribute to articles on everything from soul food to Indian Nobel laureates to Brexit negotiations in over three hundred different languages. Wikipedians skew heavily male. In 2020, only 15 percent of Wikipedia contributors globally identified as female; in Northern America, 22 percent did (Wikimedia Foundation 2021). Data on racial identity was not collected until 2020, and then only in the United States and Great Britain. Eighty-nine percent of US Wikipedia editors identified as white, while only 0.5 percent of US contributors identified as Black or African American. In Great Britain, 0.0 percent of editors identified as Black or Black British (Wikimedia Foundation 2021).

Wikipedia has vast reach. The English-language Wikipedia alone has more than 6.7 million separate articles (Anon., n.d.-p). Wikipedia has emerged as a major global information source (Jemielniak 2014). It is now the single most referenced online encyclopedia in the world and the seventh most referenced website, with twenty-five billion page views per month (Similarweb, n.d.; Wikimedia, n.d.). Its content is featured in Google searches and reaches even broader audiences via virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri, designed by Amazon and Apple, respectively, and as source material for artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as ChatGPT. In addition to widespread reach, Wikipedia has significant influence, including on the sources that academics cite in scholarly publications and on the cases cited by judges as precedent and the text of their legal analyses (Ramjohn 2019, 2022b; Thompson and Hanley 2018; Thompson et al. 2022).

Our research explores the knowledge politics of Wikipedia through a Black feminist lens, with particular attention to Patricia Hill Collins’s (1986) concept of Black women as “the outsider within.” We do so by describing student experiences as first-time Wikipedia contributors. Specifically, we present an assignment in which the Black, mostly female undergraduate students in a 2018 sociology class at Howard University were tasked with analyzing and then improving content on Wikipedia. The authors of this paper are the white, female instructor of that class (Perkins) and three of the participating students, all three of whom are Black women (Hussein, Trent, and Davis). The interventions that students made into Wikipedia had a wide reach: by the end of the semester, the articles that the seventeen participating students edited had been viewed over 600,000 times. Just under five years later, the same articles had been viewed over 8.5 million times.

This article contributes to existing scholarship by focusing critical attention on the English-language Wikipedia’s racist, sexist knowledge politics. Wikipedia strives to be unbiased through a transparent writing and editing process that draws on reliable, published sources. These protocols regularly help catch and fix hoaxes and content vandalism. Nonetheless, we build on existing scholarship to highlight Wikipedia’s ongoing content problems with racist and sexist knowledge gaps, euphemisms, stereotypes, and misrepresentation. We argue that these problems are a result of (1) the personal experiences and opinions of Wikipedia editors, who are predominantly white and male; (2) the requirement for subjects to be deemed “noteworthy” through multiple sources deemed reliable by Wikipedia standards; and (3) gatekeeping practices by the existing editors. As a result, we argue that Wikipedia can not only extend but also exacerbate pro–white male biases present in the source materials that Wikipedia draws on. We suggest that college instructors can teach students to better understand racialized and gendered knowledge processes through assignments to contribute to Wikipedia that are paired with supportive readings. Drawing attention to the tension between positivist and social constructionist approaches to knowledge construction, while highlighting the contributions and pitfalls of both, can be particularly productive. However, while this assignment, and others like it, can help address some of Wikipedia’s problems of racism, sexism, and other forms of social inequality, we offer cautionary thoughts on editor diversification efforts as a “fix” for Wikipedia’s content problems.

We begin with a brief review of the literature on knowledge distortion and inequality on Wikipedia. Next, we review the theoretical framing of Black feminist thought and positivism; this section expands on the students’ introductory assigned readings on these subjects. The methods section follows; it details the students’ assignment. Our results section summarizes the students’ experiences as they edited Wikipedia. We then discuss the implications of our experience for Wikipedia assignments, for Wikipedia itself, and for paired student recruitment/diversification initiatives as a strategy to improve Wikipedia content. We close by offering suggestions for future research.

Wikipedia attempts to present information from a neutral point of view and requires its content to be verifiable with citations from reliable, published sources. It also maintains a transparent editing process, in which the edit history of each article is publicly visible. Each article also has an associated, public “talk page” where editors can debate what to put in the article. Talk pages also maintain permanent histories of all such conversations over time. Interactions among editors on Wikipedia exist across a spectrum from collaborative to hostile, with trolling, vandalism (damage to an article through content deletion or addition of inappropriate text, including hate speech), and edit wars (antagonistic edits to text that change the text back and forth between two opposing opinions, often without discussion or explanation, rather than seeking consensus through gradual, explained text edits) occurring with some regularity (Jemielniak 2014; Clark et al. 2019). Wikipedia’s organizational policy is to revert edits and ban editors who are blatantly in bad faith and/or libelous and to restore article text to how it was before they made their edits.

These practices, and a host of other internal rules and enforcement norms, help Wikipedia to prevent, or catch and fix, “fake news,” disinformation campaigns, hoaxes, and vandalism (Borak 2022). Jemielniak writes that “In general, any purposeful, long-term universal bias on Wikipedia, detouring from the dominant beliefs of the general academic and para-academic community, does not prevail,” though this is more likely to be true for articles that attract the attention of large numbers of editors as compared to less popular articles (2018, 5).

However, our experience suggests that overall, Wikipedia content should be described not as free from long-term bias but rather as broadly supportive of (1) the interests and perspectives of the largely male, white, Global North editors who volunteer on the site, as well as (2) the long-term biases of academia, government, and the press that create most of Wikipedia’s source materials. These knowledge distortions are pervasive and deeply entrenched, as they occur along multiple axes of power: language, geography, colonial history, race, Indigeneity, gender, sexuality, and more (Bear and Collier 2016; Berson, Sengul-Jones, and Tamani 2021; Jemielniak 2014; Ramjohn 2022a; Reagle and Koerner 2020; Salam 2019; Tripodi 2021; van der Velden 2013).

Of these, information inequality related to sexism is the best documented. The fact that only 19.70 percent of biographies on Wikipedia are of women is one frequently cited example (Anon., n.d.-q; Konieczny and Klein 2018). Wikipedia’s “featured articles,” the ones deemed to be of highest quality by Wikipedians and thus preferentially featured on the site, also align with subjects that tend to be disproportionately of interest to men, with warfare, sports, and video games forming three of the top four categories (Mathewson and Ramirez 2018).

When we started this project in 2018, there was little press coverage and academic publishing on racism in Wikipedia. Since then, such coverage has grown from an almost deafening silence into a small trickle. For example, Adams, Brückner, and Naslund (2019) show that American sociologists who are women and/or people of color are underrepresented in Wikipedia biographies. Our paper builds on existing scholarship by exploring knowledge inequality within Wikipedia’s content and knowledge sharing practices, with an emphasis on racism and sexism.

Another strand of scholarship on Wikipedia assesses the pedagogical value of having students contribute to Wikipedia as part of class assignments. Scholars have found that contributing to Wikipedia as part of college coursework improved student motivation and helped students improve their writing skills, especially as related to writing for a specific audience, understanding genre, and writing collaboratively with others (Bilansky 2016; Cummings 2009; Konieczny 2014). But here again, we found little scholarship that links student experiences on Wikipedia to knowledge inequality. Lockett (2020) contributes one exception to this trend. Lockett writes that her students across multiple universities had a hard time imagining themselves as people who could contribute to Wikipedia; they were scared to do it wrong or saw Wikipedia as a forbidden site due to hearing many exhortations against its validity from their other teachers. However, she writes that her Black, female students at the historically Black women’s college (HBCU) Spelman College also contended with fear of harassment from the predominantly white, male editors. Ultimately, however, she writes that they became highly motivated to edit Wikipedia when they saw that it did not accurately represent Spelman College, other HBCUs, and Black women. In addition to contributing to scholarship on Wikipedia itself, this paper also contributes to scholarship on the pedagogy of Wikipedia assignments by sharing our assignment’s setup and outcomes.

While Wikipedia’s approach to sharing information relies on tools of the internet age, it must contend with many of the same constraints of collecting and sharing high-quality information that plague more traditional settings of knowledge production and management: academia and journalism. Some of these constraints are rooted in persistent social inequalities that impact knowledge production and sharing in all three spheres (academia, journalism, and Wikipedia). Accordingly, the instructor assigned the students articles about the politics of knowledge in addition to course readings on the sociology of food and agriculture. Framing articles included (1) Patricia Hill Collins’s “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought” (1986) and (2) excerpts from A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind (2016), by David Helfand. The two pieces provide different perspectives on knowledge and where it comes from, with Helfand representing a positivist approach and Collins a Black feminist one. Here we summarize and expand upon these readings to (1) showcase the pedagogical approach of the class assignment and (2) provide a theoretical framework that anchors our analysis of Wikipedia and our class’s experience editing it. The instructor selected the article by Collins primarily as a way to enter into debates about the nature of knowledge, understanding Black feminism as an important branch of the larger tree of the sociology of knowledge and social constructionist analyses within it. As the Helfand piece represents a widely taught view of how knowledge creation functions, or should function, we spend more time elaborating on Black feminist approaches to the same.

In the assigned excerpts of his book, Helfand, an astrophysicist, argues that we live in an era where the internet facilitates the spread of misinformation by allowing anyone to claim anything as fact and to broadcast it to the world. Instead, Helfand argues that knowledge claims in the public sphere should be made based on “knowable,” empirical facts. To do so, one must try to minimize bias by setting aside personal experience when making knowledge claims. Helfand illustrates the danger of drawing conclusions based on personal experience by showing how parents whose children get autism after being vaccinated for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) then mistakenly believe that MMR vaccinations cause autism and should not be given to children. Instead of relying on their personal experience, he says, they should rely on scientific data, which shows no causal link between MMR vaccinations and autism. In another example, Helfand describes a student who rejects her own mathematical equations that predict at what time the moon should be visible in the sky the next day because she has never personally noticed the moon visible in the sky during the daytime. The lesson here is that the student should have trusted her math over her own unobservant, personal experience. The philosophical tradition of positivism is deeper and more complex than Helfand’s writing alone suggests, taking form across the 1800s in debates about the nature of knowledge (Comte [1853] 2009; Creath 2012). Nonetheless, the instructor selected an excerpt of his work for the class to read as a contemporary example of the way positivist philosophy often gets operationalized in the sciences and in efforts to discern fact from fiction amid the “fake news” charges of the Trump era.

According to the excerpts we read by Helfand, bias is introduced into knowledge production practices through inappropriate reference to personal experience. However, bias also propagates via much broader processes of racism, sexism, Eurocentrism, and other forms of social inequality (Alatas 2016; Bilecen 2020; Denis and Clair 2015; Go 2020; Law 2007; Pickering 2017; Rothchild 2014).1 Helfand’s writing shows limited understanding of these processes. For example, Helfand writes that in early human history, information was of high quality but limited quantity, and that today, by virtue of the internet, information is “virtually unlimited but often of very low reliability” (2016, 3). In sketching these contrasts, he completely misses the long history of bad information created under the guise of science that existed long before the internet revolutionized information sharing. For example, purportedly “scientific” racism and eugenics in the late 1800s and early 1900s were widely supported among leading white scholars across the nation (Kul 2002; Leonard 2016; Powell 2016; Spiro 2009).

In contrast to Helfand, Patricia Hill Collins embraces the use of some personal experience in scholarship from a Black feminist perspective and addresses broad forms of knowledge distortion. Black feminist discussions of knowledge production draw on broader theories of racialization, which underscore that racial categories do not exist as reflections of inherent difference among people but are rather the products of social practices (Du Bois 1948; Omi and Winant 2015). For example, the categories of whiteness and Blackness emerge from the colonial era as descriptors for the many distinct groups of people previously referred to by more specific tribes, empires, or cultural or ethnic groups within Europe and Africa (Allen 2012; Omi and Winant 2015). Despite racial categories having little biological meaning, their social impact is large and impacts differential life experiences and outcomes across groups (Z. D. Bailey, Feldman, and Bassett 2021; Chen et al. 2022; Rucker and Richeson 2021; Tessum et al. 2021). Thus, and despite their internal differences along class position, sexuality, et cetera, when taken together white men in the United States are relatively privileged compared to many other groups. This influences their worldviews and, in turn, their understanding of what is and is not true in knowledge debates.

Black feminist thought draws our attention to the many claims that are widely perceived as factual but are rooted in what Collins refers to as the Eurocentric Masculinist Knowledge-Validation Process (1989). Most academic spaces in the United States historically barred nonwhites, and often also white women, from participation. Poor white men were also typically unable to access institutions of higher education. The resulting homogeneity of the people who populated these knowledge centers limited the kinds of questions asked and how they were answered (Collins 1990). Acting as gatekeepers of knowable fact, many white and male academics argued that scholarly work should not be influenced by personal experience, which would create bias, while simultaneously pretending that their own work was not so informed. They tended to see the fruits of their intellectual labors as not only credible but also the standard and universal truth.

Accordingly, Collins argues that Black women’s life experiences can form the basis of valuable contributions to intellectual thought. Specifically, her iconic 1986 article argues that their roles as outsiders within predominantly white, male academic spaces facilitate their intellectual contributions because they can observe social practices within society that are often denied, taken for granted, or not noticed by white people and men. However, Collins stresses that not all “outsiders within” respond to their status in the same way:

Some outsiders within try to resolve the tension generated by their new status [as sociologists] by leaving sociology and remaining sociological outsiders. Others choose to suppress their difference by striving to become bonafide, “thinking as usual” sociological insiders. Both choices rob sociology of diversity and ultimately weaken the discipline. A third alternative is to conserve the creative tension of outsider within status by encouraging and institutionalizing outsider within ways of seeing. This alternative has merit not only for actual outsiders within, but also for other sociologists as well. (Collins 1986, S29)

Accordingly, the experiences of some Black women inform research in ways that make social sciences more accurately describe social life, thus reducing rather than adding bias (Collins 1990). Here, Collins and other Black feminists’ embrace of personal experience for knowledge construction contrasts with Helfand’s cautions against it.

While the perspectives of positivism and Black feminism are not mutually exclusive, they are often in conflict about the role of personal experience in knowledge generation, as seen above. While Helfand’s examples of the MMR vaccine and the student’s perspective on the moon not rising during the day appropriately criticize the exclusive use of personal experience to understand the world, positivist rhetoric of objectivity can also be used to mask the influence of researchers’ positionality on the outcomes of their research. There are many such examples. For instance, anthropologist Emily Martin (1991) shows how biologists studying human conception replicate socially gendered norms in describing the actions of the egg and the sperm (i.e., egg passively awaiting penetration by sperm), even as their actual findings in the lab undercut such norms (egg actively participating in conception).

Distortion of knowledge in its production and reception takes place not just at the level of the individual but also at the institution. For example, much of the work produced by scholars at HBCUs was not taken seriously by white academics (Morris 2017), whether or not the HBCU scholars followed positivist traditions. These challenges persist not only for academics working in HBCUs, tribal colleges, and other academic institutions populated largely with scholars of color, but also for many scholars of color now currently working within predominantly white institutions (Harley 2023; hooks 2014). While scholars working in a range of intellectual traditions at HBCUs face pervasive barriers, so, too, do scholars producing counter-hegemonic scholarship at a range of academic institutions. As Collins writes, “scholarly communities that challenge basic beliefs held in U.S. culture at large will be deemed less credible than those that support popular ideas. For example, if scholarly communities stray too far from widely held beliefs about Black womanhood, they run the risk of being discredited” (1990, 253). Eurocentric academic practices not only ignore the work and experiences of other groups but also delegitimize their claims to knowledge of themselves and the rest of the world. As a result, the intellectual work that Black women have done for centuries has long been ignored and not seen as “academic,” but rather as subjective opinion (Steele 2021).

The Black feminist paradigm embraces the personal context that Black women may bring to their research (Collins 1990). This context can be mistaken for bias. But while such research may be biased, its connection to personal experience does not necessarily make it so (Lindsay-Dennis 2015). Research that draws responsibly on personal experience should also not be confused with the unverifiable misinformation easily spread online that motivates Helfand’s concern with objectivity. Black women are not immune to bias or to drawing overly broad conclusions based on narrow personal experiences. But they should not automatically be seen as biased if their research connects to aspects of their identity and life experience. Rather, research informed by such factors can strengthen knowledge generation through (1) the production of scholarship on subjects ignored or underdeveloped by others or (2) the correction of theoretical and empirical errors created through the Eurocentric Masculinist Knowledge-Validation Process. Thus, the value of Black feminist thought is not simply to give voice to Black women but also to improve the range and accuracy of knowledge produced in academic spheres. While knowledge claims based on personal experience can veer off into misinformation, so, too, can knowledge claims generated by processes that attempt to be objective through distancing the researcher from the subject studied. The challenge is to discern good information from bad, which requires more than automatic acceptance or rejection of information produced with or without reference to the researcher’s life experiences. Likewise, information shared via the internet is not automatically of any higher or lower quality than information shared in print.

This paper analyzes a 2018 semester-long assignment to edit or create Wikipedia articles that aligned with the course topic, using scholarly literature to support claims introduced in the Wikipedia articles, for an upper-division undergraduate class titled the Sociology of Food and Agriculture. Seventeen students were enrolled; all of them were Black, and most of them identified as women. Class readings consisted of topical material on food and agriculture as well as several framing readings on Wikipedia and the politics of knowledge, which included both Black feminist and positivist perspectives, as described above.

The objectives of the assignment were to deepen the students’ knowledge of their chosen food and/or agricultural topic, to increase students’ use of their sociological imaginations, to learn about the politics of knowledge, to practice academic research skills, and to practice writing for a public audience. The students were encouraged, but not required, to use the course’s emphasis on social inequality to guide their analysis of existing Wikipedia content and their subsequent contributions. This paper documents some of the students’ experience and builds on the analysis they practiced in class in order to make observations about Wikipedia content and editorial practices, as well as about Wiki Education–supported course assignments.

Prior to public submission to Wikipedia, the students participated in in-person training provided by the instructor and online training provided by Wiki Education, an NGO that supports college faculty in training students to contribute to Wikipedia. The Wiki Education training modules familiarized students with how Wikipedia works as well as research basics. The first training modules helped students understand and navigate Wikipedia. Another early training module explained the Wikipedia policy of requiring assertions to be backed up by reliable, independent, published sources, with emphasis on peer-reviewed scholarship and reliable journalistic sources. The training modules also helped students evaluate existing sources and identify new ones. Students selected whether to edit an existing article or create a new one. The instructor preselected articles for students to edit, but students could also choose to edit articles not included on this list. In addition to describing some of the activities that took place during the class period, we compare what the students wrote during the class against what the articles they edited looked like roughly five years later to gain insight into how much of their contribution survived ongoing edits by other Wikipedians.

After selecting an article and analyzing its strengths and shortcomings, students found reliable sources to improve their chosen articles. After narrowing down the focus of their contribution, students were instructed to post in their article’s respective “talk pages” to inform other Wikipedians active on the article of their intended contributions and to get involved with the ongoing discussion within Wikipedia, if any, on their selected article. (Wiki Education has since dropped this step from the assignment. As a result, in subsequent versions of this assignment run by the instructor, student editors are receiving fewer comments on their work from other Wikipedians.) Students were then asked to respond to any comments and/or critiques from other contributors. Next, their proposed contributions were reviewed by their course peers, their instructor, and the class’s assigned Wiki Education staff. Then students completed literature reviews, summarized what they learned in their Wikipedia draft spaces (known as “sandboxes”), revised their content after receiving further feedback, uploaded and integrated their contributions to the live Wikipedia articles available to the public, and responded to other users who commented on or edited their work. Wiki Education training modules provided guidance for best practices on interacting with other editors, and our assigned Wiki Education staff person was also available to answer questions or to intervene with other editors if needed. Students continued to improve their articles after they went live, and also to interact with other Wikipedia editors who were commenting on or editing their work.

To conclude the project, each student gave a presentation to their classmates and wrote a five-page paper about their experience. In both, they reflected on challenges they faced, things they learned, the relationship of their experience to the course’s framing readings on the politics of knowledge, and whether they anticipated continuing to edit Wikipedia after the conclusion of the course. They also provided feedback on whether to continue the Wikipedia assignment in future classes, and if so, how to improve the experience.

The Wikipedia articles that students worked on were deficient in many ways, and the students had a variety of experiences adding content. Some Wikipedians discouraged the students from writing, some deleted the students’ contributions with varying degrees of explanation as to why they had done so, while others constructively edited the students’ work by correcting spelling or grammar mistakes, pointing out claims that needed further citation, or in other ways engaging the students’ work. Many, but not all, of the students made additions that responded to Wikipedia’s problems with racism and sexism. Student work varied in quality, from contributions that were well written, well cited, and well integrated into existing content, to efforts that struggled in one or more of these categories. Here, we focus on Wikipedia articles that misrepresented or failed to include people of color and/or women relevant to the subject matter, as well as student interactions with other editors that highlight racialized, gendered knowledge politics on Wikipedia.

Content problems: Gaps, euphemisms, stereotypes, and misrepresentations

We found that racist and sexist content gaps, euphemisms, stereotypes, and misrepresentations of subjects related to food and agriculture proliferate on Wikipedia. At the time we first encountered it, the United Farm Workers page minimized female cofounder Dolores Huerta’s contributions (García 2008), highlighting the better known, male leader Cesar Chavez instead. The farmworker page, which used “agricultural worker” as a synonym, excluded enslaved people. While farmworker, agricultural worker, and slave are not interchangeable terms (Rockman 2009), excluding all reference to enslaved people’s forced labor in agriculture across human history distorts understanding of agriculture and those who have labored in it. The War on Poverty article briefly references the racist backlash against US social safety nets in the 1970s but neglects to mention how anti-Black2 racism hobbled such legislation (especially food assistance) from ever getting fully established in the first place in some parts of the country (Smith 2019). The list goes on and on.

Some students undertook fixing such problems. One student tackled the article on the “Columbian Exchange” (Anon., n.d.-a). The Columbian exchange refers to the intensified international transfer of people, foods, animals, and diseases in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that resulted from the wave of colonization that followed Columbus’s travels to the Americas (Cosby 2003). As scholar Judith Carney wrote in 2002, typical descriptions of the Columbian exchange emphasize the exchanges between Europe and the Americas while overlooking the contributions of the African continent. This was also the case in the Wikipedia “Columbian Exchange” article, sixteen years after Carney’s book was published. The introductory paragraph described the Columbian exchange as an exchange between the Americas and the “Old World.” This dichotomy implicitly labeled the Americas, long populated by their own Indigenous civilizations, as “new,” while explicitly labeling other parts of the world as “old” without referencing to whom these places were “new” or “old.” As a result, the article’s lead was written from a default, but unnamed, European and Euro-descendant perspective. As New World / Old World framing often refers to the Americas and Europe, this framing also implicitly erased Africa.

Africa or Africans were mentioned directly only in two later subsections of the article. In the subsection on disease, enslaved Africans were mentioned in relationship to their greater resistance to malaria as compared to European colonists; this was then described as contributing to the rise of slavery in the malarial southeastern United States. Enslaved Africans were also mentioned as facilitating the spread of yellow fever from Africa to the Americas. While some of this content could have been worked into a fuller rendering of Africa and Africans, on its own it coheres with powerful racist stereotypes of enslaved Africans as diseased and/or unusually strong and therefore innately suited to physical labor (Zimring 2016); these stereotypes were long used to justify enslavement.

Africans were also mentioned directly within the subsection titled, euphemistically, “cultural exchange.” This section discussed the impact of European colonizers on the Indigenous cultures of the Americas and on enslaved Africans. However, as Europeans often forced cultural change on Africans and Indigenous peoples of the Americas against their will through violence, and despite the fact that Europeans, too, were culturally changed by their interactions with both groups, to call these processes a form of cultural exchange fundamentally misrepresents them. Also, the first sentence of the section, despite later references to slavery in the same paragraph, framed the content that follows via the “migration of people.” Again, this dramatically misrepresents the Africans who were forcibly relocated against their will as part of the Columbian exchange. Overall, the gaps, euphemisms, stereotypes, and misrepresentations in this article highlighted a tight relationship between anti-Black bias on Wikipedia and anti-Black bias in the larger world of knowledge that Wikipedia attempts to synthesize.

The student who worked on this article changed its introduction by explicitly naming Africa as a part of the Columbian exchange. She also added a subsection on the transatlantic slave trade. To the existing subsection on crops, she added information on West African rice and other crops deriving from the African continent that were subsequently used in the Americas, Europe, and elsewhere via the Columbian exchange, and the vital roles that these crops played in their new environments. This included new text about West African rice farmers who were enslaved and transported to the Americas, where their specialized knowledge of the crop was sought out to help develop rice plantations. These additions were cited with course readings and other research the student found through her literature review (Judith A. Carney 2001; Judith Ann Carney 2002; Mintz and Price 1992; Twitty 2017). The student also added an image to the page; it was a nineteenth-century engraving of enslaved Africans bound together and being marched under the eye of a white man who is holding a weapon in each hand. The student gave it this caption: “Enslaved Africans were chained and bound before taken on ships to the New World.” (See figure 1.)

Figure 1.
The image added by our student editor. From Wilhelm Redenbacher, Lesebuch der Weltgeschichte oder Die Geschichte der Menschheit, 1890.
Figure 1.
The image added by our student editor. From Wilhelm Redenbacher, Lesebuch der Weltgeschichte oder Die Geschichte der Menschheit, 1890.
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The student did not edit out or contextualize the terms “New World” and “Old World,” and indeed added a new reference to the “New World” in the caption of her chosen image. Her contributions therefore did not fully reorient the Eurocentric perspective of the article. However, the student made important additions to the African content of the page. While the student did not continue to edit Wikipedia after the end of the course, the core ideas she contributed, and much of her original writing, “stuck” to the “Columbian Exchange” article over the years as others continued to edit it (Anon., n.d.-d). Where the student added Africa to the introduction’s existing mentions of Europe and the Americas as participants in the Columbian exchange, subsequent edits have kept the inclusion of Africa but subsumed participants into “New World (the Americas)” and “Old World (Afro-Eurasia)” categories. This newer framing thus incorporates the student’s addition of Africa into the already existing Eurocentric “Old World” framing of the article’s introduction. Likewise, another editor added new text to the student’s section on the transatlantic slave trade. The new text notes that “The prevalence of African slaves in the New World was related to the demographic decline of New World peoples and the need of European colonists for labor.” Here, “demographic decline” is used as a euphemism for the genocide caused by European colonists and their militaries, perhaps in a misguided search for the “neutral tone” espoused as Wikipedia’s ideal. The image the student added of enslaved Africans bound together and being marched forward under the gaze of the armed white man has been replaced by a 1670 artistic rendering of enslaved Africans peaceably at work pursuing individual tasks in the courtyard of a Virginia plantation, with no chains or weapons in sight. The only white people in the new image are far in the background. The new image does not show any of the violence or coercion that was fundamental to slavery. As such, it coheres with the long trend of downplaying violence in images of slavery created and distributed by white authors and audiences (Klein 2020).3 (See figure 2.)

Figure 2.
The image that replaced our student editor’s work. Unknown artist, 1670.
Figure 2.
The image that replaced our student editor’s work. Unknown artist, 1670.
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Collins’s concept of the “outsider within” (1986) provides a useful, if incomplete, starting point for thinking about the “Columbian Exchange” article because of the way it shows how life experiences shape people’s understanding of the world and the claims they make about it. The student who added African contributions to the “Columbian Exchange” article did not draw on any personal lived experience of the events in question, which began centuries before her birth. Nor was she creating new knowledge on these subjects. However, her life experiences as a Black woman in America with distant African roots, combined with the instructor having preselected this article as one that needed editing, likely drew her to make this contribution that twenty years of the existing predominantly white, male Wikipedia editors had not yet made, despite the existence of the relevant scholarship. Thus, the student was working “within” Wikipedia, but as a Black woman editor within the predominantly white, male majority of US editors, she was also an “outsider” in that space. Arguably, her outsider status, combined with the instructor’s selection of assigned readings and setup of the Wikipedia assignment, improved the content of the article.

The role of personal experience and opinion

Each Wikipedia article has both the main article, as well as a secondary “talk page” (also publicly visible) where Wikipedians discuss the main article. The “talk pages” proved to be a rich space to see what Wikipedia editors thought about their subject matter, and how they negotiated content disputes. The talk page for the “Soul Food” article showed editors’ arguments about what constitutes soul food and who created it (Anon., n.d.-l). Some of the discussions centered on whether soul food should be considered “Black food” or Black and poor white “Southern food.” For example, one (presumably white) Wikipedian wrote, “This food is basically just the common food of the South, black or white. Except for chitlins, my mother, from Oklahoma, or her mother-in-law, also from Oklahoma, used to cook all of these dishes.” The most pointed of these comments was

Someone seems to have a hair up their butt about claiming soul food for black people is what it seems like to me. (Sorry, there’s an elephant in the room here.) Can we get someone on making this food article about, you know, food?

While reliance on personal experiences is strongly discouraged on Wikipedia, here editors freely referenced their life experiences in articulating what they believed to be soul food. However, these life experiences were referenced only on the “talk page.” On the main “Soul Food” Wikipedia article (Anon., n.d.-h), such personal references were not visible, though they still presumably informed what the editors wrote there. Our student contributor indirectly participated in this debate by adding more content to the article’s subsection on the African influence on soul food. She also added a new section on the cultural relevance of soul food that discussed how specific Black people shaped the perception of soul food during the Civil Rights and Black Power eras (Bower 2007; Opie 2008; Witt 1999). Another editor made helpful, minor copy edits to her text, which largely stuck to the article over subsequent years.

In another example, on the “Food Desert” article talk page (Anon., n.d.-j), one editor asserts the following opinion:

Wikipedia depends on reliable sources, defined as politically correct academics, so I thought I’d point out the elephant in the room: Supermarkets are unlikely to be built in minority neighborhoods because minorities commit more robberies and shoplifting.

The same person also asserted that “poverty makes it easier to eat healthy, not harder: the cheapest, healthiest food is in the produce aisle, and the unhealthiest, most expensive food is fast food and restaurant food.” This contributor ignored the broad literature on the many causes of the process scholars call “supermarket redlining” as well as the reasons why poverty often makes it more difficult to eat healthy foods (Eisenhauer 2001). At the time of our class assignment, there was only one response to this comment, which suggested that robberies were one of multiple possible causes of food deserts, and that a “causes” section should be added to the article to explore them all together. Our student chose to go in a different direction by adding content that separately described urban food deserts (Caesar and Crush 2016; Food and Agriculture Organization of the Americas, n.d.; MacNell et al. 2017), in an attempt to balance out the existing subsection on rural food deserts. Within that section, she described some of the impacts and types of food deserts. She also attempted to help the overall article reduce its US-centric bias by adding content on food deserts in Africa.

Five years later, the section this student created and much of her writing remains on the “Food Desert” article (Anon., n.d.-f). The Wikipedian who wrote about minorities committing robberies on the article’s talk page did not make any additions to the actual article (at least, not with the same username). However, their original comment sparked a series of responses over the following five years. One responder noted that the original commenter should find sources to back up their claims, and challenged the claim that healthy food is cheap while unhealthy food is expensive. Many debated the causes of food deserts. At the time of completing this article, the “Food Desert” article on Wikipedia includes one section on crime as a cause of food deserts; it was added to the end of the section on urban food deserts created by our student editor. The editor who wrote it cites coverage of individual stores in various locations whose leadership claimed crime as the reason for their closure, without citing any studies that incorporate analysis of multiple locations or multiple causes in relationship to each other, or any sources other than store owners. While crime could be integrated into a comprehensive account of the causes of food deserts, the article’s current structure addresses it alone, without integrating it into competing claims. As a result, the article lacks internal cohesion; some sections of the text assert some causes of food deserts while other sections assert different ones. Our student’s writing on urban food deserts and their implications now concludes with content that treads familiar ideological ground of linking urban places, implicitly coded as nonwhite in the US context, to crime.

Wikipedia’s talk pages pull back the veil on the site’s knowledge production practices in ways that are uncommon in academia and journalism. The above quotes from the “Soul Food” article show how Wikipedians draw on personal experience to make knowledge claims, which can lead toward or away from accurate knowledge of the world. The “Food Desert” talk page shows how Wikipedia content is debated in ways that can show up disjointedly in the articles themselves, as different people work on different sections at different times. The long duration of the evolution of the conversations on the Wikipedia talk pages and the associated edits on the articles underscore that the editors who stay involved the longest are likeliest to have their versions of the articles prevail. As Ian Ramjohn notes, “Source quality is culturally determined—the community decides whether to accept a source as reliable or not. But it’s not just the ‘community’ in a broad sense, it’s the portion of the community that is interested enough to show up to discuss the quality of a source” (Ramjohn 2022a, 253). The editors who stay involved the longest are likely to be those who feel most comfortable and welcome in the Wikipedia community; as a predominantly white, male space, these people are typically not people of color and women.

These experiences enable rich conversation about the messy overlap between positivism and Black feminist thought by asking students to think through when and under what circumstances personal experience makes a strong foundation for knowledge claims, and for what type of knowledge claims. On Wikipedia, personal experience of the predominantly white, male group of editors has an impact on the content of the encyclopedia, though the partial anonymity of the editors can make specific instances of this relationship hard to trace.

Notability and the politics of reliable sources

All new Wikipedia articles are required to be “notable.” In Wikipedia parlance, notability is intended to refer not to the importance of the subject, but rather to the presence of sufficient independent, reliable, published sources to support development of a new article on the subject in question (Anon., n.d.-o). In practice, however, the two versions of understanding notability overlap. In this class, no students were challenged on the “notability” of their subjects. However, as only one new article was created (on a 2017 book the students read in class, The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South), there was little opportunity to do so (Anon., n.d.-m). At least one student in a subsequent class reported wanting to write a new article but not finding enough sources about the topic she had in mind. In this case, the original article was to be a biography of farmworker activist Maria Elena Lucas (Buss 1993). The instructor had initially selected several farmworker leaders, including Lucas, as possible subjects of new articles, but removed two of them later for the same reasons. Thus, between them, the student and the instructor self-censored the classes’ contributions on the basis of Wikipedia’s notability standards. This example illustrates the way that Wikipedia standards replicate knowledge inequalities regarding both farmworkers and women of color that are produced elsewhere. In these cases, they not only replicate these knowledge inequalities but enlarge them as well. Maria Elena Lucas has an entire book written about her, but Wikipedia standards for establishing notability require more than a single source in an effort to share knowledge not potentially biased through the lens of a single author.

Gatekeeping by existing editors

Other students faced more challenges. As they added their research to live Wikipedia articles, some began to be contacted by other editors. Some of these editors exerted themselves to maintain control over certain Wikipedia articles by dissuading new contributions. For example, one student addressed a gap in coverage of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in the “Labor History of the United States” Wikipedia article (Anon., n.d.-g). The article had a significant focus on the work of unions and the role that they played in shaping labor relations in the United States. The article described a number of unions and organized labor, but not the contributions of the UFW, which won unprecedented gains for farmworkers. In response, one student decided to add the contributions of the UFW in order to further develop the farmworkers section of this particular article. As the students were told to do in the training from Wiki Education, she first shared her intentions for the article on its “talk page” (Anon., n.d.-k). Another editor discouraged her from adding this content, writing, “The Farm Workers are a very small group with a modest impact in one state, and they are covered at length in their own specialized articles. In any case, please make SMALL changes one at a time.” The editor also attempted to dissuade the student from contributing by writing to her that “…lots of editors have worked on this and someone who is brand new to Wikipedia needs to watch and learn how editing is done here.” The student was not dissuaded. Her research had already revealed that the UFW’s impact extended beyond a single state, and the other editor’s assertion that they were “a very small group” with a “modest impact” in the national context was subjective, and not representative of much of the scholarship on the UFW. The student went ahead and integrated the findings from her literature review into the main article and cited her additions thoroughly (Rose 1990; Jenkins 1985; Majka and Majka 1992). She and the other editor continued to debate the merits of her contribution on the article’s talk page, with the other editor insisting that the UFW was “tangential to labor history” and coverage of it should be limited largely to the article dedicated to the UFW, rather than the “Labor History of the United States” article. After her edits, this editor made some immediate changes (he deleted about two and a half sentences, and made some wording changes) but let most of her work stand. At the time of this writing, five years later, about half of the student’s contributions remain in place. Her content on the UFW has been placed into a subsection of the article titled “Hispanics,” in spite of the significant contributions of Filipino farmworkers to the UFW. The “Hispanics” subsection that now houses her contributions, notwithstanding the UFW’s successes, is located within the section of the article titled “Union Decline: 1955-2016.” The Wikipedian our student argued with continues to actively edit this and other articles. Our student made no further edits after the course ended.

This student was ultimately successful in adding her content and having most of it stick. However, she passed through initial discouragement that might well stop another new user from making the edits at all. The student in question had the advantage of training on how to engage other editors, and the support of her student peers, professor, and a dedicated Wiki Education staff member, not to mention the fact that her course grade depended in part on her participation in the assignment, which included making her work live (though her grade did not depend on her work “sticking” to the article once added). It is easy to imagine that other first-time editors could be dissuaded from contributing by the actions of existing editors intent on preventing edits to content on which they have worked (indeed, some students hesitated to make their contributions live even without such discouragement, for fear of their work being criticized or deleted). Such dissuasion will come from the already established editors, who are predominantly white men, and whose thinking about Wikipedia content may be informed by racialized, gendered blind spots, biases, and hostility. And the racist comments found on article talk pages can also be expected to dissuade some from participating (Ramjohn 2022a).

Our student’s experience editing the “Labor History of the United States” article exemplifies scholarship about farmworker invisibility in the labor movement and in society (Wald 2011). Here again, Black feminist thought helps explain why subjects that are most closely aligned with the life experiences, interests, and worldviews of the people who predominate in spaces of knowledge production and sharing are the best represented. Farmworkers, who in US history regularly suffer from multiple axes of exclusion (i.e., racial, economic, linguistic, legal) are not fully represented in academia or in Wikipedia, in part through gatekeeping mechanisms such as those described above.

Edit wars, vandalism, hate speech, threats, and trolls

Our students did not experience any edit wars, threats from other users, hate speech, vandalism to their work, or other reactions made by obvious trolls during the class, all of which are actions known to deter first-time contributors (Jemielniak 2014; Konieczny 2021). To be fair, it takes two to create an edit war, in which one user puts up new content, another user takes it all down, the first user puts it all back up, and so on. As such, the deletions that students experienced did not turn into edit wars because they were told not to respond in kind. One student’s work was deleted in its entirety, but it had significant problems with the clarity of the writing. While it would have been helpful if the other editor had corrected the student’s writing instead of simply deleting it, the faster, easier thing to do to preserve the quality of a live article is to remove such content. Indeed, some Wikipedians specialize in this type of quality control.

After the end of our course, but less than two weeks after our student added the image of enslaved Africans being marched away in chains to the “Columbian Exchange” article, the caption she wrote for the image was vandalized, in Wikipedia parlance, with hate speech (Anon., n.d.-c). The caption to her image, which had referenced “enslaved Africans,” now included new adjectives consistent with the violent stereotyping and sexualization of Black women. When the instructor looked up the list of edits made by the (now blocked) unregistered editor in question, she saw that the previous year, someone from the same IP address had deleted a block of text on the “Discrimination” article and replaced it with hate speech (Anon., n.d.-e). In this case, their text was a short phrase that directed an expletive at Black people, who were referenced with a derogatory term. The two-word phrase was added over and over so that it formed a large wall of text within the article. Both additions were immediately deleted by an antivandalism bot operated by three other Wikipedia editors. The time stamps available on the detailed edit histories available for all Wikipedia articles show that the hate speech was deleted within the same minute that it was added. We also noticed that at some point after the student had finished their contribution to the “Columbian Exchange” article, a smiling poop emoji was inserted into the section of the article she created on the transatlantic slave trade; it was also quickly deleted. The hate speech and emoji inserted into this article were never seen by the student editor, and it wasn’t until years later, just prior to the publication of this paper, that the instructor happened across them. While full documentation and analysis of vandalism and hate speech on Wikipedia are outside the scope of this article, our experiences support claims made elsewhere that clear cases of vandalism, libel, and grammatical errors are resolved more quickly on Wikipedia than disputes based on intellectual or subjective debates (Jemielniak 2014), or than the persistent forms of bias documented here.

Implications for teaching students to contribute to Wikipedia

As other scholars have found, contributing to Wikipedia helped students learn about research, citational practices, and writing (Bilansky 2016; Cummings 2009; Konieczny 2014). Our class was also designed as an opportunity to learn about information politics and the multiple points at which social inequality impacts knowledge production and circulation. In this, our experience aligns with the assignment described by Lockett (2020). Students practiced identifying problematic knowledge claims and/or the framing of knowledge, and learned about how such knowledge claims propagate in ways that map onto broader structural inequality. They also practiced their ability to intervene in such spaces.

Pairing a reading written from a positivist perspective with one written from a Black feminist perspective on knowledge production with our Wikipedia work (and in addition to our regular course readings) was a fruitful way to introduce students to the politics of knowledge. At one point, a student asked if it was okay to write about things related to Black people; as a Black person herself, would this be biased? This question is a logical follow-up to pervasive positivist epistemologies that warn against writing from personal experience. To this, the instructor responded that being a Black person writing about Black life does not make one inherently biased, and that the students should feel free to choose subjects related to Blackness. However, she also emphasized that while students could write about things related to Black life, they did not have to do so. This conversation and the class discussion that followed responded to the two messages that Black students often receive from society in direct and indirect ways; first, that if they write about things that are related to Black people, their writing must be biased, and second, that they have legitimate authority to comment only on “Black” topics. The fact that these two arguments are the opposite of each other but pervasive nonetheless speaks to the catch-22 faced by many Black people in asserting knowledge of the world.

We recommend our approach to other instructors, though their choice of specific texts to assign may vary. Although “Learning from the Outsider Within” may be particularly resonant for Black women students, the line of discussion that it opens is valuable to all. Indeed, this reading was useful to us not necessarily because the students and the instructor drew on unique experiential insight in their decisions on how to edit Wikipedia (though this was sometimes the case), but because the framing provided by Collins helped students to better understand knowledge politics overall. In doing so, it gave them insight into some of the limitations of the positivist rhetoric that had suffused much of their education. This approach to the reading is open to all.

Collins also writes that her analysis could apply to other “outsiders within” academia, “all individuals who, while from social strata that provided them with the benefits of white male insiderism, have never felt comfortable with its taken-for-granted assumptions” (1986, S29). Our class did not spend much time discussing the extent to which the concept of the “outsider within” can be stretched beyond Black women. However, we encourage other instructors who may assign this text to other groups of students to linger over the tension within this section of the reading rather than too quickly expanding the reach of the concept of “the outsider within,” as doing so risks missing the specificity of Black women’s experiences.

Last, while our students never experienced the hate speech that would later show up on at least one of their articles, other instructors should be aware of this aspect of Wikipedia prior to making a decision about beginning a Wikipedia assignment that has the potential to expose their students to such abuse.

Implications for Wikipedia

Despite Wikipedia’s aspiration to become a place to freely access “the sum of all knowledge” (Wikimedia Foundation, n.d.) and despite the impressive array of subject matter contained within it, the sum of all knowledge is not represented within. We observed widespread racist and sexist knowledge gaps, stereotypes, euphemisms, and misinformation in the Wikipedia articles related to our coursework. Although we reviewed only a tiny fraction of Wikipedia’s total content, we believe what we saw to be signs of problems throughout Wikipedia, as our observations align with broader research on the propagation of racism and sexism in knowledge generation and sharing.

Wikipedia’s citational requirements and the community of Wikipedians that enforce them mean that the encyclopedia does not tend toward embrace of overt disinformation. However, our experiences suggest that Wikipedia content and the process of adding it is racialized and gendered in more mundane, quotidian, and multiply reinforcing ways that are baked into the site’s structure.

Wikipedia’s prioritization of peer-reviewed, academic sources is both a strength and a weakness. In best-case scenarios, peer review strengthens the quality of scholarly writing and improves its accuracy (Jemielniak 2014). However, peer review also regularly excludes women, scholars of color, scholars from the Global South, or those challenging accepted truths from publishing (Eniasivam, Medeiros, and Garg 2022; Heath-Stout 2020; Roberts et al. 2020; Stanley 2007). Requirements for peer-reviewed sources thus regularly extend the reach of the Eurocentric Masculinist Knowledge-Validation Process of academia into public-facing Wikipedia content. As others have noted (Adams, Brückner, and Naslund 2019; Tripodi 2021), the requirement that new articles be on subjects deemed “notable” through sufficient peer-reviewed or other credible sourcing creates similar problems, as many important subjects have been insufficiently documented in academic publications as a result of academia’s long history of race-based and gendered exclusion, as well as other forms of exclusion. However, academia is not monolithic. Entire subfields have formed partially in order to provide alternative approaches to knowledge generation, including women’s studies, as well as ethnic studies and its racially or ethnically specific variants (i.e., Black Studies, Latino Studies, Native American Studies, Asian Pacific American Studies). Subfields of sociology, such as the sociology of knowledge, have also contested the Eurocentric Masculinist Knowledge-Validation Process. Still, it is not easy to step outside of systems that reproduce knowledge inequality and distortion. Indeed, the Eurocentric Masculinist Knowledge-Validation Process remains a problem even within some of the fields listed above, which reproduce some academic norms and power structures even while contesting them.

Wikipedia’s content problems are not simply because Wikipedia is on the right track but has not yet finished with the job. The constantly growing body of human knowledge and the large quantities of it that exist in oral rather than written form makes documenting it all an aspiration, not an achievable goal. But even within these constraints, Wikipedia does not contain the sum of all knowledge, nor is it likely to, because of (1) problems in the source material deemed credible by Wikipedia citational practices (as in much of the scholarship on the Columbian exchange, or the lack of sufficient scholarship on many farmworker leaders to establish notability); and (2) a predominantly white, male, Global North pool of editors who engage in gatekeeping practices with new editors (as in the UFW example above), and who build out Wikipedia content according to their interests, lived experiences, and worldviews.

Wikipedia student recruitment and diversification initiatives

There is some awareness of the problems we describe in this paper among Wikipedians, especially the staff at Wiki Education; the pool of students with whom they work are more diverse than Wikipedia contributors in general, which they frame as an asset for improving the content on Wikipedia (Davis 2021).

Where such content problems are recognized, the proposed solution is often to diversify the editor pool. While such an approach has merit, it should not be the only avenue pursued. First, female students and students of color may or may not make equity-oriented contributions to Wikipedia. The likelihood of those students addressing Wikipedia’s many equity problems depends on many things: their life experiences, education in institutions of formal learning as well as in their family and communities, their intellectual interests, the course topic in which they are assigned to contribute to Wikipedia, the readings assigned in those courses, the instructor’s preselection of Wikipedia articles that have equity problems for students to address and ability to point students toward usable sources to fix these problems, and the students’ anticipation of a positive or negative reaction to their contributions by existing Wikipedia editors. Collins’s writing (1986, 2000) on how “outsiders within” may not choose to use their outsider status to push against dominant knowledge production and validation norms helps elucidate some of these dynamics; some abandon the dominant space for other less hostile spaces, while others adopt and enforce dominant knowledge norms.

Our class benefited from being taught in the discipline of sociology, which often makes social inequality the object of its analysis, and at a historically Black university. The white instructor, though lacking the personal experiences described by Collins that position Black women to make important intellectual contributions, drew on the bodies of scholarship produced by “outsiders within” academic spaces, as well as those in conversation with them in the course readings (Bloom and Martin 2016; Judith Ann Carney 2002; Harper 2012; Ortiz 2002; Twitty 2017). Her position at a historically Black university facilitated her exposure to such bodies of work. As a result, the students and the instructor participated in a cyclical learning process. The white instructor learned more about Black history and intellectualism and then incorporated these frameworks and readings into her classes, where her predominantly Black, female students integrated the readings and lectures with their own experiences through class discussion and assignments. The experiences and analyses that the students discussed in the classroom furthered the instructor’s own learning, as did her changing life experiences as her professional and social networks expanded to include more Black people, which impacted subsequent classes she taught. Thus, our Wikipedia assignment benefited from the combined influence of the institutional space of a historically Black university, the ever-accumulating life experiences and analyses of the students and the instructor who worked and learned there, and a long history of Black intellectual production and the intellectual production of those in conversation with them.

It is difficult to retain new Wikipedia editors. Despite their generally positive experiences with the assignment, and some students’ expressed interest in continuing to edit Wikipedia after the class ended, none of our student editors kept contributing to Wikipedia after the end of the course. This suggests low retention rates for the Wikipedia editors among the more diverse pool who are introduced to Wikipedia via courses like ours. Wiki Education staff do not expect to retain significant numbers of students as editors through their course projects. Rather, their focus is on retaining instructors who run such assignments, and in doing so provide a regular stream of new edits via the rotating groups of students they oversee (Wiki Education Foundation 2018). Still, the content added through classes such as ours pales in comparison to the sheer volume of new content constantly being added to Wikipedia. For example, in the fall of 2018, our students added 1 new article and contributed to 17 existing articles. During the same three-month period, Wikipedia grew by 762,769 articles (Anon., n.d.-n).

One solution might be to continue scaling up the quantity of more diverse new editors in hopes of the edits made through this program “catching up” with, or perhaps surpassing, those of the rest of the Wikipedia editors. Indeed, the combined impact of all the students working on assignments through Wiki Education is already significant. In 2016, their programs generated 15.5 percent of the scholarly citations added to English Wikipedia; the number of participating students has increased by approximately one-third since then (Davis 2020b; Kikkawa, Takaku, and Yoshikane 2021). Wiki Education’s programming also brings in about 19 percent of the new, active editors on English Wikipedia, making up 3 percent of all active editors on English Wikipedia (Davis 2020a). However, we suspect that if such efforts scale up enough to significantly diversify the pool of new editors, conflict between the new and more diverse editors and the better established, typically white, male, US-based Wikipedians will grow. Some signs of such stress are already visible, though outside the scope of this paper to explore.4 For Wikipedia content to change, the existing, entrenched pool of editors must also change. It also means fixing the racist, sexist knowledge creation processes that create the information Wikipedia attempts to synthesize.

Wikipedia’s content problems are intimately linked to larger problems of racism, sexism, and other “isms” that pervade academia, journalism, education, and the world at large, underscoring the difficulty of giving a positive answer to the question posed by Charlton McIlwain in Black Software: “Will our current or future technological tools ever enable us to outrun white supremacy?” (2020, 260). While much of Silicon Valley culture fetishizes the many tools of digital technology, the way these tools are designed and wielded in the context of vast social inequalities matters more. The technological fact of Wikipedia’s existence does not enable us to “outrun white supremacy.” Rather, fixing Wikipedia’s content problems means creating a Wikipedia community that can somehow rise above the racism and sexism of the world in which it is saturated. These are fundamentally political, not technological, tasks.

Much more research is needed to document and intervene in Wikipedia’s racialized and gendered knowledge sharing process, as well as other axes of inequality such as class. This should include (1) broader documentation of content gaps, stereotypes, euphemisms, and misinformation; (2) documentation and analysis of vandalism and hate speech on Wikipedia; (3) documentation and analysis of image use on Wikipedia as it relates to knowledge distortion and bias; (4) the relationship of the above to the Wikipedia practices documented here, as well as the demographics of the participants; and (5) the efforts to solve these problems. Future research should also build on the work done by Kimberly Scott (2021) to document how the process of learning to contribute to Wikipedia impacts Black women and other women of color’s self-perception and confidence in their ability to contribute to knowledge sharing settings, and to intervene in the same to correct misinformation. We would also like to see scholars engage Wikipedia’s knowledge politics within the context of broader Black and Black feminist critiques of internet culture and profit-making, and responses to them (M. Bailey 2020; Benjamin 2019; Brock 2020; Florini 2019; Noble 2009, 2018; Patterson-Stephens and Njoku 2022; Steele 2021).

We thank all the students in the Howard University 2018 Sociology of Food and Agriculture class for their participation in our shared learning experience. Staff members of Wiki Education were invaluable in assisting with this and subsequent Wikipedia class assignments, as well as discussions about the content of this article. In particular, we thank Helaine Blumenthal, Shalor Toncray, Jami Mathewson, and Ian Ramjohn. Thank you also to Kim Scott, Vernon Morris, and Jessica Viñas-Nelson, two anonymous reviewers, and everyone else who provided suggestions and critique in workshops and conference presentations.


While this paper focuses on the knowledge politics of academic knowledge production, similar dynamics exist in journalism (Kilgo 2021; Liebler, Ahmad, and Gayle 2020; Merrefield 2020).


In this paper, we use the language of anti-Blackness to reference racism against Black people, specifically, which can express itself in different ways than how racism against other groups is expressed. However, and in line with Patricia Hill Collins (2000), we make no claims about racism against Black people in Wikipedia or elsewhere being worse than racism that targets other groups, as it is sometimes discussed in scholarly literature on anti-Blackness (Jung and Vargas 2021; Sexton 2008).


The authors of this paper also recently came across another version of Wikipedia called “Simple English Wikipedia” that attempts to convey encyclopedic articles written in simpler language than the default Wikipedia. The “Simple English” version of the “Columbian exchange” article names Africa in the introductory paragraph but never mentions slavery anywhere (Anon., n.d.-b). The only other place Africa appears in the article is through a long list of plants that would not be where they are but for the Columbian exchange; “Before the Columbian exchange, there were no… rubber trees in Africa.”


See Sdkb (2022), Ramjohn (2022c), and the comments in the comments sections below these articles, for examples. The commentary refers to a class assignment taught by another instructor after our course took place at Howard University. Note that, as in all Wikipedia publishing platforms, the voices of the most active Wikipedians are best represented; the students and instructor in question (mostly Black women) participated in Wikipedia only for the duration of the assignment and are therefore not included in this postmortem discussion of their work.

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