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Bewailing Wikipedia's white male bias


D'AngeloIn my first ever politics lecture at uni, the bespectacled, craze-haired lecturer told us not to use Wikipedia for our research. This was unsurprising, as we'd been prohibited from Wikipedia all through high school (knowing it was full of lies, we all relied on it anyway). But this time it was not because of Wikipedia's perceived amateurism.

'It's a good resource for starting out. But the vast majority of contributors are North American white males. It's a fairly limited perspective,' she said to us. This elicited comic groans in the lecture hall, mainly from the white males who had yet to understand — or perhaps to fully experience — their own privilege.

Statistically, white men are less likely to be murdered in the US than black men, and in Australia, are far less likely to be arrested, die in custody, or commit suicide. Men are more likely to win jobs and to be paid better than women with the same qualifications. White male privilege is real, and the basic ways we report and consume information protects that bias: 87 per cent of Wikipedia's editors are men, the majority in their 20s .

Which is not Wikipedia's fault. Wikimedia projects are radical, and are changing the world for the better. Articles are becoming more scholarly, and university feminists around the world are putting their students to work to contribute more knowledge. But Wikipedia exists in a world already weighted towards the white male experience.

A few weeks ago I checked D'Angelo's wiki article to find out about his new album. Where Marvin Gaye was the king of soul, D'Angelo (pictured) is its prince (I know this because I read it on the internet). Yet a large portion of the wiki article was dedicated to D'Angelo's 'Legal Issues' (a subheading seemingly exclusive to black musicians, intellectual property pages and anzac biscuits), including a DUI charge and a marijuana possession charge.

My friend and I deleted them — their relevance to D'Angelo's career is negligible, and their level of interest as biographical facts is debatable.

We searched Wikipedia for entries on other musicians we knew to be guilty of similar indiscretions. The manner in which famous white drug-users are represented is notably different.

The entry on Keith Richards, the grandfather of recreational drug use and all comedy based on chemically-eroded intelligence, includes detailed information on his drug use and trouble with the law. But he does not have 'Legal Issues'; his story is a rich and balanced biography. Even Lou Reed, who wrote songs about drugs as well as under their influence, apparently never possessed them.

R. Kelly, on the other hand, has serious 'legal issues' pertaining to an alleged statutory rape. Yet this disturbing crime is lumped in with a sound pollution charge for playing music too loudly in his car. This juxtaposition is offensive: who cares about a sound pollution charge? Certainly not the young survivor of sexual assault.

The murder of Trayvon Martin has catalysed a broad criticism of the real-world effects of white male privilege. Sure, Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' laws sound bizarre and dangerous to almost anyone living outside the state, and to many within it. But the main reason this death became so political is because the law was actively, and openly, protecting the killer, a white man, and not his victim, a black man.

We saw laws that were created by white men used to validate an irrational and murderous fear of black men. The huge political response to the murder articulated an urgent need for the white male perspective to give a little.

When I checked D'Angelo's page a few days later, his 'Legal Issues' were back up.

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer who edits Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Wikipedia, D'Angelo



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Existing comments

I would like to know the sources of your information. To my knowledge Wikipedia does not discriminate in any form. I understand that a contributor to Wikipedia has never been asked about sex or race. It seems that it belongs to one of the old urban legends desperate in keeping white males as the source of all evil. The author may read a bit more about statistics an have a look which racial groups are harmed by which racial groups. The only way to get rid of racism is never to mention race in any news. I think it is distasteful to group humans into races. There is only one race, the human race.

Beat Odermatt | 13 April 2012  

Beat Odermatt is wrong about the discrimination on wikipedia. I recently wrote an article about how one editor on wikipedia can warp the project to suite his anti-women agenda and get away with it for years. http://spark-in-the-ashes.net/raow/content/gender-bending-wikipedia

Moxie | 13 April 2012  

I wonder if the author of this article realizes that Wikipedia is a work in progress. Always check the talk page for an article's assessment. If it is rated stub, start or C class it still lacks substantial information. If you notice errors or omissions in Wikipedia mention it on the talk page or start correcting it yourself.

Lilo | 13 April 2012  

I think that Wkipedia is a product of these times and as has already been said a work in progress. Girls /females need to get more agressive , I know of one who applied for a department head's position in an educational establishment , who was told that she should wait her turn . In the interim an older incompetent male was being engaged for the position . She told the director that she may not be around when her turn came. Guess what? she was appointed immediately .

David | 13 April 2012  

I have to wonder if the respondents have read the same article I just finished reading. Ellena is talking about intrinsic bias, not an intentional bias. We have to ask ourselves: who has time and motivation to access and edit Wikipedia, and the answer still seems true that young, urban, educated, white males are the core demographic. Jaron Lanier's critique of Wikipedia is worth remembering here i.e that the cosmos of Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia rewards malice, flattens expression into a "global mush", and freezes taste into a parasitic plunder from the past. (For those that don't recognize the name, Lanier is regarded as the "father" of Virtual Reality)

Retrogrouch | 13 April 2012  

Really interesting article...it's so easy not to see gender on a website that is in a way "genderless" if you know what I mean? And perhaps it's not as easy as saying its a "work in progress" because if it was - I would like to think Wikipedia would be taking some kind of affirmative action to more actively engage women in writing for the website.... On a slightly different note I'd also be interested to know if similar issues have been raised about wikileaks and the gender composition in that organisation?

Adelaide | 13 April 2012  

The extent to which a Latino can be considered white is questionable but it sure does help make a complex situation read pretty simple.

chris | 13 April 2012  

One might say the same about heterosexuals ...

Greig Williams | 13 April 2012  

Ellena doesn't make a case for gender bias in Wikipedia, she is trying to make a case for racism. Maybe she would have had more success in adding information (Legal Issues) to those entries for Lou Reed and Keith Richards et al, than in deleting information from the D'Angelo entry - some people would see that as censorship.

Russell | 13 April 2012  

I'm a dead white male who loves wiki. It's something special. Like a library or a public park. It's a Temple for the Mind - a place we all can go. To live. To love. T share our knowledge with others. I am so impressed with it as a resource that I've even donated money to keep it going. The historical entries are often brilliant and clearly edited by serious experts (even if they may well be dead white males like myself). It has certainly enriched my life.

lollygobbleblissbomb | 13 April 2012  

The "murder" of Trayvon Martin? Has Louise Savage not heard of guilty till proven innocent.

Nguyen Duy | 13 April 2012  

I am sick to death of the bias against white males in today's society. I am offended by the way in which people especially some white females delight in reducing white males to insensitive brutes lording it over all other groups. It is just false to portray good, gentle, compassionate, intelligent and hardworking males as being all being somewhat brutish, arrogant and totally selfish. If you put any other group, say, white females, Jews, blacks in place of "white males" then you would all complain very loudly about the racist and sexist remarks and demand heads should roll.

Trent | 14 April 2012  

"Innocent till proven guilty", of course. My bad!

Nguyen Duy | 14 April 2012  

Instead of concentrating on the race/gender issue, which is so passe and totally inaccurate, why not insert "high socio-economic bracket" for "white male". It may be that the majority in that bracket are white males, but it's not BECAUSE of that - black, asian and females in the high income bracket are also guilty of any/all of the above in an effort to protect their privileged status. And whether a latino is white or no.... who cares?

AURELIUS | 16 April 2012  

Does gender really matter in authorship of encyclopedia articles? More important to guide students to assess the quality of articles from a sounder basis than this. Wikipedia is an excellent springboard on a topic in many cases. If male dominance herein offends the young feminists, start researching and writing yourselves, or just grow up!

Marjorie | 17 April 2012  

Yes! Grow up and accept white male privilege!

Gastron | 01 May 2012  

Oh very young what will you leave us this time?

james nova | 08 May 2013