On Women & Race & Wikipedia

by Amy Cain

Remember when Wikipedia got called out for being sexist last year? It was first brought to public attention in a 2013 New York Times blog post, in which novelist Amanda Filipacchi described how women were being systematically removed from Wikipedia's American Novelists category, and filed away in a new sub-category: American Women Novelists. As a result, the American Novelists category was becoming...well...just a long list of men.

Of this trend, Filipacchi writes, "People who go to Wikipedia to get ideas for whom to hire, or honor, or read, and look at that list of 'American Novelists' for inspiration, might not even notice that the first page of it includes far more men than women...it's probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world." It's obviously an excellent point, but it was laughable to the Wikipedia editors who were responsible for the change. One of them called the whole thing a "hullabaloo" and chalked the changes up to a mere issue of diffusing categories. Nevertheless, and despite the supposed importance of sub-categories, women were quickly restored to their original category of American Novelists.

As women in the literary world, we are not ignorant to the ways in which male writers are privileged. Despite the fact that many folks talk about how far we've come, that it has "gotten so much better" for women, we still have a difficult time being taken seriously in a literary landscape dominated by men. However, as I researched this brief Wikipedia scandal, I was surprised to find that while women were rushing to defend the inclusion of women novelists on Wikipedia, they failed to point out another glaring issue: the lack of women of color represented in these categories.

As a quick experiment, I went through the category of 21st-Century American Novelists on Wikipedia. Skipping all of the male novelists, I plodded through various letters of the alphabet, tallying up women of color represented vs. white women represented. My findings were not surprising, as women of color are some of the most marginalized and underrepresented people in America. I found that under "A" there were 46 white women and only 9 women of color. Under "E" there were 30 white women and only 3 women of color. Under "J" there were 32 white women and only 5 women of color.

My point is not to call out Wikipedia yet again. My point is that when we rush to defend our positions in literature, especially from a feminist standpoint, we need to be aware of those we are excluding. What does it mean that so few women of color appear on the 21st-Century American Novelists list? I suppose if I had to hazard a guess, I might say that it is both a reflection of Wikipedia's editor pool (comprised largely of white males), and also of the publishing industry in general, which runs rampant with institutionalized racism. But, you know, that's just a guess.

What can be done about this? Well, we can start by talking about it. Our society is not colorblind, no matter how much white people like to pretend it is. Racism is real, and yes, it is all of our problem. And if you are white, it is definitely your problem. Why are people so afraid to talk about race? Of course we need to point out things like sexism--duh! But we also need to recognize the other gaping holes in our literary landscape. People of color are writing, and too many of their voices remain unheard. So ask yourself--what can I be doing about this?