Intro: In this reflection on Dr. Lorina Barker’s recent lecture at OHMA, Wikipedia Fellow and Wikimedian-In-Residence Darold Cuba explores how scholars and academics can decolonize and indigenize public spaces through scholarship, exemplified by new wiki initiatives incubated at the Columbia University Libraries, WikiHMCi & WikiHBCU/DIO.
Public scholarship, like a free press, is an essential and necessary foundation for a free democracy. But in cultures of white supremacy like those of western settler-colonial outposts, establishing such foundations has its challenges. As with the colonizer media industry, it is hard to even exist within the academy if you are racialized as “non-white,” if you are racialized as “black” it is veritable terrorism. Dr. Lorina Barker, branded both of these in the current iteration of the Western cultural framework, engages in scholarship that takes the risks and shoulders the burdens of dismantling the mainstream racism that results in the toxic toxic status quo of institutional, fragile, patriarchal white supremacy, in public. Earlier this semester at a lecture at OHMA, the indigenous Australian scholar explored the effects of these colonizers and their terrorisms on her culture and people. She presented her efforts to reclaim, decolonize and indigenize not only Australia’s’ physical and spiritual spaces, but its public histories, the archives, and content in the academy and mainstream media as well.
As a Senior Lecturer at the University of New England’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the Oceania Representative for the International Oral History Association, Dr. Barker serves as a force for indigenization and decolonization across multiple fields and platforms. She shared how she decolonizes from within the academy by validating indigenous knowledge, history, cultural practices and research methodology and centering Indigenous people’s stories, memories and experiences.
As Columbia’s first Wikipedia Fellow and Wikimedian-In-Residence, I’m constantly engaged in exploring these issues at the intersection of scholarship and the public across campus. From the horrific, very public recent instances of white supremacist violence on campus, to the exposing of systemic and institutional racism baked into the very functions of the academy, conversations on how to indigenize and decolonize the academy have reached fever pitch. The academy, and thus the library, is at the center of knowledge creation, curation and dissemination and the very foundations of a society’s culture rests on what knowledge is created, cultivated and shared from its environs.
In a way, Wikipedia has great potential to be the public advocate for knowledge, allowing scholars to share research and create knowledge with and for the public in a myriad of ways, but it is in no way immune from systemic and institutional white patriarchal supremacy. Wikipedia compounds the ills and biases of the cultural status quo by relying on the inherently racist and sexist media-academic-publishing-technology industrial complex for “secondary sourcing.” Research shows that cultures of toxic, fragile white male hostility are prevalent within the culture of Wikipedia editorship.
In 2015, The Atlantic found that “challenging the status quo on Wikipedia is no easy task. All the Wikipedia contributors interviewed said that if a woman wants to last as an editor on the site, there are certain fights she just doesn’t pick. “When you put ‘feminism’ in anything on Wikipedia, all hell breaks loose,” said [former Wikimedia Foundation contractor Sarah] Stierch. “I’ve been called a Feminazi more times than I can count. The lunatics are running the asylum,” she added. “And the non-profit that operates it can’t even control them. What do you do when you don’t have a principal to tell all the kids to behave?” This well documented barbaric vulgarity endemic to Wikipedia and its platforms demonstrably drives away many would-be contributors from diverse communities, impeding Wikipedia’s goal of being the world’s site for knowledge and a crowd-sourced encyclopedia “anyone can edit.” Ultimately, this noxious crudity systemically skews the lens, narrative, and culture of content creation on the site towards an extremely toxic, institutionalized settler-colonial vision of white male supremacy.
Wikipedia has become a reference website despite the fact that it is not a formally published resource funded and edited in traditional, linear ways. It is openly editable and updated constantly. As Columbia’s Social Science and Social Work Librarian Sophia Leveque notes: “The good parts: anyone can add knowledge, which dismantles the elitism of the academy. There are more pages created every day written by people all over the world. But what are the subjects of these pages? Who is writing them? From whose perspective? And why?”
This leads us to the biggest obstacle to progress, she continues, “the inherent collaboration of Wikipedia is far from utopian. The process leads to tone policing and violence that upholds white supremacy and its racist fueled knowledge systems. ‘White’ people, ‘white’ culture, ‘white everything’ dominates Wikipedia.” (With “white” being short for “white supremacy.”) Because Wikipedia content require secondary sources to cite and add authority to every claim, it amplifies the biases of the culture it was founded in, acting as a mirror for who we really are as a society, as Wikimedia Foundation’s Executive Director, Katherine Maher recently explained. And indeed, Wikipedia was created in a culture that is grounded in a hierarchical system of racialized disenfranchisement.
But there are efforts to decolonize and indigenize this “public library” of the world, the planet’s largest site for knowledge. Whose Knowledge, a global campaign centering the knowledge of communities marginalized by Western settler-colonialism, has emerged as one of the leading such programs that works with the Wikipedia and the open-knowledge universe. At the intersection of public scholarship and the internet they are, in their own words, “a radical re-imagining and re-design of” public knowledge.”
Another open-knowledge initiative is happening on Columbia’s campus: WikiHBCU/DIO, the Wiki “Historically ‘Black’” Colleges, Universities, Departments, Institutions and Organizations.” An outgrowth of WikiHMCi (the Wiki Historically Marginalized Communities Initiative) also incubated here at the university libraries, WikiHBCU/DIO aims to aid historically marginalized communities engaged in content creation and dissemination via Wikipedia and other open source knowledge platforms. We're accomplices leveraging privilege to establish “wiki” safe spaces in the open knowledge community for agency, scholarship, and solidarity at every “HBCU/DIO” throughout the world. Installing a wiki/open presence in every such space will set the framework for dismantling the systems, institutions, and foundations of the toxic white fragile patriarchal settler-colonial supremacy that is at the core of Western culture, and so by default, Wikipedia itself. Partnering with university libraries and other institutions, departments and organizations throughout the planet, we’re helping to re-establish equity and parity across Wikimedia platforms, tools and content, thus reclaiming knowledge and recentering our narratives and epistemologies.
UC Berkeley - Addressing Racism and Sexism on Wikipedia: Marginalized communities shouldn’t be burdened with solving the problem of the toxic, fragile patriarchal white male supremacy
Decolonization has to start with revolutionizing knowledge production and authentication, so where better to start than the bastions of such authority, the Academy and its Libraries? Efforts like WikiHBCU/DIO & WikiHMCi create spaces to redefine and rebalance the creation of scholarship and knowledge. Scholars like Barker and groups like Whose Knowledge set the mold for critical self-assessment at the intersections of the world’s largest institutions of knowledge, archives and scholarship. WikiHBCU/DIO & WikiHMCi builds upon these efforts from within the academy by validating historically marginalized communities within Western society, decolonizing cultural practices, and indigenizing research methodologies.
Darold Cuba is Columbia’s - and the Ivy League’s - first university-wide Wikipedia Fellow, Wikimedian-In-Residence and Wikipedia Visiting Scholar (with dual appointments at the University Libraries, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS)). His thesis, #MappingFreedom, digitally documents and interactively maps the “freedom colonies,” the communities that resisted Western colonialism’s terrorism and human rights abuses. It is is featured in his essay for Houston Center for Photography’s SPOT Magazine’s 2019 spring issue, “The Importance of Preserving the Histories of Freedmen’s Towns.”